The 'Highly Sensitive Person' Traits That Create More Stress

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Highly sensitive people have special traits that set them apart. That can be a positive thing, but it also has its drawbacks. Here is what to know about being a highly sensitive person, or dealing with one.

What Is a Highly Sensitive Person?

Have you ever been told that you’re “too sensitive” or that you “shouldn’t think so much,” particularly by people who strike you as too insensitive or who perhaps should think a little more?

You may be what is known as a “highly sensitive person.”

By more intuitive types, this is sometimes known as being an “empath” and by more clinical types this is sometimes referred to as having sensory processing sensitivity, or SPS for short. People may have labeled you “highly sensitive” or “too sensitive” in the past and meant it as a negative thing, but this is not necessarily negative as much as it is a personality trait that brings both strengths and challenges.

Yes, it is possible to be too easily offended by people who mean no harm or who are trying their best to be kind. Likewise, it is possible to overreact to daily stressors or relationship issues, particularly if you become emotionally aggressive as a response. However, being a highly sensitive person (or HSP for the sake of brevity) doesn’t necessarily mean that you imagine negative motives in people when they are not there; it is more that you may perceive them more easily, or you may be affected more deeply to negative experiences, which is not necessarily a weakness.

If you know how to manage the unique features of being an HSP, you can make it more of a strength and less of a challenge in your life. To do this, it helps to understand what you’re dealing with, whether you are reading this for yourself or trying to build a deeper understanding of someone in your life who may be highly sensitive.

How Common Are Highly Sensitive People?

Psychologists Elaine Aron and Arthur Aron, a husband and wife pair, coined the term HSP in the 1990s and have extensively studied and published on the topic. They found that HSPs make up roughly 15 to 20 percent of the general population, so they are not as exceedingly rare as they may sometimes feel.

That said, this is a less common way to be, and our society tends to be built around people who notice a little less and are affected a little less deeply. Therefore, it helps to recognize the differences and make adjustments to minimize the stress that can come at greater levels to HSPs. This is true for those who recognize themselves as highly sensitive as well as those who have someone they care for who is more sensitive than the average person.

How to Identify a Highly Sensitive Person

High sensitivity applies across a few different categories. It is important to remember that being an HSP does not mean that you have a diagnosable condition or anything like that; it is a personality trait that involves increased responsiveness to both positive and negative influences. There are several traits or characteristics common to HSPs. According to the researchers who identified this personality trait, here’s what to look for.

  • Being overwhelmed by sensory stimuli like noisy crowds, bright lights, or uncomfortable clothing
  • Feeling the need to avoid violent movies or tv shows because they feel too intense and leave you feeling unsettled
  • Feeling not just a preference, but a need for down-time, especially when you have hectic days; needing to retreat to a dark, quiet room
  • Being deeply moved by beauty, either expressed in art, nature, or the human spirit, or sometimes even a good commercial
  • Having a rich and complex inner life, complete with deep thoughts and strong feelings that go with it

For a more thorough or “official” identification, there is a personality questionnaire that these researchers developed to help people identify themselves as HSPs, which is known as Aron’s Highly Sensitive Persons Scale (HSPS) questionnaire and is available on their website.

How Highly Sensitive People Experience Stress

Not surprisingly, highly sensitive people tend to get more stressed by things that many people experience stressful, plus a few things that may roll off of other people’s backs. Social stress, which is perceived as more taxing to most people than other types of stress, can be particularly taxing on someone who can perceive many different way that things could go wrong in a conflict, for example, or can perceive hostility or tension where others may not notice it. Here are a few specific things that can be significantly stressful for the highly sensitive.

Hectic Schedules: Not everyone loves being too busy, but some people thrive on the excitement and exhiliration of a busy life. HPSs, on the other hand, feel overwhelmed and “rattled” when they have too much to do in a short amount of time, even if they technically have enough time to get everything done if they rush. The need to juggle the uncertainty of maybe not being able to make it all work, and the pressure of such situations feels overwhelmingly stressful.

