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6 Signs You Could Be a Highly Sensitive Person

A little-understood inherited temperament could be impacting your life or someone you love in surprising ways.
 
 
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Psychologist Elaine Aron's research on a temperament category she describes as the "highly sensitive person" (HSP) has been gaining increased attention in recent years, and giving many people a big "aha" moment. Could you be among the 15-20 percent of the population she believes make up this group? I've learned that I am, and finding this out has changed the way I look at...everything.

When I was a kid, the taste of many foods was unbearably intense, and certain sounds were, too. I had a vivid imagination and experienced acute awareness of emotions — both my own and those of others. Yet I was not shy. Sometimes I would get so overstimulated I would find myself talking constantly, a tendency that earned me the nickname "Loquacious Lynn" from my mother and demerit points in school. I was transfixed by odd things: once, at summer camp, I stood paralyzed by the side of a stream, knowing that when I reached the other side I would be older and could never reverse the flow of time. I felt and saw things that enchanted and sometimes frightened me.

I grew up thinking I was most definitely weird, if not a tad crazy, and tried to send these peculiarities underground so I'd appear "normal." The effort was exhausting.

According to Aron, a lot of kids grow up feeling flawed (and perhaps medicated on that assumption) when they are not really flawed at all — they are just expressing a trait well within the normal human range: high sensitivity. In some cultures, such as Japan, the trait is highly valued, though sadly, this is often not the case in Western society, and such children can experience negative or confused reactions from peers and adults. In the 2011 documentary Bully, a child who commits suicide in response to bullying shows his first signs of being "different" as high sensitivity to loud noises, a fact no one comments upon as linked to his distressing experiences at school.

An HSP's temperament appears to be largely inherited (revealed through twin studies and other research), though environment plays a key role in how it develops. If the child is either overprotected or chastised for expressing what is for him or her perfectly normal, problems develop. Researchers who study the brain find that HSPs are aroused by stimuli that may not be detected by others and their difference has to do with how the brain processes information. They can't change what they are, though they can learn how to cope and monitor themselves.

High sensitivity can be seen in other higher animals, too. From an evolutionary standpoint, the trait is valuable in a group. While you don't want everyone, or even most members to have it, heightened sensitivity in some individuals is beneficial: They can warn of potential danger, make acute observations of the behavior of other animals, and share the wisdom of their tendency toward greater reflection. In history, HSPs would be the priest-advisors in the community. Today they are often the artists, teachers, researchers, and judges.

In the modern world, the trait has both positive and negative aspects. On the good side, you may be better able to spot errors and process information to deeper levels in your brain. On the bad side, you can react to false alarms and become rattled by loud noises and other stimuli. Caffeine and medicines may cause you to react more than most. Aron has also observed in her work that HSPs who had difficult childhoods are particularly prone to anxiety as adults.

According to Aron, this trait is not a new discovery, but it is something that has often been misunderstood and culturally devalued, making life challenging for people who live with it. Here are some things that tend to be associated with HSPs. (You can also take a self-test online.)