Are You A "Highly Sensitive Person?"

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Do you feel chronically worn down by caring too much? Have others accused you of being touchy? That sensitivity may not be "all in your head" or just some personality quirk: new research shows that "highly sensitive people" (HSPs) truly exist, and have different brain characteristics than the rest of the population.

Researchers at Stony Brook University in New York used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to examine how apparently sensitive people responded to social cues, as compared to apparently non-sensitive people. When shown pictures of faces, especially their spouse's face, the highly sensitive people's brains became extremely active on the fMRI. The activity indicates that HSPs may experience increased "mirror neuron" activity, whereby the HSPs are actually themselves feeling what the person they're shown appears to be feeling.

The researchers estimate that as many as 1 in 5 adults is "highly sensitive," so it's not ultra-rare. If you don't suspect that you yourself are highly sensitive, just take a moment to imagine how exhausting it must be to go through life feeling more emotional ups and downs than you already do, even in response to strangers. The human condition was hard enough already, right?

There's good news, though: increased awareness surrounding highly sensitive people and their genuine existence means more help for those with this characteristic. In some ways, being highly empathic is a plus: you are unlikely ever to accidentally behave callously towards those you care about, and you can contribute significantly to group decision-making when someone's feelings are on the line. But you also need to take care to protect yourself from undue emotional burdens, such as by practicing more deliberate "dialectical" thinking and learning to "let go" more often.

And of course everyone, whether highly sensitive or not, can benefit from general mindfulness and self-care strategies. Avoid high-stress social interactions towards bedtime, get enough exercise, and maybe learn to meditate. The more you can do to shed unnecessary stress, the more of your precious emotional energy you'll have left for the people and projects that really matter to you.