If you get anxious in crowds, are alarmed by loud noises, and need to carry tissues around in case a touching song comes on, there's a term for that: You may be a "highly sensitive person," or HSP, as psychologists abbreviate it. High sensitivity has existed as a concept since the '90s, is assessed using a 27-item questionnaire that you can try our for yourself, and is present in over 100 species. Highly sensitive people (and animals) process more and subtler information, are easily overwhelmed and hurt, and show higher neural activation in response to pictures of loved ones.
As a refreshing departure from the popular notions that people who cry easily are hysterical, people bothered by sensory stimuli are overreacting, and that people who can't keep it together are just weak, psychologists consider sensitivity to be an uncontrollable, neutral quality like how easily you get hot or cold.
As an example of an HSP, The Wall Street Journal just profiled Michael Hassard, a 44-year-old former NASA engineer who squashes stereotypes of both men and engineers. Hassard, who cries whenever he hears the Battle Hymn of the Republic or when someone says "God bless you," said his ability to empathize has given him advantages as a parent and in the workplace, but his strong emotional reactions can be taxing. Here are some signs of high sensitivity that Hassard experiences and some others I've observed.
1. There are certain songs, movies, etc. that you just can't even handle.
That Starbucks that always plays that song you and your ex used to sing along to in the car is clearly engaged in some conspiracy to torture you.
2. The concept of "friendly debate" sounds ludicrous because arguments are no fun for you whatsoever.
When your opponent is attacking you with a verbal pitchfork, it feels as if your actual life is in danger. Seriously, please spare me! I'll do anything you say!
3. There are certain things you can't think about if you want to remain functional for the remainder of the day.
If you don't mind, I'd like to remain in denial about human mortality for the time being so that I can get my work done. Please contact me after 5 PM with all news items involving freak accidents, homicides, and the like. Much appreciated.
4. You take a while to get close to people.
For you, opening up to people means opening up the can of worms that is your emotions. It also means you're vulnerable to being affected by whatever they say. And not everyone can be trusted with that much influence over you.
5. You're extremely careful about what you say.
You understand that your words can have unattended effects on other people and want to minimize these effects because you've experienced how shitty they can be.
6. Every mildly gross stimulus, even just a gross thought, grosses you out.
It's quite possible that, in the most disgusting chain of events in existence, you have at one point thrown up because you saw someone nearby throwing up.
7. You find a lot of things problematic.
Those accused of acting the part of Political Correctness Police or Social Justice Warrior are not walking around with chips on their shoulders and lists of offenses they can't wait to indict everyone for. They're probably just highly sensitive. They observe how even well-intentioned statements and actions can impact certain groups of people negatively, and this bugs them.
8. You can't stand to be around conflict.
Even when someone is clearly mad at somebody else or themselves, you can't shake this irrational feeling that somehow you did something wrong.
9. You find places with large volumes of people and objects overstimulating.
Times Square is your personal hell.
10. Faint sounds, sights, and sensations seriously get on your nerves.
Please, I prithee, stop scraping your plate with your fork! Stop getting food on your mouth! Stop breathing on me! Stop the madness!!
11. You are painfully ticklish.
One of nature's cruelest jokes on mankind is the instinct to laugh during the deep discomfort of tickling. Oh, and if you enjoy provoking this reaction for your own amusement, you may want to read up on consent culture.
12. There are too many thoughts in your head at any given time to keep track of.
Wait, how did I start thinking about the family vacation I took during spring break of 2011? Oh, yes, there was a color in a plant that reminded me of a shell I saw on the beach. Wait, what were you saying? (You may come off as a ditz, but you're likely a highly sensitive person or a creative type.)
13. You are frequently told "stop overreacting," "no use dwelling on things," or worse, "sticks and stones can break your bones but words can't hurt you."
Ugh. People. No. Stop it.
As with all forms of neurodiversity, our society should strive to accommodate the entire spectrum of sensitivity. Too often, people with low sensitivity are seen as stronger and more rational, while high-sensitivity individuals are taught to suppress their feelings and "deal with it." But to bring back my previous analogy, telling a highly sensitive person to calm down is like telling an easily cold person to tough it outside without a jacket. Just as you might offer a sweatshirt to someone who finds the temperature of your home too cold, sympathizing with highly sensitive people is, well, the sensitive thing to do. Images: Chris Ford/Flickr; Giphy (13)