Are You Highly Sensitive?

IMAGE According to psychologist Elaine Aron, PhD, approximately 15%-20% of the American population could be categorized as highly sensitive—that is, they are affected by and react stronger than most people to various stimuli. But is sensitivity a gift or a curse?

Paula's Story

Paula is a competent and conscientious community outreach worker who recently quit her job with a social services organization. Though she valued the work and enjoyed helping people, after only one year she found herself emotionally and physically exhausted. "It was too much," she sighed. "Too much interaction with people, too many meetings and social events, too much pressure to be outgoing."One might conclude that Paula is simply an introverted individual, but her situation is a bit more complicated. Actually, she was exhausted by a number of things in her environment—things that didn't seem to bother any of her co-workers. Paula experienced her working environment as cluttered, chaotic, and too noisy. The fluorescent lights made her uncomfortable, the gray walls dampened her spirits, and she frequently felt affected by her co-worker's moods, as if they were contagious.

What It Means to Be Highly Sensitive

Paula is a person with unusual sensitivity. According to Dr. Aron, individuals who are highly sensitive have nervous systems that are more easily aroused. They are more acutely attuned to themselves, others, and their environments. Consequently, they are more easily overwhelmed. Even though the term "sensitivity" or "unusual sensitivity" is not a psychological diagnosis, Dr. Aron has highlighted the following traits shared by highly sensitive people:
  • Well-developed intuition
  • A high level of empathy
  • Conscientiousness
  • Creativity
  • Love of solitude and introspection
  • Strong connection to emotions—their own and others'
  • A tendency to be shy or inhibited in social situations
  • Strong appreciation of beauty
  • Low tolerance of strong lights and odors, noise, disorganization, and clutter
  • Heightened physical and/or emotional reactivity to certain foods and stimulants
  • Heightened sensitivity to change, and sometimes a tendency toward insomnia, anxiety, and depression
  • The ability to concentrate deeply
  • Awareness of subtleties
  • Strong foresight
  • Difficulty thinking, speaking, or performing while being observed

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