I wanted to take my daughter to the mall.
That shouldn’t be so difficult, right?
I overheard her on the phone saying to a friend, “You’re so lucky that your mom likes to shop. My mom HATES the mall.”
It’s true. Malls, like carnivals and amusement parks, give me anxiety. They always have. When I was my daughter’s age (11), adults and peers thought there was something seriously wrong with me because I relaxed under a tree at Kings Island amusement park in Mason, Ohio while my sisters and friends headed to The Beast, the tallest, fastest, and longest wooden rollercoaster in the world in 1979 when it was built.
I was managing my anxiety just fine at the mall until we hit the main drag when the kiosk people come at you like spider monkeys with their hair straighteners and phone cases and perfumes.
“Ma’am, here you go,” one says spraying a potent perfume in your face.
“Ma’am, take this!” other one says, right as you dodge the two in back of you.
By the time I got to Forever 21, I was having heart palpitations, my breath was shallow, and I was sweating all over.
My daughter rolls her eyes. Here we go again.
I am a highly sensitive person (HSP) as defined by Elaine Aron, Ph.D. in her bestseller The Highly Sensitive Person. I am among the 15 to 20 percent of the population that is easily overwhelmed by loud noises, crowds, smells, bright lights, and other stimulation. There is a lot going on inside my noggin at any given moment—HSPs have rich interior lives. I feel things very deeply and tend to absorb people’s emotions. I have a low tolerance for stress and don’t like to be rushed by deadlines. I am also aware of subtleties in many different situations that others miss.
Highly-sensitive persons need lots of sleep (8 hours or more) and time to decompress and chill out because they see, hear, feel, smell, and taste things more intensely than the average person. It’s a little bit like wearing a pair of 3D glasses through life. Processing all of the nuances of situations, feelings, colors, and sounds can be exhausting. (I explain it more in this video.)
As much as we HSPs curse our conditions when we are at the mall or a street festival or a work conference—and especially when perfume is sprayed in our faces–our oversensitivity benefits us in many ways. We are creative, spiritual, conscientious, loyal, kind, and compassionate. We have a fine-tuned sixth sense (our intuition), a strong sense of justice, and an enthusiasm for life. We appreciate beauty, art, and music. We can often sense potential danger before others. Because we feel so passionately about certain causes, we do the work that is involved to make the world a better place.
In his new book The Power of Sensitivity, Ted Zeff, Ph.D., collected 43 success stories from highly sensitive people from 10 different countries. Some of the stories are fascinating—the way that people have turned a so-called limitation into a strength in their careers, personal relationships, parenting style, and self-care.
For example, there was a story written by a Canadian ICU nurse about a patient who came in with shortness of breath and had some distress right after a valve surgery. As the day progressed, the patient grew increasingly more uncomfortable, lying only on her right side. The nurse had recently read Aron’s book on HSP qualities, and decided to trust her keen intuition that something was seriously wrong with this patient. She ordered a test without the approval of the surgeon (because he said it wasn’t needed) that validated the need for immediate surgery. A huge clot of blood was removed from her heart. She was, in fact, only minutes away from her heart stopping. If the nurse hadn’t performed the test and pursued the surgical team to help this woman, she would have died.
That inspiring story reminded me a recent study published by the National Institutes of Health and the National Center for Biotechnology about how individuals with social anxiety disorder are often gifted “empaths,” people whose right brains are advanced and can perceive or scan another person’s thoughts, feelings, intentions, and motivations. Brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor gives an amazing TED talk about the right brain and its surprising capabilities. The scientists in the NIH study found that persons with social anxiety “demonstrate a unique profile of social-cognitive abilities with elevated cognitive empathy tendencies and high accuracy in affective mental state attributions.”
I don’t have social anxiety. Not really. I’m just afraid of the mall and noise and too much commotion.
Apparently I can’t shop without sweating and skipping a breath here and there.
However, with that so-called weakness comes the strength of being able to identify in a crowded room any persons who don’t want to be there, and often times anyone who has a history of depression and anxiety.
Isn’t that more important?
Maybe not to a fifth-grader.
But she’ll come around.
Join “The Highly Sensitive Person” Group on ProjectBeyondBlue.com, the new depression community.
Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.
Originally posted on Sanity Break, at EverydayHealth.com
I am a very highly sensitive person. I find this reading on your sight invaluable I look forward daily sto see if there is a new possting. and I joined an international workshop/ lesson on it and its relationship to Perfectionism
I liked this book. I also like the Highly Sensitive Person at Work. By, Elaine Aron.
Me too, and our younger daughter. We can both ‘read’ a room, and the people in it.
She was old enough to help get me out of the mall, when my anxiety kicked in. She just knew…got me outside as quickly as possible.
Many times I was wondering if I was somehow more sensitive than the average people. I am not sure after reading your article, if it is the case or not. I am indeed able to feel other’s emotions, and this can make me faint if they are describing awful pain and disease, such as describing the emotions and feelings of a person suffering from cancer – it did happen to me to get white and 1-2 times really faint. I am also bothered when there is a very noisy group in the bus, or get distracted in class if there is a sudden noise (like an ambulance, or alarm) coming from the window or corridor, while all the others seem perfectly fine. However, I am not sure if I can feel others’ emotions in the way you describe, or if I chose the close that when I was quite young. However, I have/had trouble with feeling emotions and not long ago I did some therapy trying to get me to feel more, as I was rather flat in many occasions, not crying, not being impressed, mostly ignoring a lot of the stuff I didn’t want. Sorry if I am writing too much without much sense for others, but maybe there are other people in this same situation? Maybe some who realized what’s going on here and may enlighten others…
[…] “Mio marito è molto comprensivo, ma credo che in generale per un partner sia difficile riuscire a capire quanto poco basti a far sentire una persona molto sensibile travolta, e quanto possa esser spossante ricevere stimoli e feedback. Le uscite di famiglia poi possono risultare un’impresa, perché ambienti come parchi di divertimento, centri commerciali e feste a volte rappresentano una grossa difficoltà. Noi ci siamo impegnati parecchio ad affrontare queste mie sensibilità in modo tale da permetterci di uscire a spassarcela come coppia. In quei luoghi però che non mi stressano troppo”. ― Therese Borchard […]