Do you find yourself affected by experiences or stimuli that seem minor, but feel hard or even impossible for you to manage? If so, you’re not alone. Leading pioneers in research on hypersensitivity estimate that around 20% of the population experiences high sensitivity.
If you find that you’re extra sensitive to your inner world and outer environment, it can be difficult to recognize, understand, and manage your daily emotions. This is true for non-sensitive people, too, as most of us have grown up in a culture where emotions and mental health weren’t acknowledged.
This article will discuss what it means to be hypersensitive, mental health conditions that hypersensitivity could be a symptom of, and how to seek help if hypersensitivity is negatively impacting your life.
What does it mean to be hypersensitive?
First of all, note that hypersensitivity, on its own, is not a mental health diagnosis, and people experience it in a wide variety of ways. It’s also worth noting that having difficult feelings about things that happen to you or experiences you have does not necessarily mean you’re “hypersensitive”—you may just be having a normal human reaction.
I asked April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC, if she thinks we have the tendency to overpathologize ourselves, interpreting typical human phenomenon as being indications of a mental health diagnosis or problem. She says that “our brains need to make sense of things and labels are a great way to do that.” Labels can open conversations and foster greater understanding of ourselves and others, Kilduff says, but can also “turn into misunderstanding if such labels are inappropriately applied.”
All this is to say that it’s never a bad thing to develop a deeper understanding of yourself, but be wary of deeming all emotions and reactions as problems. However, if you believe that your emotional sensitivity is negatively impacting your life, you absolutely deserve to seek help.
How can I tell if I’m highly sensitive?
In general, those who are highly sensitive experience some or all of the following: noticing subtle shifts in the moods of those around you, subtle shifts in your own mood, and/or subtle shifts in your environment, hyperawareness of sounds, smells, and sights around you, a deep capacity for empathy, a sensitivity to violent or unjust movies or TV shows, and a rich inner life.
A handful of researchers have spent decades studying high sensitivity. Leading pioneers in this research are psychologists Elaine Aron and Arthur Aron. In the mid-1990s, they coined the term sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS). This describes the personality trait of being highly sensitive.
Those who rate high on the spectrum of SPS are referred to as “highly sensitive persons” (HSPs). On Dr. Elaine Aron’s website, you can find a self-assessment for being an HSP. Questions include, “Do other people’s moods affect you?” “Do you have a rich, complex inner life?” “Are you made uncomfortable by loud noises?” and “Are you deeply moved by the arts or music?”
Aron stresses that sometimes high sensitivity is mistaken for introvertedness or shyness, but these are different traits that shouldn’t be used interchangeably with high sensitivity—in her work, she’s found 30% of HSPs to be extroverts. Aron also makes clear that being an HSP is not a negative trait. She states she prefers to maintain that “HSPs and non-HSPs are different yet equal.”
While being an HSP is not a diagnosis on its own, having high sensitivity to external and internal stimuli that in turn brings intense emotions can sometimes be related to a mental health condition.
Mental health diagnoses that include hypersensitivity/intense emotions
Aron notes that it’s common for SPS to be misinterpreted as clinical diagnoses and vice versa. There are a variety of conditions whose symptoms closely mimic or overlap with SPS—of course, it’s important to seek help from a licensed mental health professional to help you understand the specifics of your experience. Here are a few conditions that most often involve heightened emotional sensitivity, sensory-processing sensitivity, or similar experiences:
Borderline Personality Disorder
Borderline personality disorder makes it extremely difficult for one to regulate their emotions. Kilduff tells me it’s like an “emotional third degree burn.” Because emotions feel out of their control nearly all the time, those with borderline personality disorder have problems with everyday functioning, self-image, and have a pattern of unstable relationships.
To the latter point, those with this personality disorder have an intense fear of being alone or abandoned, which can cause them to act in a way that actually pushes people away. Individuals with borderline personality disorder tend to engage in impulsive and/or risky behavior, have drastic shifts in mood, display inappropriate and intense anger, and may experience stress-induced paranoia where they lose contact with reality for a short period of time.
Histrionic Personality Disorder
Histrionic personality disorder (HPD) is marked by intense and unstable emotions, a distorted self-image, and the need to be noticed and validated by others. In order to get the attention from others that they crave, people with HPD act in inappropriate or dramatic ways.
Those with the disorder may feel underappreciated or even depressed when they’re not the center of attention, have quickly shifting and shallow emotions, be extremely emotionally expressive (even to the point of embarrassing family and friends around them), behave in a highly charming or flirtatious manner at virtually all times, be extremely concerned with their physical appearance, and may use their physical appearance to draw attention from others.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common mental disorders among children (though it continues through adolescence and adulthood, too). The disorder is marked by an inability to focus, excess movement or trouble sitting still, and impulsivity.
Impulsiveness can manifest as having a hard time controlling one’s emotions. As such, people with ADHD can be prone to mood swings or outbursts of anger. People with ADHD—as well as autistic people—may also experience rejection-sensitive dysphoria (RSD), meaning that they tend to experience shame or embarrassment more easily than others, and can find feelings of rejection especially hard to handle.
Autism is highly misunderstood and stigmatized, and autistic people have a very broad spectrum of experiences. Notably, the majority of research on autism is on boys—autistic girls and women, and even adult men are much more likely to receive a misdiagnosis or late diagnosis based on differences in presentation. In general, autism is characterized by differences in interacting with others, communication, behavior, and learning, compared to those without autism.
