have strong emotional experiences and often feel emotionally exhausted;
experience environmental factors intensively, constantly process information;
consider yourself to have a rich and complex inner world;
pay close attention to detail;
experience the feelings and moods of others;
find chaotic, noisy situations throw you off balance very easily;
feel particularly vulnerable when you see aggression;
have sensitivity to certain substances (medicines, alcohol, coffee, etc.);
find it difficult to stay out of conflict situations, are you sensitive to personal criticism;
find it difficult to set boundaries and say “no”;
have a high level of self-criticism, finding it difficult to accept your mistakes;
often prefer to spend time alone to rest and restore your emotional energy?
If you answered “yes” to most of the questions and if you experience the feelings listed above frequently and intensely, you may belong to the 20% of people who are known as highly sensitive. The remaining 30% are moderately sensitive and 50% are so-called resilient.
Against the backdrop of the pandemic and the war, sensitivity seems to be a perfectly normal characteristic — we are all worried. Sensitivity in itself is not a morbid reaction. However, there are some people whose greater sensitivity is biologically determined. In psychology, the sensitivity of a person to processing sensory information is known as sensory processing sensitivity and its possessor is a highly sensitive person (HSP). A highly sensitive person reacts more slowly to sensory information and takes longer to “absorb” it. Harvard University psychologist Jerome Kagan, who spent much of his career studying sensitivity, argues that people who are inherently hypersensitive or withdrawn are a special type of person.
According to psychologist and psychotherapist Genovaitė Petronienė, it has been found that one in five people has this psychological characteristic. Scientific studies have shown that such people have a more sensitive nervous system (their nerve cells are more hyperactive and their senses are sharper), and that the part of the brain that is responsible for emotions (fear, anxiety) and feelings is different — their amygdala is much larger. Another neurophysiological discovery is that their dopamine system is weaker, i.e., highly sensitive people are not dopamine-dependent. According to the psychologist, they produce less of the reward hormone, so highly sensitive people do not feel a strong need to take risks, they take longer to think and weigh up risks. G. Petronienė points out that being born a highly sensitive person and having a sensitive nervous system is a normal, essentially neutral characteristic. In fact, there are also highly sensitive animals in nature: antelopes, monkeys, cows, and mice are all identified as highly sensitive animals.
Aspects of sensitivity
One of the first to describe HSP was psychotherapist Elaine N. Aron in her 1996 book “The Highly Sensitive Person”, who “diagnosed” herself as an HSP. According to the author, a simple and comprehensive definition of this characteristic can be defined using the acronym “does”, which perfectly expresses its aspects. The “D” represents the depth of information processing.
A key characteristic of highly sensitive people is that they observe and reflect before acting. They reflect more intensely on every subject, whether they understand it or not. The letter “O” means that they are more easily irritated (“overstimulated”) because they get tired more quickly when they pay attention to everything. “E” emphasises attentiveness to emotional reactions and strong empathy, which, by the way, helps to observe and learn. The “S” stands for “sensitivity” to all subtleties. Most of the time, HSP are very honest and tend to be pedantic. They are highly creative, naturally empathetic and have a strong intuition.
Moreover, it is a little-known fact that Carl Gustav Jung, one of the founders of analytical psychology, also wrote about HSP, and was certainly a member of HSP himself. Singers Lorde and Kanye West and actress Nicole Kidman have identified themselves as highly sensitive people. Viktor Frankl, who wrote his famous “Man's Search for Meaning”, Rainer Maria Rilke and others were also HSP.
How to help yourself
The in-depth processing of information (“absorption”), the increased number of stimuli, and the persistent empathy of highly sensitive people inevitably lead to fatigue, exhaustion, agitation, and discomfort. Especially if the environment is full of strong stimuli that last for a long time. Experts say it is very important for highly sensitive people to acknowledge their sensitivity, understand their nervous system, and stop feeling guilty and ashamed of the way they are. In the words of G. Petronienė, to defend their rights. Highly sensitive people tend to see themselves as resilient and think they are morbidly sensitive, someone different, trying to pretend they are fine. “For example, they feel ashamed of leaving a party early, or guilty if they want to take an hour's rest on the road. Having a large family or working in open spaces, for example, can also be a real challenge for highly sensitive people,” says the psychologist. According to Elaine N. Aron, an HSP researcher, highly sensitive people find it harder to cope with night shifts or shift work. They are also slower to recover from sudden changes in time zones.
Once you've acknowledged your sensitivity, it's worth trying to protect yourself from excessive stimuli that are stressful and waste precious energy. To ensure that life does not become just about survival, the most important task for highly sensitive people, according to G. Petronienė, is to reduce the amount of stimulation. According to her, highly sensitive people react to stress and change to their disadvantage — it is much harder for them to adapt. It may be worth declining some invitations and offers, shortening your time with others, and finding time for yourself and relaxation. If you feel exhausted in the middle of the day, spend at least 10 minutes in a quiet place, breathing deeply.
“It is important for a highly sensitive person to find time to be calm, to arrange the “files” in the brain — everything that has happened during the day, to process the accumulated information calmly so that the impressions can settle down quietly,” advises psychologist G. Petronienė. Headphones and earphones can help with ambient noise. Quality sleep is also very important: for highly sensitive people, not getting enough sleep is akin to a knife. It is the first stimulus that makes all other factors more sensitive. Getting out of bed on the wrong foot may make you more sensitive. “Respect your body's natural rhythms and go to bed as soon as you feel the urge to sleep,” advises E.N. Aron, author of “The Highly Sensitive Person”. Even if you suffer from insomnia, lying with your eyes closed is better than fretting with your eyes open: according to Aron, since 80% of sensory stimuli reach us through the eyes, simply lying with your eyes closed is a good way to get some rest.
In addition, social networks are a very strong stimulus for highly sensitive people and can cause exhaustion and extreme fatigue. Limit the time you spend on them, and it is even a good idea to put your phone on silent mode at bedtime to prevent messages from social media from beeping. An even better remedy is a regular digital “detox”, where you disconnect from social networks altogether for a period of time. According to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, 30% of people who check social networks several times a day complain of insomnia and sleep disturbances, and 25% show signs of depression. For highly sensitive people, it is recommended to spend no more than 10–15 minutes per day on news and to avoid the comments section as much as possible.
Apps for highly sensitive people
For the highly sensitive, special apps can help to reduce reactivity and calm anxious thoughts. For example, Gratitude365, Grateful, Daylio (for personal and gratitude diaries), Remente (for goal setting), Fabulous (for habit changing), Calm, Headspace, Stop Breathe Think (for calming down, meditation), etc.