Are You A Highly Sensitive Person?

By Kelly Fitzgerald Junco 09/02/16

Highly sensitive people are frequently over-aroused by their surroundings and tend to take on the emotions of others. It shouldn’t be surprising that they are at a greater risk of numbing their feelings with drugs and alcohol.

Image: 
Are You A Highly Sensitive Person?
Sensory overload.

When I wrote my first blog post coming out as sober in 2014, I listed all the ways my life had changed in my first year of sobriety. The first thing I talked about was the unfamiliar sensation I had that my senses were heightened. Getting sober caused me to feel my emotions more deeply. My sense of smell was intense, almost overwhelming (and still is sometimes). My hearing and taste were sharper, and the world around me began to affect me more. Tears flowed at the most unexpected times and the sense of happiness that would overcome me was almost too much to bear. I was often left really overwhelmed. On this blog post, I received a few comments from readers suggesting I might be an HSP, with a link to a website. I thought to myself, “What the heck is an HSP?” as I clicked the link.

An HSP is a “highly sensitive person.” As I scanned the website, I began to take offense to their suggestion. Why do they think I’m sensitive? I took this label as an insult and brushed their suggestions under the rug.

Now, at three years sober, I’ve begun to harness my energy and my emotions, but there are times in my life when I still feel that I am deeply affected by what goes on around me. I remembered what my blog commenters had told me, and I decided to revisit the website and I purchased the book The Highly Sensitive Person written by Elaine N. Aron, PhD. In the front of the book and on the website, there is a short test you can take that has a list of 27 statements that you answer yes or no to. If you answer "yes" to more than 14 of the statements, you are probably a highly sensitive person. If you answer "yes" to fewer than 14 questions, you still might be on the lower end of the sensitivity spectrum. 

Some of the affirmative statements that would qualify you as sensitive include:

-I am easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input.

-I am particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine.

-I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows.

-I am annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once.

-When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment, I tend to know what needs to be done to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or seating).

-My nervous system sometimes feels so frazzled that I just have to go off by myself.

I answered "yes" to the majority of the statements on the test. After reading the book, I came to the conclusion that I am, in fact, an HSP. I found it extremely interesting reading through the statements and then the book, and figuring out that the quality of being sensitive isn’t what I originally thought it was. I didn’t realize that avoiding violent TV meant that I’m sensitive, or the fact that I prefer decaf coffee could mean I’m different. 

Dr. Aron mentions in the book that sensitivity is often mistaken for introversion or shyness, when in reality it is a completely different characteristic. Highly sensitive people are actually wired differently. They notice much more than the average person, including the moods of other people, the colors and sounds around them, and the overall energy of any environment they’re in. It’s not that they aren’t social, it’s that they are easily aroused by outside stimuli. All the information I absorbed in her book led me to believe there could be a connection between the highly sensitive trait and addiction.

Highly sensitive people are frequently over-aroused by their surroundings and tend to take on the emotions of others. It shouldn’t be surprising that they are at a greater risk of numbing their feelings with drugs and alcohol. This is exactly what my readers suggested in 2014. They said I might be an HSP who was too overwhelmed with the world and preferred to be numbed by alcohol so that the world may be more tolerable. 

When I reflect back on my childhood, I can recall an unusual phenomenon that happened to me frequently in elementary school. If I was called on by the teacher and I didn’t know the answer to her question, or said the wrong answer, I became painfully embarrassed—so much so that I would often leave the room and go to the bathroom to cry. Hot tears would stream down my cheeks as I would try with all my might to fight them back. I didn’t tell my parents about this until many years later. I was sensitive and I hated to be that way. I felt weird and out of place. I felt like something was wrong with me. It was the same feeling I got on May 7, 2013, the day I quit drugs and alcohol. I couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong with me. I wanted to give up because the pain was too great. That’s when I looked inward and realized alcohol had been the villain in my life.

Highly sensitive people often have this feeling of being different, a familiar feeling that those of us who are in recovery also share. HSPs are often criticized for being sensitive, and they aren’t taught how to deal with their trait or that it can actually be a point of strength. Dr. Aron details how sensitive people are needed around the world, just like people in recovery are. There is no denying the link between addiction and high sensitivity. 

Learning about sensitivity has changed me. It has allowed me to put one more piece of the jigsaw puzzle of my life together. It’s comforting to know, just as with addiction, that I am not alone. There are others who feel the way I do. I am not weird or bad, I just have some traits that others might not. 

If you feel sensitive, don’t try to ignore it or silence it. Research it, learn about it, and embrace your sensitivity. Quieting it with drugs and alcohol doesn’t work. Trust me, I’ve tried.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Disqus comments
Disqus comments