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Are you a sensitive soul?

Emotions can be troublesome yet evolution has created humans in such a way that they provide an early warning system about what is happening within the immediate environment. Fear and anger, for example, let you know that something isn’t right, that some kind of threat is being made or about to be made. They can also help you to predict someone else’s responses to a situation, giving you time to prepare yourself.

This sensitivity is a crucial and useful survival and social tool but it can become detrimental if your sensitivity levels are too high, your responses too strong and your susceptibility to criticism too acute.

Highly sensitive people pick up more information from the world around them and process it at a higher volume, sometimes triggering a sense of being overwhelmed and the need to find a quiet space to regroup.

Life can be difficult for those people who seem to feel more strongly than others, yet some individuals do appear to be naturally more sensitive to their own and others’ emotions, making them susceptible to even the smallest changes in tone of voice, body language, facial expression and posture. Not only are they more sensitive to the subtlest of triggers, they also experience them more acutely. These people are often referred to as highly sensitive people (HSP) and they make up approximately 20 per cent of the population.

Such a degree of intuitiveness can be extremely useful in some situations and some career paths — but it can also be harmful when your responses outweigh the reality of a situation or moment in time. For example, you may be highly defensive or too empathetic or become overwrought too easily. You may become panicked or angry, lash out or isolate yourself. All of these responses can be a sign of high sensitivity, a personality type that is born, not made, and one that can frustrate and confuse those who have these traits as well as those who live and work with them.

Are you an HSP?

So what is high sensitivity and what does it mean for you? Research by neuroscientists has found that part of high sensitivity is genetic. While there is still debate about what the specific mechanisms are that cause high sensitivity, there seems to be a clear link to the hormone oxytocin, responsible for feelings of love and connection between humans, and norepinephrine, a stress hormone.

While highly sensitive people have, in the past, been vilified as being too precious, the biological foundation for the existence of the HSP label is continually being strengthened. For example, more recent research has found that those who are highly sensitive have nervous systems that are set to register stimuli at a lower frequency than others and that their nervous systems are designed to amplify these stimuli internally. That is, highly sensitive people pick up more information from the world around them and process it at a higher volume, sometimes triggering a sense of being overwhelmed and the need to find a quiet space to regroup.

The costs

Being highly sensitive has its benefits, but being in a heightened emotional state over time shapes you socially, professionally and personally. It also means you may isolate yourself socially, behave reactively, respond more dramatically to criticism and be influenced more easily by the moods and emotions of those around you. All of this means that you can become overwhelmed, physically and psychologically.

For example, researchers suggest that high sensitivity may be responsible for puzzling illnesses such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia and that highly sensitive individuals are more susceptible to anxiety and depression.

Clinical psychologist Dr Elaine Aron began the study of the innate temperament trait of high sensitivity in 1991 when she first realised that her own “difference” from others could be based on sensitivity. While she has written a number of books on the topic she also regularly blogs (hsperson.com) about the issues that highly sensitive people face, especially when it comes to regulating emotions.

If you believe that you can cope and create a process for doing so, you will be able to better manage trigger situations.

“We feel so intensely,” she explains. “It is part of why we process everything very deeply — we are more motivated to think about things by our stronger feelings of curiosity, fear, joy, anger or whatever. But this intensity can be overwhelming, especially when we have negative feelings. That’s why we need to learn emotional regulation skills.”

While emotion regulation is crucial for everyone to practise, for those who experience emotion at a constant intensity it’s particularly important. Emotional regulation, says Aron, is something simple that we all do every day. “[It means that we] consciously or unconsciously influence what emotions we have, when we have them and how we experience and express them,” she explains. “Feel in a bad mood? Go for a walk. Feel silly but it’s not appropriate to laugh? Silence that chuckle.”

Unfortunately for people who are very sensitive, the emotions too often felt are negative ones and, while there are a number of strategies for emotion regulation, if you’re highly sensitive you probably don’t use them. Becoming aware of available strategies and consciously applying them is the first step to emotion regulation and it can help to understand some of the reasons you may not be using them. These may include:

  • Not accepting your feelings. Denying the way you feel about anything is detrimental to your mental and emotional health. Indeed, psychologists would argue that there is no such thing as a “bad” emotion — rather, it’s what you do with your emotions that produces negative consequences. In accepting your feelings, you put yourself in a better position to deal with them by understanding where they are coming from. Anger, for example, may arise from fear if you find yourself in a situation that is overwhelming for whatever reason.
  • Being ashamed of your feelings. Shame isn’t useful in this context as emotion comes from the subconscious and is based on what you have learned as well as who you are. Also, shame can prevent you from being able to access the information you need in order to be able to recognise the triggers that will help you regulate emotional responses before they get out of hand.
  • Not believing you can cope. The problem with feeling overwhelmed is that your sense of control and ability to act differently are compromised. Yet, if you believe you can cope and create a process for doing so, you will be able to better manage trigger situations.
  • Not trusting that your bad feelings will change. Feelings of anxiety and being overwhelmed can tend to create a sense that nothing will change; however, all feelings pass eventually, especially when you consciously work to change your thinking.

There is any number of strategies for regulating your emotions but the first step is to recognise what it is you’re feeling, or beginning to feel, before you lose control over your ability to change what is happening. While it isn’t usually possible or wise to completely “switch off” a feeling, you can learn to control how strong the feeling gets through breathing strategies, mindfulness, distraction, reappraisal or depersonalising what is happening (reframing the moment so that it’s not about you).

