Emotional Intensity and Highly Sensitive People


In her book ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’, Dr. Elaine Aron defines a distinct personality trait that affects as many as 15-20% of the population — too many to be a disorder, but not enough to be well understood by the majority.


What is moderately arousing to most people, such as crowds or constant noises like clock ticking, can be overwhelming for Highly Sensitive People (HSP). Research has found that the brains of highly sensitive people have more activity in the right hemisphere. They also have more reactive immune systems (allergies) and more sensitive nervous systems. Thus, being an HSP can also lead to physical sensitivities to loud noises, bright lights, humming television, and even fabrics (such as tags on clothing).


Some HSPs feel that seeing things ‘out of alignment’ can actually be physically or mentally distressing, hence often being described as ‘perfectionists’. As up to 70% of HSPs are introverted, many also require more private time than others in order to feel replenished. This sensitivity trait is just as likely among men as among women; both represent about 20% of the population.

I’ve been called hyper-sensitive my entire life. My feelings have always been so easily hurt- I remember crying in my room at 3 years old racking my brain trying to figure out why my family didn’t get me . Eventually I came to the conclusion that there is something wrong with me, and that I didn’t matter.

These sensitivities are often identifiable from an early age. In most cases, these children are labelled as 'weird', 'sensitive', or 'shy'. Like their adult counterparts, they are easily overwhelmed by high levels of stimulation, sudden changes, and the emotional distress of others. However, depending on their different temperaments and parenting, the behaviours they demonstrate can vary – from being ‘difficult’, active, emotionally intense, demanding and persistent, to being calm, inward, and almost too easy to raise.


There has been a lot of discussion around the connection between Highly Sensitive People and introversion, especially inspired by Susan Cain’s work ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking’. Despite Cain’s discussion of “introversion” being almost identical to the standard definition of high sensitivity, it is claimed that 30% of HSPs are extraverted and the two traits are separate entities.


HSP Characteristics (Elaine N. Aron, 1996) 


- Noticing sounds, sensations and smells that others miss (e.g. clock ticking, the humming sound from a refrigerator, uncomfortable clothing)

- Feeling deeply moved on a visceral level by things like art, music and performance, or nature

- ‘Pick up’ others moods or have them affect you more deeply than most

- Being sensitive to pain or other physical sensations

- Peace and quiet environment is important to you

- Feel uneasy or overwhelmed in busy and crowded environment

- Sensitivity to caffeine

- Startle/ blush easily

- Dramatic impact on your mood

- Having food sensitivities, allergies, asthma


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