Highly Sensitive People: This is how they see the world
Do you often need to escape from your surroundings to “recharge”? Do you often feel overwhelmed in certain environments? Are you easily excited? You may be a highly sensitive person. Find out in this article how highly sensitive people are, tips for handling that sensitivity, how highly sensitive people in couples are and tips for parents of highly sensitive children.
Highly sensitive people have an increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social and emotional stimuli than other people. They live emotions much more intensely than others, both positive and negative emotions.
We live in a society that rejects sensitivity. It is possible to control our feelings and not be guided by them. Sensitivity has also been culturally associated with women, considering it a weak trait. This is one of the reasons why highly sensitive people say they suffer more than others.
Highly Sensitive People: What does it mean to be highly sensitive?
High sensitivity is a genetically determined personality trait, discovered by Elaine N. Aron in 1975. It’s not a pathology or a gift, it’s a different way of perceiving the world. About 2 out of 10 people are thought to be highly sensitive people.
Although high sensitivity may be close to personality traits such as introversion or neuroticism (emotional instability), studies have shown that it is an independent trait that should be analyzed separately.
There is still a lot of research to be done on this topic. However, like all other personality traits, high sensitivity is likely to be part of the end of a continuum. In other words, many people may identify with many of the traits that we will mention in the following section, however, only a few will feel fully related to them.
Highly Sensitive People have four key characteristics:
- Cognitive processing of information is intense and deep. They tend to reflect a lot on the things that might interest them in order to reach a better understanding. CogniFit offers a General Assesment to evaluate the basic cognitive skills.
- They can become overwhelmed if they have to process a lot of information, both sensory and emotional. This is because they have a much finer sensory system, which is easily activated and captures more information than most people.
- Their expression of feelings, both positive and negative, is very intense. They also show great empathy, they are greatly affected by what others feel.
- High sensitivity to the information collected by the senses. They are able to perceive subtle changes in the environment and the emotional states of others.
Below you can see the trailer of the documentary film Sensitive.
Characteristics and traits of highly sensitive people
Highly sensitive people have particular traits that sometimes make them vulnerable. But it also has characteristics that allow them to have a very rich inner world.
Discover in the following video how highly sensitive people have positive characteristics and how not everything is about suffering.
1. Highly sensitive people often suffer from more stress and anxiety
A study has shown that high sensitivity is associated with increased perceived stress and as a result more health problems. They have a hard time keeping their focus on one task when they have several things to do.
It is not yet clear why this is happening. One possible explanation is that high sensitivity produces a general increase in the activation of the organism, making these people more prone to suffer stress and the negative consequences of it. Another possibility is that these people may be more aware of the body’s symptoms, paying more attention to them, caring more about them, and entering a discomfort loop similar to panic attacks.
2. Highly sensitive people are at risk for depression
According to this study, highly sensitive people are more likely to develop depression and bipolar disorder. This risk might lead them to feel sad and might have further consequences such as suicide risk.
The Computerized Assessment Battery for Depression from CogniFit is a complete assessment to detect possible symptoms of depression. It is a tool that allows a professional or a person to conduct an exhaustive exploration of the cognitive level and confirm or discard the possibility of a depressive disorder.
3. Highly sensitive people have a lower sensory threshold
This means that your senses (sight, touch, hearing, smell, taste) perceive and react more than other people. They are disturbed by loud noises, intense lights, and touch can feel very unpleasant.
4. Highly sensitive people reflect about everything
One characteristic or trait of highly sensitive people is that when faced with new situations, they stop to analyze all the pieces of information they find. They are able to quickly perceive small variations in the environment.
5. Highly sensitive people are highly empathic
A characteristic feature is that they are able to perceive and react to variations in people’s emotional states. They run away from violent movies. They sense other’s discomfort and know what to do to make them feel comfortable.
6. Highly sensitive people are especially moved by art
Another characteristic feature is that they deeply appreciate music, paintings, theatre, etc. They feel pleasure in artistic expressions.
7. Highly sensitive people are affected by hunger
When highly sensitive people are hungry, it is hard for them to handle their emotions, becoming irritable. They can even pay their frustration with loved ones.
If you still doubt that you can be a highly sensitive person there are several tests online. You can also find more resources at the Association Highly SeSensitiveeople.
8. Highly sensitive people can become paralyzed with they feel observed
When they feel like they are being watched or evaluated, they often “stall” and do the task worse than they would on their own.