It’s highly common for autistic people to experience over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity, or both, to sensory input—this is actually a component of diagnostic criteria. They might feel overstimulated by bright lights, certain textures, physical touch, or loud noises. Or similarly, they may feel the need to stimulate their senses by making loud noises, touching objects or people, or rocking back and forth. In social situations, autistic people may be likely to feel heightened empathy, as well, leading to more intense emotional responses to others’ emotions.
To people who don’t understand how an autistic person is feeling, it can look like they’re shutting down, having a meltdown, or behaving erratically, when really they are just trying to reach a sense of equilibrium with their environment and sensory stimuli.
“Anxiety disorders” is an umbrella term that contains a multitude of disorders, including: generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, specific phobias, and separation anxiety disorder. In general, this group of conditions includes chronic and intense feelings of worry, restlessness, and a difficult time handling stress.
Those with an anxiety disorder often feel intense emotions around the subject(s) of their anxiety, namely fear. They typically spend a lot of time worrying that something bad is going to happen. This in itself is a chronic stress that can lead to depression and a host of other feelings or related conditions. People with anxiety disorders may have a difficult time parsing through all their feelings and understanding why they feel such worry and fear.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by recurring intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, and urges followed by compulsive behaviors or mental actions done to relieve oneself of the uncomfortable emotions brought on by intrusive thoughts, or to prevent a feared outcome.
Intrusive thoughts can latch onto pretty much anything, especially themes that are especially important to someone. Some of the most common themes of OCD include: relationships, sexual orientation, scrupulosity/religion, harm, pedophilia, sensorimotor, contamination/health concern, and existential fears. The sufferer typically has intense emotional reactions to their intrusive thoughts because they do not want or like them. It can appear to others that people with OCD are highly sensitive to seemingly minor things—like touching a doorknob, watching a movie about romantic relationships, or seeing a photo of a deceased relative—when in fact they are experiencing an intense distress in response to things that trigger their obsessions.
Need help coping with hypersensitivity or a related condition?
If your sensitivity and ensuing emotional responses are negatively affecting you, your ability to function, and/or your relationships, start by seeing a licensed mental health professional—they’ll be equipped to help you determine whether you’re experiencing one of the above conditions, or if you just have the personality trait of sensory-processing sensitivity.
General hyper-sensitivity or emotional difficulty
If you don’t meet any identifiable diagnostic criteria, you can still get help for better understanding and coping with your emotions in all areas of life. If you’re not diagnosed with a specific condition, you and a qualified therapist may work together using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Kilduff also notes that if therapy is not accessible to you in the pursuit of better understanding your emotional responses, you might find journaling, self-help workbooks/books, or support groups to be useful.
Personality disorders like BPD or HPD
DBT in particular is a modality of therapy specifically developed to treat people who experience especially intense emotions. DBT is also the most commonly used form of treatment for personality disorders, such as BPD or HPD, and was developed for the treatment of similar conditions. It helps clients to both recognize the reality of their lives and emotions while also helping them learn to change harmful behaviors.
Anxiety Disorders and OCD
Evidence-based treatment for both the wide range of anxiety disorders and OCD involves exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP). ERP gradually exposes people to the thoughts or situations that trigger their intense emotional responses—places, experiences, objects, scenarios, sensations, feelings, and so on—and then helps them learn to manage these feelings without compulsive responses, allowing them to feel less distress over time.
Rather than doing compulsive behaviors, engaging in thought processes that reinforce anxiety, or avoiding emotional triggers, people in ERP therapy will learn to tolerate discomfort and accept uncertainty. In the case of OCD in particular, it’s actually imperative treatment does not consist of traditional talk therapy alone, because it can contribute to the obsessive-compulsive cycle and ultimately make OCD symptoms worse. With ERP, on the other hand, people with OCD or anxiety can learn not to see triggers as real threats, ultimately giving them far better control over the way their emotions guide their lives. Crucially, they learn to change their compulsive behaviors— the only way out is to behave your way out!
If you think you may be struggling with OCD or an anxiety disorder, and you’re interested in learning about how you can reduce the impact of distressing emotions on your life, I encourage you to learn more about ERP treatment with NOCD Therapy. NOCD Therapists specialize in treating OCD, anxiety disorders, and related conditions, and treatment includes between-session support for episodes of emotional distress, as well as dozens of support groups for people going through similar mental health journeys.
In seeking help for ADHD, the current best practices include behavior therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy, often in conjunction with medication. Behavior therapy is most common when working with children and tends to involve the parents. Child and parent(s) learn to practice and encourage positive behaviors while reducing unwanted ones. For more information on ADHD, check out the Children and Adults With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder website.
Helpful therapy options for autistic people
Because autism involves such a wide variety of experiences, treatments also vary. I want to first note that autism is not something to be “cured” or “fixed.” However, therapeutic intervention can help those with autism develop communication skills, social skills, and equip them to deal with difficult emotions that may impact their lives.
For autistic people who choose to seek therapy for any reason, it’s a good idea to seek a therapist who is informed and experienced in working with autistic people. Autism-informed therapists will be able to empathize and help find necessary support systems for their autistic clients. For more information about autism, check out this resource library from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.
A final word
In any case, keep in mind that you’re not alone in whatever experiences or emotions are coming up as a result of your sensitivity. There is nothing “wrong” with you, and if you find it’s taking a toll on your life or think it may actually be an underlying mental health condition, there are trained professionals who can help you.