If you are one of those people who jumps when a police siren wails or who cannot watch animals being killed on nature documentaries, then you may be an HSP, or 'Highly Sensitive Person'. If so, you would not be alone. According to Dr. Elaine Aron, author of a book on the subject, around 20% of the population could be classified in this way.
It should be stressed that the HSP does not have a mental illness, nor a personality disorder. Indeed, the HSP isn't even a personality type, merely someone with a hypersensitive nervous system. Because of this, those who live or work with them may accuse them of irritability. For example, they will be the first to complain if someone has the radio on too loud or chews their food with their mouth open. But the highly sensitive person isn't overreacting; they are simply more affected by such things than the average person. When they complain about the party next door, it will often be because they are at the end of their tether rather than because they enjoy complaining.
First, and most obvious, the HSP is sensitive. Some people seem able to sleep through anything and will quickly adapt to the loudest noises – not the HSP. He will jump out of his skin if a motorbike backfires or a child suddenly screams. And this sensitivity extends even to color, light, and temperature. The HSP may find heat waves unbearable or find it difficult to sleep near a draught. If they go on a day trip to London or New York to see the Christmas lights, the bustle, noise and garish decorations will overwhelm and exhaust them. They will also be more likely to feel the scratchy label inside a new sweater or to find a tight pair of shoes annoying.
HSPs also tend to be more emotional. They often have above average levels of empathy, for example, and can quickly sense a bad atmosphere. They will also be the sort of person who cannot sit through a horror movie. And when the news channels broadcast images of frightened children or dead soldiers, they will be haunted for days. Highly sensitive children are especially vulnerable and will suffer a great deal if their parents argue or if their school friends ridicule and reject them.
More generally, the HSP feels as if there is no buffer or barrier between them and reality. Dr. Ted Zeff, author of a survival guide for the highly sensitive person, says they lack a "natural shield." Understandably, they will be the first to break down under extreme stress. Should this happen during a conflict or natural disaster, others may accuse them of weakness or even cowardice. In fact, by their standards they may have been very brave – they simply reach breaking point much sooner.
A leading researcher into HSPs, Dr. Elaine Aron, believes it is genetic. However, the wrong environment can make things worse. Those subjected to extreme trauma, for example, may find their emotional sensitivity increases. In his autobiography Goodbye to All That, the English poet Robert Graves recalls the post-traumatic stress he experienced after fighting as a British officer during the First World War. For several years, he found the company of others exhausting, would cry over the silliest things, and even jumped when the telephone rang. In a sense, Graves was experiencing an intensified version of the HSP's life. It is also interesting to note that, according to Aron, HSPs are not necessarily introverts – up to 30% are extroverts.
Though being highly sensitive can certainly be unpleasant, there are upsides. For a start, though HSPs may find life's troubles more painful, they also find its joys more exhilarating. The highly sensitive can be moved to ecstatic joy by a soft Spring day or a line of poetry, for example, while those who love music will become immersed in a way their friends can never understand. And an HSP who loves art will of course find the experience of standing before a Rembrandt or Vermeer overwhelming. HSPs also tend to have vivid imaginations and rich inner lives. If they are fortunate enough to enjoy a good education and have a love for learning, books on popular science, history or philosophy will enrich them in ways others can never know.
The highly sensitive also find it easy to inspire love and affection in those around them. Because they are so empathetic, they can quickly tune in to how others are feeling. Friends and family will often say "Oh you can tell her anything and she always understands," or "I don't know what it is, but he just seems to get me." And because of this sensitivity, they tend to be very good at avoiding the sorts of silly arguments or petty acts of selfishness that ruin relationships.
Dr. Zeff dismisses the very idea that the highly sensitive have something wrong with them or that they need 'treating' at all. All the same, for those who are highly sensitive life can be tricky. Simply knowing that they have such a personality, or rather that they possess a more sensitive nervous system than average, is in itself a help. In general, HSPs suffer more when they are young and find life easier as they reach middle age. When young, it can be harder to live your own life in a way that suits you. Peer pressure and the need to fit in often lead HSPs into places and situations that make them miserable: going to nightclubs, for example, or sharing a house with college friends who want to party all the time. The key is to organise your life around your personality. A highly sensitive person is unlikely to find a career in the police or on the New York Stock Exchange suitable. The best job would be something calm and easy. Above all, HSPs need to be careful where they live. Because they are so easily overwhelmed by noise, people, and stress, they need somewhere calm and quiet where their nervous system can settle down and recover after a week's work – something difficult to find in an overcrowded world.
Highly sensitive people often say that the explanation comes as a great relief. In the future, as our understanding improves, we may even develop ways of reducing such extreme sensitivity. In the meantime, simply recognising what is wrong is important. Once you do, you can adapt your life.