9. Caffeine can affect highly sensitive people
Another feature of highly sensitive people is that caffeine affects them more than others.
The brain of highly sensitive people
If people with high sensitivity have a finer sensory system, then your brain is supposed to function differently than other people.
According to this study, faced with images of loved ones and images of happy faces, highly sensitive people show increased activation of brain regions involved in consciousness, empathy, and interpersonal processing. This suggests that awareness and responsiveness are critical in people with high sensitivity. It also shows greater activation in the cingulate cortex, the area of attention, alertness and premotor cortex that is in charge of the planned action.
Another finding of the study is the increased activation in limbic (emotional) functions, sensory-motor integration, and a wide range of functions including attention, emotion, and self-referential processing and mirror neurons.
There is also more brain activity in the visual areas and attention processing when it comes to detecting subtle differences in landscape photography.
All of this suggests that highly sensitive people feel and integrate sensory information to a greater extent in response to the affective states of their loved ones, and particularly to positive emotions.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that highly sensitive people show a greater activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, involved in cognitive processing, decision making and performing complex tasks.
Tips for highly sensitive people
Being highly sensitive can make everyday life difficult. That is why we offer you some tips to help you with this task, although they are not unique advice for these people. Many can benefit from them. Consider also seeing a psychologist and therapist to help you manage your sensitivity.
1. Get enough sleep: It is known that lack of sleep can contribute to irritability and negative mood. It also decreases concentration and cognitive functioning. Therefore, it is essential to always take care of sleep.
2. Plan to do things at your own pace: Highly sensitive people can be overwhelmed by having a lot of things to do. To solve this, plan well all your “to do” tasks. You can help yourself with agendas, lists, calendars. You can wake up in time to avoid rushing, or you can try to structure your day.
3. Learn to disconnect: Sometimes in our busy lives, it’s hard to find a place to disconnect. But highly sensitive people need that much more time than other people. Above all, after a few hours in an overwhelming environment, it is important to devote some time to relax alone.
4. Learn how to manage stress or anxiety: Highly sensitive people are at higher risk for anxiety. So it is important that you learn how to combat it through relaxing exercises, breathing, meditation, physical exercise, etc. Other activities are also an option like spending time with your loved one, a pet or artistic activities.
5. Eat regularly throughout the day: Hunger can upset your mood. So plan several meals throughout the day to keep hunger at bay. Make healthy choices, though. Run away from the buns, juices and ultra-processed foods.
6. Find a retreat space at home: Having a space to turn to when you feel overwhelmed by people and noise can help you a lot. It can be a comfortable room, a study or even a relaxing bath. When you need to disconnect it can also be helpful to listen to music, you can even use a sound canceling headset (which eliminates ambient sound).
7. Limit caffeine: As we said, caffeine affects them more than normal. Some people, even decaffeinated coffee or tea can alter them. If you want to have a calmer life, give up caffeine.
8. Keep the lights dim: It’s possible that the light is trying to disturb you. Use dim ambient light. Even avoiding certain establishments where they have strong lights can help.
9. Learn to do things outside of rush hour: If you want to lead a quiet and stress-free pace of life, a good way to do it is to run away from crowds. One way to do this is to choose off-peak timetables. For example, shopping in the late afternoon, early morning or lunchtime can save you a lot of discomforts. Going to the movies during daytime or going out for sports before other people do can be good alternatives, too.
10. Surround yourself with nature and art: Nature and art can transmit peace and improve your mood. Decorating your home in a minimalist and neat style can also contribute to this.
Highly sensitive people in a couple
Dr. Elaine N. Aron, in her book The Highly Sensitive Person in Love, talks about relationships with highly sensitive people.ghly sensitive people are happier as a couple than
Highly sensitive people are happier in a couple than alone, because they feel understood. However, according to Dr. Aron, couples involving highly sensitive people tend to be more unhappy than couples without them. This is explained by the fact that these people tend to reflect more on the subtleties of the environment because of the slight changes in their nervous system. This means that they have to demand greater depth in their relationships to be satisfied. They see greater threatening consequences on their partner’s behaviors and defects and they reflect and worry more.
Due to their overwhelmed nature, they tend to disconnect which can make the couple feel abandoned.
