January 18, 2015

Why Are You SO Sensitive?

I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened. - Mark Twain

neu·ro·sis n.   A psychological state characterized by excessive anxiety compensated for by various defense mechanisms and lacking evidence of neurological or other organic disease. Also see Anita.

Those of you who know me know that I'm exaggerating. Or am I? (Picture one eyebrow going up in a quizzical kind of John Belushi way.) 

I was recently watching a news program that suggested that worry is a sign of high intelligence. (Picture me patting myself on my highly developed brain.) Maybe it goes along with that saying: "If you're not scared to death, you're not paying attention."

In any case - I was recently challenged with a few non life threatening but routine disturbing physical issues. After going the conventional medical route and finding no answers I went back to my good buddy Clyde who is an intuitive healer and who also practices kinesiology. (More about Clyde here)

Clyde told me bluntly "What you have is STRESS."  I argued that "I don't feel stressed. I don't have anything to be stressed about!"  At that point he told me that I am so stressed that I don't even notice it anymore. It's become a habitual way of being.

"What do you mean I'm stressed? Don't most people keep their shoulders shoved up into their ears braced for whatever may come next? Doesn't everyone breathe super shallowly in order to listen to and anticipate changes in their surroundings? Isn't ibuprofen a food group? Am I missing something?  NO. I miss nothing, and apparently that's the problem. 

I'm constantly surveying my environment and taking in every minute detail. I catch the tiniest nuance of emotion on the faces of even people passing by and I'm affected by those expressions. I can seriously feel discomfort from seeing a plant that needs watering - even if it's not MY plant, and I cried my eyes out when I had to have a very old tree cut down because it felt as though all of nature was mourning. My husband calls me a druid. 
Being so keenly aware can sometimes be overwhelming but here's what makes it stressful: the vast majority of what I observe and am affected by is completely outside of my control (and none of my business.) 

I've never understood what causes my hypersensitivity or why others didn't seem to be as affected by things so I went in search of answers. What I found was very enlightening.

Apparently as many as 1/5 of the population can be classified as Highly Sensitive People or H.S.P. for short. I had no idea that I had company! I've lived my life believing that these feelings were unique to me and that something must be "wrong" with me.

Not only am I not alone but there is tons of information on the subject and even help available for those of us who fall into this category. (I ordered a book just before writing this post.) There's even an online self test to find out if you lean toward being highly sensitive. 

I took that test. A score of 14 is considered highly sensitive. I scored a 22 and would have scored higher if I hadn't started feeling silly about check-marking all the boxes!  Does that make me a H.H.S.P.? (hyper-highly sensitive person?) I'm surely tipping the scale toward the "over-the-top" range.

Apparently hypersensitivity is even more common in people with A.D.D. The inability to filter stimuli from our environments often causes sensory overload. For example: Going to a restaurant for a nice relaxing dinner is impossible for me - if other people are also there. Being unable to filter what's going on around me, I unwillingly hear all the conversations in a 4 table radius because I can't not pay attention to what's being said. (It just occurred to me I'd make a great spy!)

Small things to most people are huge things for H.S.P. types. For me, a raised voice is screaming. If someone gets excited or fervent about making a point, it comes across as hostility and anger and I feel defensive and attacked. I am also obscenely easily startled. Small unexpected noises or the sudden appearance of someone in a room who I didn't hear approaching can cause me to both jump out of my skin and become combative. (You know that flight or fight thing we're all suppose to have? My flight button seems to be stuck on off leaving me with only the fight option.)

Strong smells, bright lights (especially flashing lights), too much noise, crowds etc. cause stimulus overload for me. There was a time while at a symposium on a university campus where this kicked into high gear. As part of the price package, boxed lunches were provided at tables in a large courtyard to be picked up by attendees. There were 2000 people attending the symposium so the cattle drive to the tables was in itself overwhelming. When I finally made my way to the table, retrieved my lunch, and turned around, all I could see was a sea of faces drowning in a wave of endless motion. I was so overtaken that I turned away and bee-lined back to the dorm room where I was housed and stayed there secluded for the rest of the day.

