Really Sensitive, and it Gets You Down?

Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Does it seem like others have a thick skin you never will? And that you feel things others don’t, and that they can’t understand? Or have you been called 'overly sensitive' often?

What it’s like being a sensitive person

If you are very sensitive, or what a popular book by American psychologist Elaine Aron calls a ‘highly sensitive person’, then you might experience things like:

  • crying very easily, such as if someone raises their voice
  • feeling overwhelmed if you see a picture of a sad or hurt animal or child
  • finding beauty, such as nature and art, almost a euphoric experience
  • having moments of sensory overwhelm if there are too many noises, lights, colours
  • needing to find quiet spaces to recuperate
  • sometimes avoiding things or people that make you feel emotional
  • going through cycles of mild or serious depression
  • feeling frustrated that others can't understand how you feel or why you are upset.

Why am I overly sensitive?

Although Aron would like to say that sensitivity is a trait, her research is only extrapolated from animal studies and this remains a hypothesis.

The problem with this hypotheisis is that it can leave people putting themselves in a box, where they are sensitive and there is nothing they can do about it.

While it is true that some of us have more of a genetic propensity toward sensitivity, it’s also true that sensitivity can be created or worsened by life experience.

And while your genetics aren’t easily changeable, there are ways to work through difficult life experiences that can help you be more resilient and emotionally stable.

What sorts of experiences cause sensitivity?

Childhood trauma is a big one. Any kind of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse does not only affect a child’s sense of self and worth. It can also mean they overrespond to others in an attempt to feel safe or worthy, or are left in a constant state of stress that makes them sensitive.

And sometimes it’s not a distinct trauma, but a set of difficulties called adverse childhood experiences’, or ACEs. These include things like neglect, a parent vanishing or going to jail, and watching a parent be abused.

Poor parenting itself can leave a child to become an overly sensitive adult. If your main caregiver was inconsistent with love, attention, and security, you can learn to always be on guard. You spend life waiting for moments you can please others, and being very anxious when you feel disproved of.

Also note that sometimes sensitivity isn’t from childhood, but from one big trauma later in life that has left you emotionally reactive. This can be something like living through war or a natural disaster, being the victim of a crime or assault, or watching someone else get hurt. Trauma leaves us stuck in fight, flight, or freeze mode, always on edge, including emotionally.

Sensitivity and mental health issues

So what mental health issues are connected to sensitivity?

1. Borderline personality disorder.

BPD means you lack the emotional ‘skin’ others have. You feel as if your emotional ‘thermostat’ is always swinging from one end to the other without you being able to stop it. You are called overreactive, you have many push pull relationships, and you can feel swamped by anger and sadness.

2. Post-traumatic stress disorder.

PTSD is caused by a distinct traumatic event and can mean we are always jumpy, anxious, feeling raw, and with unpredictable moods.

3. Complex PTSD.

Similar to regular PTSD, it means we are constantly anxious, jumpy, and emotional. But these symptoms weren’t created by one exact incident, but by a series of incidents, usually as a child, that mean we were constantly traumatised. A common cause is child abuse.

4. Social anxiety.

Sometimes our sensitivity can make us feel afraid of connecting with others. We develop social anxiety, fear of any kind of social situation.

5. Depression.

When we are depressed we can lack resilience and our minds get trapped in black and white thinking. We can’t see the shades of grey, so are far more sensitive to casual comments.

6. Adult attention hyperactivity deficit disorder.

Adult ADHD can leave sufferers with a constant sense others are annoyed by them, or don’t understand them. And the low self-esteem it creates can mean that ADHD can cause sensitivity as well as loneliness.

Is there anything I can do if I am very sensitive?

Yes. You can learn to be less emotionally reactive and more resilient. There are several talk therapies that help with this, that you can research to learn if they feel right for you. These include:

Sick of always overreacting and being constantly sad? Find a talk therapist now who knows how you feel and can help.

Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert and writer. She also runs a consultancy helping people find their perfect therapy and therapist. She's a highly sensitive person herself! Follow her on Instagram for useful life tips @am_darcy

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