Are you what researchers call a “highly sensitive person”? High sensitivity is an innate, genetic trait that appears in 15-20% of the population. Researchers note that high sensitivity is linked to ten different gene variations on seven dopamine-controlling genes as well as a genetic variation that can affect the amount of serotonin available in the brain. The brains of HSPs work in distinct ways that give those with high sensitivity an evolutionary advantage when it comes to sensing danger and processing everything around them deeply. Here are five signs you may be an HSP:
You’re extremely intuitive: your brain processes details more deeply and you may be the first one in the “tribe” to sense danger.
Neuroscience research reveals that the brains of highly sensitive people (also known as sensory processing sensitivity) work in a different way than non-HSPs. If you are regularly the first in the group to identify a toxic person, decipher red flags, or predict dangers accurately, you may be an HSP. Highly sensitive people have a greater depth of processing and tend to be attuned to the details and the subtleties of their environment. High sensitivity is not just limited to humans: according to researcher Dr. Elaine Aron, over 100 species have a minority group that is “highly sensitive.” This can be an evolutionarily advantageous trait as the highly sensitive tend to pay more attention to the details, recognize valuable patterns, be alert to both opportunity and threat, and connect past and present events to predict the future. This is what makes you seem highly intuitive and highly perceptive to others. As an HSP, it’s important not to discount your intuition as you likely arrived to conclusions by processing a vast array of important information. However, you still have to balance your high depth of processing with reserving your energy: certain situations may call for deeper processing, while others may not.
You’re very empathic and feel the emotions of others intensely – sometimes to your detriment.
Highly sensitive people tend to be more empathic than the average person. Studies indicate that when HSPs view photographs displaying negative and positive emotional states, there is greater activation in areas of their brains associated with empathy, awareness, and action planning. You can powerfully experience the emotions of others and be attuned to subtle social cues – this can serve you or it can harm you if you’re dealing with a toxic person. Empathy can be a beautiful gift that allows you to help others. Yet you may be prone to over-empathizing with people who hurt you if you exercise your empathy without healthy boundaries. Highly sensitive people can also become a target for narcissists and psychopaths who seek to exploit their empathy, compassion, and emotional labor for their own gain.
You value your alone time more than most. You get overwhelmed by social interactions easily and your nervous system can become easily overstimulated.
Not all highly sensitive people are introverts – in fact, 30% are extroverts. However, whether you’re introverted or extroverted, if you are a highly sensitive person, you likely need time alone to recharge after social interactions, especially when it comes to conflict. Your mirror neurons, the neurons which help you identify the intentions of others and understand their emotions (even experiencing these emotions yourself), tend to be highly active. It makes sense you would need more alone time than the average person given that your brain gets super busy trying to process everything around you while also being an emotional sponge to the emotions of others. It’s no wonder HSPs can benefit from long periods of hibernation to soothe their nervous system. Imagine a computer that is constantly carrying out complicated algorithms about social interactions and putting out calculations – it eventually needs a break and a push of the “shut down” and “restart” buttons.
You’re sensitive to chaotic environments and sensory input.
As a highly sensitive person, the world around you can be incredibly stressful. The sounds of loud crowds, the rough texture of a blanket, the brightness of a light – all of these can irritate you easily if you’re a highly sensitive person. Studies reveal that high sensitivity is associated with greater activation in areas of the brain related to visual processing and in detecting even minor changes in the environment. While others might enjoy and find excitement in loud concerts, busy city streets, and blaring lights, you might find more comfort in a dark, cool room with no people present, a calm setting filled with nature, or opt to “tune out” the outside world by wearing headphones. That is why you also go out of your way to avoid places where you might run into these sensory triggers.
You have stronger emotional responses than other people.
As a highly sensitive person, your emotions are both a gift and a hindrance. You have a rich inner life where you can experience extreme joy, exquisite sadness, and tender appreciation. You may have a deep love for the arts. You tend to value emotional expression and experience a heightened emotional vividness. Combine this perceptual and emotional vividness with their increased awareness of the emotions of others, and HSPs experience the world on an intense level. Next time you’re accused of being “too sensitive,” remember that your sensitivity can be an asset and an evolutionary advantage. You just have to know when to use it in a way that benefits you and the greater good.