I've also become sure that if I live a horrible life, when I die, I'll go to Vegas!  One trip there scared me straight! The flashing lights, ringing bells, smoke and whistles - combined with crowds of people who apparently enjoy those types of things? Shoot me. Shoot me NOW!

Stress  is a key contributing factor in so many disease processes. The number of studies that point to the dangers of not mitigating the stress factors in our lives are countless and the jury is in with a verdict of "STOP IT or SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES." Given this information and Clyde's recent assessment of me, I've recently started concentrating on being aware of my own state. I'm paying attention to my breathing, to my posture and purposely willing my shoulders to relax. I'm exercising more regularly and trying to get to sleep at a decent hour.

So, not surprisingly it seems that living in a noisy world shared by millions of people with all the accompanying smells, sights, and sounds could make anyone with hyper-sensitivity neurotic. (I just noticed my shoulders creeping toward my ears again and took a few deep breaths and willed them to relax. Must have been the memory of Vegas!)

I can't believe how stress relieving it's been learning that my super sensitivity doesn't mean there's something wrong with me. It just means I'm wired differently than the majority of people and that I need to take steps to learn coping skills to help me adjust to the things that just seem "normal" to the majority of people.

Believe it or not, there are some great aspects of hypersensitivity. I can tell when someone needs help, a kind word, or a smile. I have a lot of empathy (sometimes WAY too much) for others so I tend to see all sides of situations. Being a highly sensitive person makes me a natural peacemaker since I have a low threshold for contention of any kind. I'm very aware of my surroundings (when I'm not daydreaming) and that has helped me to develop good social skills. 

In the end, even though being highly sensitive can be uncomfortable I'd much rather feel too much than not to feel enough. "Knowing" they say "is half the of the battle." Maybe living on a deserted isle is the other half?

I hope by sharing these personal tidbits that if you're one of "us" or know someone who you suspect might also share these traits, this information will be of help. The truth is out there!  Let's spread the word!

Are you or do you know someone who is highly sensitive? Please share what coping skills have been successful. I'd love to hear your journey!


  1. I can so relate! I have ADHD, and my whole life, people have been calling me "over-sensitive." But once I found ways to manage my anxiety, the sensitivity became a great help to my relationships.

    1. Thanks Raelee. I wouldn't trade my sensitivity for sanity but managing the overflow would be great. I'm looking forward to finding a "sensitive" balance.

  2. Perhaps you need to get drunk, or do drugs, or something???!!! Or at least go on holiday somewhere really, really peaceful and deserted. I am not like this but I used to be more so; I think I just managed to stop giving so much of a stuff about other stuff. It does actually sound more like anxiety. I suggest exercise, not medication! And read more. Getting into imaginary worlds will take you away from the real one for a bit :)

    1. Terry. You hurt my feelings! (joking) Thankfully it seems to be getting better as I get older - at least the emotional aspect of it. I keep repeating to myself: "This is not my circus. These are not my monkeys." :) The physical aspect of it lingers however. The noises, lights etc. Yes, I'm in the middle of an imaginary world at the moment and dreading the return to "reality"

  3. Great post. I am so stressed at the moment and I think stress plays a big part in emotional sensitivity lol xox


    1. Hi Marie
      I think stress and emotional sensitivity play off one another. Hope you find some peace! I'm reading the book I ordered by Elaine Aron called The Highly Sensitive Person. I'm finding lots of helpful information and tips. I'm wondering if you might benefit from it too. Still thinking the deserted island may be the best choice though. I wonder if we could blog from there? :)
      Thanks for reading!

  4. "At that point he told me that I am so stressed that I don't even notice it anymore. It's become a habitual way of being." Yep, and that's what scares me about it. It sneaks up on you before you're even aware.

    I wrote about something similar in my blog as I can relate to some of the sensitivity you described. It feels nice to embrace it rather than think of it as a liability!

    1. Hi Keisha
      The embracing part may take some work. I'm just happy to better understand it at this point. You're right about the stress. It's sneaky!
      Thanks for your input!