Are you a HSP?

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Do you get overwhelmed easily? Does being busy leave you feeling frazzled? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then chances are you could be a Highly Sensitive Person or ‘HSP’ for short. We spoke to Mel Collins, author of The Handbook for Highly Sensitive People to find out more about this unique personality trait.

So what is a HSP?

“One in five people are HSP so basically it just means that we process our emotions more deeply and for longer than people without the trait. And we tend to pick up on subtleties that other people don’t and we get affected by environmental and sensory stimuli,” says Mel.

“So anything like being in crowds, too much noise, bright lights, sirens, all those things can be over-stimulating for our nervous system and we can end up feeling a bit overwhelmed really by it all. It is actually an innate temperament trait, so it’s not a disorder of any kind…”

Mel explains that many people confuse the trait with things like a hyper sensitivity disorder, but basically what the HSP trait means is that HSPs are more ‘attuned’ in some ways than other people.

While being highly sensitive has its advantages (HSPs are known for being more perceptive, authentic and deeply creative, to list a few) it does come with a lot of challenges. When asked about the kinds of challenges HSPs tend to face Mel (who identifies as a HSP herself) laughs and asks, “Where would you like me to star?”

“I think one of the biggest ones actually is that there’s a lack of awareness about the trait. That’s one of the main issues with it. I didn’t know about the trait until I was 32 and I’m 48 now. So for those 32 years of my life at the beginning, I just thought there was something wrong with me.

“Things like travelling, going to different places for work. If I had to go to London, for example, by the time I’d done the trains and tubes and all of those sorts of things my system would be in completely overwhelm… I would end up feeling really frazzled and then be expected to go straight out and my system would just get more and more stimulated. I’d end up not being able to sleep for a couple of days.”

Mel also cites high levels of empathy as being another challenge many HSPs face.

“I think we get affected by other people’s energies quite a lot as well. If we don’t know how to protect ourselves properly then we can end up taking on other people’s emotions or absorbing moods. We can find it all draining and we can end up feeling quite saturated and heavy.”

But how do you know if you’re a HSP?

“There’s a tick list that I’ve included in my book, but I think the main indicators of the trait are do you tend to process your emotions more deeply and for longer than other people seem to? There is an emotional intensity with HSPs, so we can react more strongly to positive or negative events in our lives in some ways. Over-arousal [is] an indicator, so that’s what we call the over-stimulation in the nervous system.

“So if you’re picking up on subtleties that people are not aware of. All these environmental triggers get you into that state where you feel over-stimulated and frazzled all the time. That’s quite a good indicator of it as well in some ways.”

If you identify as being a HSP, it’s important to have a self-care practice to support you. Mel recommends finding ways to make sure you get plenty of down time and to make sure that you’re eating properly. Relaxation and stress-relieving practices can also help a lot.

“Doing some sort of relaxation exercise like meditation is wonderful for HSPs. Also mindfulness as a practice is good for HSPs as they tend to have very active minds and they do tend to overanalyse everything because of their deeper levels of processing,” says Mel.

“I really recommend EFT [Emotional Freedom Technique] or tapping as a great way to help.”

If this is the first time you’re hearing about the HSP trait and you recognise some of the challenges outlined above in your own life, Mel offers the following advice:

“First of all read as much as you can about the trait. My book will hopefully help but there’s a lot of other great resources out there as well that can help. A lot of HSPs want to fit in and be like non-HSPs in a way, but I think the most important thing is if others don’t understand the trait, give them a book or information on the trait to help them realise that there are just some differences but there’s also a lot of ways that we are similar. [It’s about] finding those commonalities between us rather than focusing on the differences all the time.”

The Handbook for Highly Sensitive People by Mel Collins (Watkins Publishing, €12.90) is out on January 15. For more information about Mel, log on to www.melcollins.co.uk

Catherine Devane