In the sexual sphere, highly sensitive people also have particular characteristics. For example, they tend to find sex mysterious and powerful, easily aroused with subtle stimuli (rather than explicit sexual stimuli). They are also easily distracted or feel physical pain during sex and they often find it difficult to return to a normal state afterward.
How to treat a highly sensitive people?
1. Avoid being too critical: Highly sensitive people do not tolerate criticism well. They don’t take it lightly and they may distance themselves away from you.
2. Don’t give them too many things to do in a short period of time: They will be overwhelmed and their performance will not be optimal.
3. Respect their space: They need to have time for themselves. Don’t feel rejected or ignored, they just need it to work and function properly.
4. Highly sensitive people need more time to make decisions: Don’t pressure them, let them take their time and analyze all the details of the situation.
5. Accept them as they are: Accept their quirks and don’t try to change them.
Highly sensitive children
As with adults, high sensitivity is not a disorder. This is a trait that requires more effort and attention from parents. This is especially important because good parenting is essential to prevent possible psychological disturbances in adolescence and adulthood.
In addition, highly sensitive people have been found to be more affected by negative childhood experiences than others. This has an impact on their levels of satisfaction with life in adulthood. That is why it is so important to pay attention to the parental style we have with highly sensitive children.
What are the risks for highly sensitive children?
Sensory processing specific to highly sensitive people can interfere with children’s participation in daily activities and social, cognitive and sensory-motor development, according to this study.
Highly sensitive children are at higher risk for behavioral problems, rituals, and even Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
A study shows us that these children have greater headaches and stomach pains for no apparent medical reason, more problems eating and sleeping than average.
High sensitivity in children is associated with problem internalization problems, such as anxiety.
Tips for Parents: Treating a Highly Sensitive Child
Parents and teachers often tell highly sensitive children that they are “too sensitive,””too shy,””too intense. These children try to change, but they can’t, which promotes feelings of loneliness and shame.
These children need to be appreciated. They need others to understand their special needs and sometimes intense behaviors and reactions. When they need some correction they need to be treated with special affection. They should feel supported and not despised for their mistakes.
Here are some tips for raising your highly sensitive children.
1. Give them space: Sometimes they like to play alone and relax. Make sure they find that moment of calm after some hectic activity. Music helmets or sound cancellation headphones might be useful.
2. Avoid crowds: Highly sensitive people don’t like crowds, noisy and crowded places or bright lights. Avoid taking your child to those places or plan to go when there are few people.
3. Encourage creativity: Highly sensitive people are creative. Help them discover what creative activity they like, be it music, painting, dance, etc. The sooner they discover a creative outlet valve, the sooner they can use it to disconnect and re-connect with the world.
4. Spend time in nature: The beauty of nature has an energizing effect on highly sensitive people. It is also a good way for children to learn how our world is, how it works and how we can be respectful of it.
5. Spend time with them: Highly sensitive children who spend time playing with their parents or an adult caregiver grow more confident and are able to face the world with their inner strength rather than from weakness. Let them choose the activity!
6. Help them recognize and manage their feelings: Don’t deny or belittle their feelings. Help them identify the different emotions (“Your toy is broken and you’re crying. You must feel very sad”). At the same time, help them handle that emotion (“Do you want us to try to fix it? But if it can’t be fixed, it’s okay, you have lots of other toys to play with). Teach your child to calm down or be distracted when he or she is agitated. Discover the keys to improving emotional intelligence.
7. Consider getting help: Sometimes parents feel helpless because they don’t know how to help their children. In those cases do not hesitate to contact a psychologist who can help you.
8. Boost their self-esteem: Don’t call him “sensitive” as if it were a negative thing. By helping them you strengthen their view on life and themselves. Encourage them, reinforce and reward what they do well. Give them small responsibilities appropriate to their age and developmental level.
9. Run away from punishment and harsh discipline: Discipline and harsh punishment are highly inadvisable, in most children and especially in the highly sensitive. They will feel guilty, rejected and will not know how to do things better.
10. Accept your child: Don’t try to change your child. You can help him to better manage his peculiarities, but sensitivity is not a negative thing, and that’s something you have to pass on to your child as well. Although it can be difficult at times, they are people with unique and positive characteristics.
This article is originally in Spanish written by Andrea García Cerdán, translated by Alejandra Salazar.
Psicóloga General Sanitaria y sexóloga. Deseosa de mejorar la calidad de vida de las personas mediante la práctica clínica y la comunicación a través de la red.