Navigating life as a hypersensitive person
A small but growing body of neuro-scientific research confirms the existence of “empaths” and “highly sensitive people”. Here’s what to do if you’re one of them.
Do you feel deeply affected by the suffering of others or pick up easily on vibes around you? Maybe you avoid negative social media and news because of the way it affects you? What makes one person more sensitive than others? And what problems or potential advantages might we face if we’re one of the more sensitive crowd?
Dr Judith Orloff, a US-based psychiatrist and author, has spent decades investigating such questions. It was a search that grew out of her own experience. As a child Orloff felt there was something wrong with her. “I was criticised for being overly sensitive and told to get a thicker skin,” she says. Crowded places, like shopping malls, with their noise and overstimulation, exhausted her.
They also caused anxiety, depression, aches and pains. Unsurprisingly, Orloff preferred spending time with one best friend over groups. A turning point came when the young Orloff met Dr Thelma Moss while working at an intuition lab at UCLA. Moss was the first adult to frame Orloff’s sensitivity as a positive ability. “She told me I was an intuitive empath,” Orloff recalls. “It felt liberating to know there wasn’t something ‘wrong’ with me and I had nothing to be ashamed about. A whole new exciting world opens up when empaths discover who and what they are and can begin to embrace themselves.”
Orloff went on to coin the term “energy psychiatry” to explain how some people’s mental health can be affected by subtle energies in their environment. Her books, including Second Sight and Thriving as an Empath and a growing number of blogs and films have given those who feel more deeply attuned to their environment a voice and sense of validation and empowerment.
Empaths, HSPs and intuitives
The “empath and sensitives movement” (as it’s become known) has its own lingo to explain and differentiate what more sensitive people experience. There are highly sensitive people (HSP) or energy absorbers for instance, empaths, intuitives and psychics. “HSPs and empaths are not the same thing,” Orloff clarifies. While they tend to get lumped together, they’re separate (though often related) traits. Sensitive people have an increased reaction to external stimuli including other emotions, whereas empaths have a greater than usual capacity to share another’s feelings — but from their own framework.
HSPs are highly sensitive to all the sensory elements of the environment, including light, sound and other sources of stimulation.
Research suggests most of us — even psychopaths — have the capacity for empathy. Orloff describes it as a spectrum with each of us sitting at different levels. “There’s the middle of the spectrum which is the regular person who has empathy where their heart goes out for other people in pain or in joy. A little bit up on the spectrum are the highly sensitive people and then you have even higher on the spectrum, the empath,” she says. HSPs are highly sensitive to all the sensory elements of the environment, including light, sound and other sources of stimulation, Orloff says. She says empaths possess all of that plus a high level of intuition: “They tend to be sponges who take the energy of others into their own body.” Orloff says it’s possible and common to be both an empath and a HSP. But not all HSPs are empaths.
Some people (studies suggests around 1 to 2 percent of the population) have an extreme type of empathy known as “mirror-touch synaesthesia”. Such individuals literally feel physical touch within their own bodies when they view someone being touched. Some highly sensitive people have a developed sixth sense and are able to tap into information they feel intuitively, such as what another person is thinking. Orloff calls such people intuitives. In Second Sight, Orloff gives an example from her own experience as a psychologist where in a peaceful lapse of concentration she was hit by a premonition (which proved correct) that her cheerful client was about to take her own life.
How common are empaths and HSPs?
While there’s no true figure on empaths and HSPs, more of us are identifying with these personality types, with self-branded “empaths” trending all over social media. For example, the Facebook group Empaths + Sensitives — from surviving to thriving (one of many such groups) has 81,415 members since establishing in 2017 and is growing. Unsurprisingly, females (long recognised as the more intuitive, caring of the sexes) are more prevalent members. But it’s this reliance on self-reporting that invokes criticism of the “empath movement”. Does science actually back up their existence?
Nurture yourself and take regular social media fasts and avoid distressing media of any kind.
Clinical research psychologist Elaine Aron has been studying high sensitivity since 1991, authored multiple books on the topic, and inspired a ground-breaking 2015 documentary titled Sensitive: The Untold Story. In a 2014 journal article, she claimed about 20 per cent of humans possess a measurable trait related to a higher level of sensitivity and responsiveness to environmental and social stimuli. The trait has also been observed in more than a 100 other species including rats, birds and pumpkinseed sunfish.
In 1997, Aron developed the Highly Sensitive Person Scale (HSPS), a diagnostic criterion for determining HSPs. It includes the ability to quickly discern differences in smell, colour, texture, sound and other sensations and a tendency to observe before acting.
The neuroscience of sensitivity and empathy
Aron’s research has found relationships between high HSP scores and specific genes, behaviour, physiological reactions and patterns of brain activation. In a first of its kind study in 2014, Aron and her colleagues found the brains of people with high HSP scores have increased activation in regions involved in attention, action planning, awareness, integrating sensory information and empathy. It confirms what sensitive people have long suspected: they’re really not like everyone else. Arun believes the brains of sensitives have a heightened response to how they process sensory information.
Research on mirror neurones — specialised nervous system cells in our brains triggered when we feel pain or witness that of others — has transformed our understanding of empathy from a soft skill to an innate competency wired within our brains. Mirror neurones fire when we perform an act in response to our environment (such as brushing a bug off our skin) and when we observe someone else doing the same. Mirror neurones are what makes us flinch or grimace when we see someone cut their finger while chopping food. Scientists hypothesise the mirror neurone system helps us understand other people’s motivations by allowing us to feel what they feel. In more empathic people it’s thought these cells may be more active or prolific and in psychopaths less so. That’s not to say that empathy can’t be taught or cultivated.
