Jumpy, easily upset? You might have Princess and the Pea Syndrome
It could be called 'Princess and the Pea' syndrome, but those with a hypersensitive nervous system (HSP) are now being labelled by experts as highly sensitive people
Are your feelings easily bruised and do you worry about hurting other people's? Do you well up at charity advertisements about illness or animal cruelty, dislike scary films or feel bothered by loud or irritating noises in a way that others don't?
You could be a highly sensitive person, or HSP - a condition that is common but until now rarely understood.
Awareness of HSPs has been gathering pace in America, and a new documentary called Sensitive the Movie, which premiered in San Francisco, explores the issue. It features Dr Elaine Aron, a scientist and author of the million-selling book The Highly Sensitive Person.
It also includes new research that shows how the region of the brain that deals with empathy and sensory information is different in people who score highly on the sensitivity scale. The singer Alanis Morissette, a self-confessed HSP, appears in the documentary. "My temperament is highly sensitive. I'm very attuned to very subtle things, whether it's food or minerals or lighting or sounds or smells," she says. "Overstimulation happens pretty easily."
Rather than being a personality type, being a HSP is defined as having a hypersensitive nervous system. As well as being easily overwhelmed by emotions (they tend to have high empathy and get upset very easily), HSPs also have a Princess and the Pea-like sensitivity to stimuli such as lights, sounds, temperatures and even scratchy fabric.
Dr Aron, who is a leading researcher in the field, says: "Being HS is genetic: 20pc of us are born with it and it affects both sexes equally. I explain the condition in four letters: DOES.
"D is for depth of processing: they process everything around them very deeply. O is for overstimulation. E is for emotional reactivity and empathy. Research shows HSPs respond more to the emotions of others and to situations in general. And S is for sensitive stimuli - they're incredibly sensitive to smells, sounds and light.
"However, not all HSPs are alike. For example, we know that around 30pc are extroverts rather than introverts, which is what most people expect them to be."
Dr Ted Zeff, a psychologist and author of The Highly Sensitive Person's Survival Guide, agrees. "Every sensitive person is different," he says.
"Some people have some of the traits, like empathy, but they're not HSPs."
So what are the traits? Dr Zeff says people who are HS "don't have a natural shield. They find it hard to tune stuff out. For example, somebody standing close behind them and peering over their shoulder will really unsettle a HSP."
As for a cure, Dr Zeff says: "If you are an HSP you shouldn't want to 'cure' yourself. It's who you are."
HSPs, he believes, do best in nurturing environments and are more likely to be artists, musicians, teachers, counsellors and health practitioners. They are also likely to be popular because they are so in tune with the needs of others.
However, it may need to be managed otherwise it could become overwhelming. "
"Most tend to develop coping mechanisms," Dr Zeff says.
HSPs also need daily downtime. "They shouldn't be ashamed of who they are," he says.
"But there needs to be some compromise. For example, just because you don't like noise, it doesn't mean everybody around you has to be quiet. Just go into another room or go for a walk."
As for highly sensitive children, Dr Aron says when they are raised with an awareness of their overactive nervous systems, they will thrive and get ahead socially because they have such great empathy. However, if they are constantly told off for crying or told to "pull themselves together" they may think something is wrong with them and become anxious or depressed.
© Daily Telegraph
'Sometimes I just need to sit in a quiet room'
Kate Townshend (34) explains how it feels to be an HSP:
"I've been known to cry at everything from cancer charity adverts to The Great British Bake Off.
"As well as the extreme empathy, we HSPs startle easily and find noisy, busy or brightly lit environments distressing - I can't get around supermarkets quickly enough. The upside is a vivid imagination and a depth of understanding of others.
"My husband and I have a code: sometimes I'll whisper to him, 'I'm feeling abit HSP-ish', if a situation becomes overwhelming.
"And with the greater awareness of the condition, there's relief in knowing I'm not alone in my quirks. If I need to sit in a quiet, softly lit room for a bit, then that's OK."