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Are You Too Sensitive?

Do you take things too personally? Overanalyze the situation? Feel defensive? Then you are almost certainly among the group classified as Highly Sensitive People.

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Once upon a time, HSPs might have been written off as shy or even neurotic, but Aron believes these labels are demeaning and inaccurate. Shyness, she says, is a learned response; HSPs are born with a heightened sensitivity meter. She also points out that there are a lot of us (it's estimated that 15 to 20 percent of the population suffers from the condition, a percentage split equally between men and women). The trait shows up early on, with infants and children exhibiting signs - a possible explanation for why some babies tend to cry more than others.

I should confess that when I first heard about HSP, it reminded me of the first time I learned about ODD (oppositional defiance disorder), which I felt was just another way of saying "bratty child." This time, my thinking went something like, "They're trying to turn those irritating people who force others to walk on eggshells into bona fide victims." What does being an HSP entitle you to? Instant upgrades on airplanes? The corner office? Extra-kind report cards?

But I kept reading, and the more I read, the more I began to think that the HSP label explained a lot - about me, about my siblings, and about many of my friends. Aron's argument is that there are a lot of us whose feelings get hurt easily, and that this huge sector of the population is mistakenly being written off as weak and thin-skinned. But as with ADD (attention deficit disorder) and even ODD, sooner or later society catches up with science and accepts that these terms are more than a fashionable excuse for being difficult or neurotic. Though not currently classified as a disorder, HSP will, I suspect, soon become a part of the psychological lexicon.

Still, not everyone is buying. My personal physician, Dr. Martin Scurr, whose busy medical and psychological practice in London is filled with self-identified HSPs, is opposed to the new label. "It takes all sorts," he says. "Why should we have to label everyone who doesn't fit like clones into the mainstream? How do we define 'abnormality' or 'disorder' anyway? How many new words can we come up with for good old anxiety?"

Certainly anxiety is a big component of the HSP's experience. According to experts, HSPs suffer from what is called sensory-processing sensitivity and are more susceptible than ordinary people to both internal and external stimuli. "They have an innate tendency to process things more carefully," says Aron, who has devised a test to gauge where one falls on the sensitivity continuum. "They tend to be aware of subtleties and are therefore easily overwhelmed by their feelings." An HSP doesn't just cry while watching a film like The Notebook - she experiences actual grief symptoms. She also reacts strongly to things such as noise and light, and is particularly sensitive to stimulants such as coffee. Typically an HSP demonstrates greater caution and reluctance than the non-HSP population with things such as taking risks, trying new experiences, meeting new people, even venturing to unfamiliar places. Then there is the other extreme - roughly 30 percent of HSPs are thought to be extroverts and sensation seekers.

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