When my therapist handed me a copy of “The Highly Sensitive Person” by Elaine Aron, I thought I had found myself stuck between a “What 80’s McDonald’s Toy are You?” quiz and self-help bookstore hell. Really? I’m “sensitive”? Isn’t that normally the nice way of saying “weak”? This was coming from my therapist. Needless to say, I was incredibly skeptical.
Then I actually read the book.
There really is such a thing as sensory-processing sensitivity, but it’s not traditionally-defined sensitivity. It’s not really about being easily upset or weak. It’s also not really about being extra-caring or empathic, though it increases your chances of being so pretty handily. Sensory-processing sensitivity is all about how your brain reacts to stimuli. Your brain spends time analyzing your environment and attempting to respond appropriately. In the highly-sensitive person, this process goes into overdrive. Think of it this way: A clock ticks and your ears send the signal to your brain. Normally the brain would just process it in the back of your mind and it would barely be noticeable unless you were actively listening for it. With sensory-processing sensitivity, the brain gets more stimulation than that and the reaction reaches a lot further into your awareness. Now have that reaction every time the clock ticks. Exhausting, isn’t it?
Being highly-sensitive is associated with a few things: neuroticism, introversion, inhibition and shame. None of these sound fun. They aren’t, really. It can lead to anxiety, phobias, depression, and even physical health problems.
So how do you know if you’re highly sensitive? Being annoyed by ticking clocks isn’t really the best indicator. Here are some criteria:
- Being especially cognizant of your environment
You notice sounds, lights and smells even when they are subtle. Fabric texture can be more noticeable. (I absolutely cannot stand corduroy, but melted wax is calming.) You can sense the mood of a room more easily than others. Sometimes it makes you want to rearrange the furniture. I’m not kidding.
- Feeling easily overwhelmed
Whenever you take in so much stimuli, it’s unsurprising that it can all become too much very quickly. I’m especially sensitive to sound and smell. I can’t handle a lot of different noises at the same time and too strong of a scent gives me headaches, even if I’m not allergic to the source. It’s also harder to stave off stress and anxiety. You find yourself needing to take more breaks to give your brain a rest.
- You really are sensitive
Highly-sensitive people often find themselves more easily moved by works of art, music or creativity. We have over-active imaginations and vivid dreams. We’re empathetic and easily-affected by others’ moods. I also cry. A lot.
Any of this starting to sound familiar? You can take the actual survey on Elaine Aron’s site and see how you score. It only takes 14 of 27 to be considered a highly-sensitive person. I scored 26. The reason I didn’t make a perfect score? I drink too much caffeine so my tolerance is sky-high. What’s worse, it bothered me that I was that close to the perfect score and didn’t make it. Neuroticism? Check.
If you do find yourself a highly-sensitive person, it’s something you can bring up with your therapist. It makes loads of difference when you know that you need to avoid certain environments or prepare yourself accordingly. You can also learn to embrace it. Use it as an outlet. Take your appreciations and create something just for yourself, or share it with the world. Show someone what it really means to be sensitive.