Expectations of Others: Highly sensitive people tend to pick up on the needs and feelings of others. They hate letting people down. Learning to say no is a challenge and a necessity for HSPs because they can feel crushed by the demands of others, particularly because they can feel their friends’ disappointment if HSPs need to say no or can’t do what is expected of them. They tend to be their own worst critics, and can feel responsible for the happiness of others, or at least acutely aware of it when there are negative emotions floating around.

Conflicts: As mentioned, HSPs may be more prone to being stressed by conflict because they may be more aware of it when there is trouble brewing in a relationship, including when things just feel a little “off” with someone who may not be communicating that there is a problem.

They can be prone to the stress of social comparison as well. They may feel the negative feelings of the other person as well as their own feelings, and they may experience them more strongly and deeply than others. They may be more aware of both the possibilities to improve things, and upset when potentially good outcomes give way to more negative outcomes through the course of a deteriorating conflict. They may also be more upset when they realize that a relationship is over, feeling that things could have been resolved, whereas someone else may feel there is nothing that could be done and walk away. The highly sensitive may feel the loss more acutely as well, and engage in rumination.

Tolerations: Life coaches refer to those daily energy drains that we all have as “tolerations,” as in “things we tolerate” that create stress and aren’t strictly necessary. Distractions may feel more frustrating for the HSP who is trying to concentrate, for example, or foul smells in one’s house may be felt more strongly and make relaxation more elusive for an HSP in a messy home. They are more easily startled by surprises. They get “hangry” when hungry—they don’t tolerate it well. In this way, life’s daily stressors often add up to more frustration for the highly sensitive.

Personal Failures: As mentioned, HSPs are their own worst critics. That means they are more prone to rumination and self-doubt. They may remember for quite a while if they make an embarrassing mistake, and feel more embarrassed about it than the average person would. They don’t like being watched and evaluated when they are attempting something challenging, and can even mess up because of the stress of being watched. They are more often perfectionists, but may also be more aware of the ways that this stress is not inevitable and of how it is affecting them.

Being Deeply Moved: Feeling things more deeply has an upside as well. Highly sensitive people tend to feel deeply moved by the beauty they see around them. They have been known to cry while watching particularly heartwarming videos about puppies on YouTube, and can really feel the feelings of others, both negative and positive. They care deeply about their friends and tend to form deep bonds with the right people. They really appreciate a fine wine, a good meal, a beautiful song, and many of the finer things in life on a level that most people can't access. They may feel more existential angst, but they also may feel more gratitude for what they have in life, knowing that it is possibly fleeting and nothing is certain. Their lows may be lower, but their highs have the potential to be higher as well.

Stress Relief for the Highly Sensitive

Much of your stress relief plan as a highly sensitive person can involve insulating yourself from too much stimuli. Put a barrier between you and sensory stimuli that feel overwhelming. Don't watch those late-night slasher movies. Stay away from people who sap your positive energy, make heavy demands on you, or make you feel bad about yourself. Learn to say no to overwhelming demands and feel OK with it, and create a perimeter in your life. Set up your home as a soothing environment and a "safe space" for yourself emotionally. Create some extra positive experiences in your schedule to insulate you from additional stress you may encounter. And above all, know what triggers stress in you, and learn to avoid these things.

Sources:

Aron, E.; Aron, A.; Jagiellowicz, J. (2012). "Sensory processing sensitivity: A review in the light of the evolution of biological responsivity". Personality and Social Psychology Review. 16 (3): 262–282.

Liss, Miriam; Mailloux, Jennifer; Erchull, Mindy J. (2008), "The relationships between sensory processing sensitivity, alexithymia, autism, depression, and anxie tyPersonality and Individual Differences, 45 (3): 255–259.

Boterberg, Sofie; Warreyn, Petra (2016), "Making sense of it all: The impact of sensory processing sensitivity on daily functioning of children", Personality and Individual Differences, 92: 80–86.

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