Clearly, conscious effort and experimentation are needed to find a strategy that works best for you and for it to become habit. One of the easiest ways to do this is to become attuned to your body. Emotion is an experience that affects both the mind and the body, so if you focus on physiological changes you may be able to identify an emotion escalating at an earlier stage. These changes can include increased heart rate, spreading heat, clenched muscles or jaw, trembling, churning stomach or coldness.

The benefits

Although it may seem that being highly sensitive is disruptive to life, there are many things about being highly sensitive that can be of a benefit to daily living and career. For example, highly sensitive people are often creative, passionate, reflective, caring and intuitive. If you’re an HSP, you may well possess these qualities:

  • A benefit of being highly sensitive is that you can have very deep compassion and understanding for the experiences of other people. As long as you can protect yourself from taking them on, being empathetic is a highly desirable trait in many aspects of life and in a number of caring professions.
  • Perceptive. People who are highly sensitive tend to pick up on things that other people miss. Being aware and observant is a very positive quality for both your personal and professional life. Insight, combined with the ability to draw people out through your deep interest in others, makes the highly sensitive person very appealing.
  • Attention to detail. Highly sensitive people tend to absorb a lot of information, which they can use for learning. Highly sensitive people can use their ability to take on new concepts and ideas and benefit from them.
  • Being highly sensitive can give you a highly attuned sense of your environment because you spot things others don’t and can be aware of subtle changes in what is happening around you. This can be particularly useful in volatile or potentially hazardous situations whether they occur in the office space, the Home or the outdoors.

How to manage your sensitivity

As mentioned before, highly sensitive individuals often have trouble regulating their emotions, which can make certain situations and relationships more difficult to manage. If you are highly sensitive, therefore, it’s important to be aware that this is who you are, learn ways you can manage this personality type to reduce your own distress and that of others, and embrace the benefits that being highly sensitive brings to your experience of the world.

Knowledge will give you power, as is usually the case, so understanding what being highly sensitive means to you in your life can help you to minimise its impacts. Being highly sensitive is not a one-size-fits-all label — your experience of the condition is not going to be exactly the same as anyone else with the same traits. It’s important, then, to become aware of the way you feel in trigger situations and the way you think, as well as the physical and psychological manifestations of your sensitivity, to be able to better understand and manage it.

One of the key ways to do this is by harnessing mindfulness. Mindfulness is becoming an increasingly common term used to describe a state of being and is used by psychologists to treat a range of mental health and wellbeing issues. It’s a tool that anyone can use but is especially useful to the highly sensitive. By becoming more aware of your thoughts, feelings and physical sensations in the moment, mindfulness can help you to reduce stress and calm your emotions.

The way a highly sensitive person experiences the world is, essentially, a mindful way of looking at the world. You automatically notice the world around you on a deeper level than others. You are aware of feelings — especially the feelings of others — because you absorb them so easily. You are also attuned to the tone of voices, to physical sensation, scents, textures and tastes.

Insight, combined with the ability to draw people out through your deep interest in others, makes the highly sensitive person very appealing.

All of these kinds of intense, sensory experiences make life richer, fuller and more beautiful for HSPs, but you also need to be able to create a buffer between yourself and the world on occasion. This is because all the experiences you are aware of can also make life more stressful as you continually absorb information without paying attention to your own needs.

While mindfulness is in part about living in the moment, it is also about observing without getting entangled in the process of assessment and judgement to which the mind always defaults. This is crucial for highly sensitive souls who need to be able to observe their feelings and responses to others without taking them on board. Mindfulness allows you to do this by teaching you how to observe, acknowledge and let go. It gives you a space in the moment to deal more safely with the distressing and painful experiences of others and yourself.

Dealing with HSPs

Living or working with someone who is highly sensitive isn’t uncommon given the number of people who have this personality type, but it can be difficult. The first thing to understand is that the highly sensitive person can’t stop being that way — it’s biological and not a choice or even learned. As such, the best they can do is learn to manage their sensitivity. This won’t always be possible, however, so if you love or work with a highly sensitive soul there are things you can do, or at least be aware of, to make your interactions with each other less fraught:

  • Respect their space. Highly sensitive people, even extraverted ones, need downtime and may require a bit of alone time each day. Don’t take it as rejection; it is simply a necessity for them to maintain their equilibrium.
  • Re-evaluate their responses. A highly sensitive person is emotional. They will cry, they will seemingly overreact to situations or stimuli in a way that’s different from how you respond. It is important not to take these responses personally but to see them within the context of their biology rather than something they can easily, or always, be in control of.
  • Don’t tell them toughen up. This isn’t something they want or need to hear. Being highly sensitive isn’t as simple as changing your mind. These traits are inherent and can only be managed, not extinguished.
  • Choose your words carefully. Highly sensitive people respond very badly to criticism and, while this doesn’t mean they should never get feedback, choosing your words carefully can make a big difference in the way they respond and feel.
  • No surprises. Highly sensitive souls like routine and change is often considered and managed over a period of time. If possible, give them warning if things are about to change dramatically at work or at home and help them manage the changes.
  • Give them time. Highly sensitive sorts take time to make decisions and are detail oriented; they need time to weigh the pros and cons of a decision and investigate a situation carefully.

Signs you’re highly sensitive

You’re a sensitive little petal if you exhibit any of the below:

  • Emotionally reactive
  • Need time out
  • Sensitive to sound and textures
  • Cry more easily
  • Above average manners
  • Amplified response to criticism
  • Defensive
  • Complex internal life

Nikki Williamson

Nikki Williamson

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