Being an HSP means you have a nervous system that is more ‘highly tuned’ than that of most people. HSPs feel more, notice more and are often overwhelmed by the things they experience.
To illustrate, the non-HSP brain may sort information into three categories—black, white and grey. The HSP brain takes the same information and sorts it into black, white and a dozen shades of grey. This additional processing means that HSPs reach a level of being overwhelmed or stressed-out faster than non-HSPs. While most people don’t notice the majority of background noise (not just sound, but sights and smells as well) the HSP may find it impossible to ‘switch off’ to these distractions.
HSPs may tire quickly in noisy environments or after a busy day, and need regular quiet time and extra rest. This is the reason why so many HSPs find loud and crowded situations, such as nightclubs and big parties, unpleasant and tend to avoid them. It is not an ‘antisocial’ behaviour, but rather an instinctive strategy to avoid sensory and emotional overload.
As high sensitivity is a neurological trait, it affects all the senses. Often HSPs are told they are imagining things when they see, hear, smell, feel or taste things that others miss and may be labelled as paranoid or over-reactive. HSPs are often disturbed by bright lights, glare, flashing lights, bright colours and ‘visual clutter’. Most HSPs will reach for their sunglasses when outdoors, even on a cloudy day. HSPs are often fussy eaters as children. In adulthood they can develop a keen sense of taste, enjoying subtle rather than overpowering flavours.
Many HSPs are easily overwhelmed by strong odours, developing headache or nausea if exposed too long, thus being seated next to someone with overpowering perfume at the movies or on a flight can be very unpleasant for an HSP. However, they can also detect subtle differences in fragrance and may be the first to detect smoke in the case of fire. Many HSPs find that they can’t tolerate certain textures or fabrics, and thus their choice of clothing can be limited since fashion items are very often made in artificial fabrics, which are not as comfortable as natural fabrics. They are also often particularly sensitive to labels in clothing rubbing against the skin.
Loud noise from traffic, heavy machinery, a neighbour’s music or noisy work environments can present the biggest challenge for HSPs. In an office situation where there is constant distractions from phones, machines, people talking etc the HSP may feel worn-out long before his non-HSP colleague, even if his workload is less.
This highly sensitive nervous system means that HSPs are also particularly sensitive to caffeine, alcohol and drugs, often experiencing adverse reactions or side effects to standard drug dosages. HSPs may have a lower pain threshold and may be fearful of even the simplest medical procedures. They are often prone to allergies, food intolerances and stress-related illnesses. As HSPs notice subtle changes in their bodies long before others would, they are often dismissed by the medical profession as hypochondriacs when they seek advice for minor complaints. HSPs in situations of chronic over-stimulation are often prone to niggling complaints, low mood and recurrent viral infections that have no discernible pathology and again may be told by the medical profession that they are ‘over-reactive’ or that their complaint is ‘all in the head’.
Some HSPs also have a low effort tolerance. This does not mean that the HSP’s body is weaker than a non-HSP’s, it’s just that it reacts more keenly to physical stress and so reaches a point of feeling exhausted or pained faster than a non-HSP’s. Thus many HSPs are better suited to gentle exercise than gruelling exertion.
Naturally having a nervous system that processes information more deeply also affects the way HSPs think and behave. HSPs tend to pause before they act because they evaluate situations in more detail than most people, and this is often mistaken for fearfulness or shyness. Unfortunately because of the conditioning by a society that sees bold behaviour as favourable and reserved behaviour as unfavourable, and both physical and emotional sensitivity as a sign of weakness, HSPs are vulnerable to low self-esteem, often feeling that they are not normal and that there is something wrong with them. Too often their reserved, cautious behaviour is labelled shyness or inhibition and wrongly associated with depression, anxiety, personality disorders and mental illnesses.
If you’re an HSP then you’ll probably be used to comments like ‘you’re too sensitive’, ‘don’t be shy’, ‘what’s wrong, there’s nothing to be afraid of’, ‘you stick to yourself too much’, or ‘stop over-thinking things’. These are very damaging comments because they are invalidating; HSPs cannot change who they are. Telling an HSP to stop being so sensitive is like telling someone to stop being so tall.
Most HSPs are highly intuitive and good at anticipating potential dangers or problems. They are often artistic and creative. They often have inquisitive minds, enjoy new challenges and thrive on learning new things thus they may also get bored quickly and often pursue several different careers over a lifetime. They tend to reflect deeply and are introspective from an early age. They are easily affected by other people’s moods and so they may seem ‘overly sensitive’ to criticism or conflict. They may struggle to perform under pressure and will often try to avoid upsetting situations. They are conscientious and concerned for the welfare of others, and sensitive to the emotions of those around them they make attentive and thoughtful friends and partners. And having the ability to see ‘the big picture’, HSPs make excellent visionaries and leaders.