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Health & Balance

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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HSPs are hardwired differently than the rest of the population. Researchers from Stony Brook University in New York and Southwest University in China have found that people with the trait take longer to make decisions, need more time alone to think, and are generally more conscientious about things like remembering birthdays. Their study, recently published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, also found that HSP subjects undergoing an MRI have greater activity in areas of the brain concerned with high-order visual processing, with participants spending longer examining photographs given to them while they underwent the test, and in general paying closer attention to detail than non-HSPs. What's more, a significant percentage of other species - including dogs, fish, and various primates - also display this sensitivity trait.

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.

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