Genetic or learned?
Orloff believes being overly empathic or sensitive can have a genetic basis. It often runs in families.
For some it’s related to childhood trauma. “Being raised in an abusive home strips down your boundaries so you’re raw and open,” she explains. “The world is a threatening place when you don’t have supportive parenting. You process the world differently. You don’t have the same filters and you’re hyper-vigilant.”
On her website, Arun claims high sensitivity has been misunderstood as shyness and introversion, and sometimes as neuroticism. However, about 30 per cent of HSPs are extroverts.
Gift or curse?
In their 2014 study (published in Brain and Behavior), Aron and her colleagues propose that sensory processing sensitivity evolved to enhance the survival of the species. HSPs have an increased responsiveness to potential dangers, threats and opportunities in the environment which benefits the whole group. Think Fiver the hypersensitive rabbit in Watership Down who alerts his warren to impending danger.
On the downside, they suggest that increased sensitivity places greater mental and metabolic demands upon such individuals. “Those with the sensitive survival strategy will always be in a minority as it would cease to yield special payoffs if it were found in a majority,” they write. On the up, empaths are more likely to enjoy music (and potentially other positive stimuli). A study by Southern Methodist University found high-empathy individuals process music differently, with higher activation of the reward and empathy system of the brain.
If crowded places cause you stress, practise centring strategies before you go out, such as meditation, a blood-sugar-grounding high-protein meal and breathing exercises.
Since intuiting her client’s suicide attempt, Orloff has embraced intuition as a tool to better understand and help others. She views empathy as an advanced feature important to the salvation of the human race. “Our capacity to understand what’s going on in someone else, whether we like them or don’t, whether we agree with them or not, is the path to peace,” she says. “I think it’s the number one most important quality in humankind. It’s in most people and it’s to help us evolve personally. It helps us love deeply, be open to nature, the universe and to enjoy ourselves. You want to develop it but you also want to develop self-care techniques.”
The pitfalls of being energy-sensitive
While generally viewed as an adaptive trait, being overly empathic or highly sensitive can have a dark side for the host. Many suffer from “empathic overload” related to absorbing excess energy from their environment and other people and carrying it as if it’s their own, Orloff says. Symptoms include exhaustion and sensory overload. Common health issues related to empathic overload include adrenal fatigue, anxiety, depression, panic disorder, chronic fatigue, weight problems and insomnia, she says.
Supporting this notion, research suggests that those who are more sensitive to others’ emotions may be more prone to depression. A study by psychologists at Queens University, Canada, found depressed people were significantly better than the non-depressed at correctly judging the emotions of people from pictures.
Empaths can also find relationships overwhelming and fear intimacy because of their ability to deeply feel another person’s problems and needs, Orloff says. “A lot of empaths don’t know how to express their own needs in a relationship,” she adds.
Unfortunately, most professionals aren’t aware of the problem, she says. “Doctors and counsellors don’t know it exists, much less how to treat it, but empathic overload is a very real problem to energy-sensitive people.”
Orloff says it’s important for empaths and HSPs to carve out “alone time” to decrease the level of stimulation they’re getting. This means learning how to set clear boundaries.
Nurture yourself and take regular social media fasts and avoid distressing media of any kind. “Empaths can’t take violent or scary movies. And violence against animals is just unbearable to watch or hear about,” she says.
If crowded places cause you stress, practise centring strategies before you go out, such as meditation, a blood-sugar-grounding high-protein meal and breathing exercises. Also take mini-breaks and time out if you need. Limit the time you’re out.
Importantly, learn how to express your own authentic needs rather than remaining quiet. “Empaths can be a little shy and not want to offend people, so they don’t say anything,” says Orloff. “If a chronic talker comes up to them in a party they’ll sit there and listen for two hours and then be exhausted and sick. You have to learn how to interrupt in a polite way and deal with energy vampires. If you don’t learn this, you’re going to be miserable.”
Are you one of the sensitive crowd?
Orloff has developed a 20-question self-assessment quiz for empaths, which is available on her site and The Empaths Survival Guide. Those who agree with 15 or more of the following are considered full-blown empaths, while answering yes to at least five suggests you’re a partial empath.
- Being labelled as “overly sensitive,” shy, or introverted.
- Frequently feeling overwhelmed or anxious.
- Arguments or yelling makes you ill.
- You feel you don’t fit in.
- Drained by crowds and needing alone time to revive yourself.
- Over-stimulated by noise, odours or non-stop talkers.
- Chemical sensitivities or can’t tolerate scratchy clothes.
- You prefer taking your own car places so you can leave early if you need to.
- Overeating to cope with stress.
- Fear of becoming suffocated by intimate relationships.
- Startle easily.
- Strong reactions to caffeine or medications.
- A low pain threshold.
- Tendency to socially isolate.
- Easily absorb other people’s stress, emotions or symptoms.
- Overwhelmed by multitasking.
- Enjoy replenishing in nature.
- You need a long time to recuperate after being with difficult people or energy vampires.
- Preference for small cities or the country over large cities.
- Preference for one-to-one interactions or small groups rather than large gatherings.
Arun’s website has a self-test for HSPs with similar criteria and also a test to evaluate your child. Signs you’re highly sensitive include avoiding violent TV shows, feeling easily overwhelmed, strongly affected by hunger and deeply moved by music or art — due to the fact that high-sensitive people notice everything around them.