Maybe you’ve been told you feel too much or that you overreact too often. Maybe you wonder why you can walk happily into a room full of people only to leave a while later fatigued and drained. You could be a highly sensitive person (HSP). Although some of the traits of highly sensitive people affect their lives negatively, the traits can also be viewed as a gift from God to serve others.
The Traits of a Highly Sensitive Person
An HSP feels deeply about circumstances, people, animals, events, and themselves. They may compare their lives with the lives of others which leaves them depressed from lacking resources, funds, beauty, or lifestyle. They may allow a bad moment to ruin their entire day with anger, resentment, anxiousness, or headaches. A highly sensitive person has trouble “moving on” from a situation they’ve interpreted as troublesome.
A highly sensitive child may translate a teacher’s harsh words or silence as a dislike for the child. Just like with their adult counterparts, these children may misinterpret other’s actions and take things personally. Rejection and embarrassment are things an HSP wants to avoid at all costs.
Without realizing it, you can hurt a highly sensitive person’s feelings easily. Again, miscommunication can lead them to believe someone is judgmental. They may overreact with their perceived beliefs even when they are the ones who asked for feedback about a project. The thought that someone may not like them can become a primary focus for an HSP.
A highly sensitive person can become overwhelmed and distraught when placed in chaotic and loud environments. Bustling cities, fast and heavy traffic, and overcrowded rooms are too much for the HSP’s senses to process.
However, even with so many drawbacks to exhibiting HSP traits, a highly sensitive person can develop remarkably deep relationships due to their sensitivity to the other person. Since they feel things on that deeper level, they can connect with others. Their sensitivity can also make them incredibly creative.
A highly sensitive person is also highly aware of their own bodies, both internally and externally. They may practice meditation, yoga, or praying to bring a sense of calm to their minds when faced with overwhelming circumstances. Self-care is routinely practiced by highly sensitive people living successful lives.
The Difference Between an HSP and an Empath
Highly sensitive people feel deeply and empathize with others; however, empaths feel the energy emanating from another person. Empaths take on the feelings of others and sometimes mirror those emotions. Empaths can walk into a room and absorb the energy (the vibe) and return feeling the total opposite as they did before they left. Due to this energy transfer, empaths need time to wind down.
Empaths can be either introverts or extroverts while many HSPs are introverts. It is believed that empaths are also more attuned with the spiritual world and have a special gift for communicating with animals, most likely because they can feel the animal’s emotions. Just like many HSPs, you will find empaths drawn to quiet places to rest and recharge. This could be a room indoors or somewhere in nature.
Differences aside, HSPs can also be empaths. Highly sensitive people who are also empaths may take longer to recharge. They become easily overwhelmed by loud noises, large crowds, or the chaos of rush hour traffic. Bright lights and strong aromas can cause them to shut down for a period of time as they try to get away.
On an empathic spectrum, you can find empaths at the extreme end, with highly sensitive people closer to that mark. On the opposite end are people who demonstrate narcissistic traits consistently, while those that are empathetic on an average scale are somewhere in the middle between the two extremes.
What causes someone’s sensory process system to become overwhelmed so easily by loud noises, bright lights, and crowds? There is a biological difference in a highly sensitive person’s brain and nervous system than what is typically found.
The Biological Difference
Since about 20% of the population are considered highly sensitive people, researchers have studied the nervous system, brain functions, and structure to help scientists learn more about this unique gift.
Sensory Processing Sensitivity is a trait you were born with if you are a highly sensitive person. This gene causes your nervous system to become oversensitive. External and internal stimuli bombard your nervous system and you may have trouble categorizing and prioritizing what you truly need to focus on.
Shutting out all other stimuli is difficult. External stimuli include bright lights, loud sounds, and crowds of people talking at once. Internal stimuli are your own thoughts and emotions that suddenly take over.
As the name suggests, your brain processes those senses in such a way that you feel more than others do. You pay attention to details better, empathize with others, and appreciate quiet and solitude. However, you also get quickly overwhelmed by sights and sounds, responsibilities, and your inner monologue.
Sensory Processing Sensitivity is not a bad thing. Although as a highly sensitive person you may feel sometimes as if the drawbacks are greater than the benefits, your ability to feel in order to help others is a great gift.
Not only are your genes involved, but your mirror neurons are more active than the average person’s neurons. This is the reason why you can empathize and mirror what another person is feeling. You are highly aware of another person’s energy and you respond accordingly.
Dopamine is processed differently in the brain of a highly sensitive person. The neurotransmitter, when released, provides us with that surge of accomplishment and reward after a task, comment, or action. While certain go-getters thrive on competition and the rush they feel from the release of dopamine, highly sensitive people treat the surge as a possible warning.
HSPs may feel their dopamine levels rise at the thought of a New Year’s Eve Party, but as the date for the party comes closer, they will begin to dread it. While others are giddy with excitement, an HSP knows the event will cause overwhelming sensations and drain them. It is as if their dopamine release is protecting them from sensory overload.
According to brain imaging studies, certain parts of the brain such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex become more active when the highly sensitive person is in an emotional moment. These moments translate vividly. Other parts of the brain during the imaging studies fire up at the sight of both loved ones and strangers, proving that an HSP feels and reacts towards others.
How to Use Your Highly Sensitive Traits in Ministry
We all have gifts given by God. Some are to be used within the church ministry and others at home and/or work. In a world that is hurting, angry, and misguided, a highly sensitive person has a role to play. He or she cares for the sheep and attends to the flock. They meet the needs of other people, even if those people had no idea what they truly needed at the time.
Since a highly sensitive person feels so deeply towards others and can mirror their emotions, the HSP carries a unique gift of serving as Christ served – giving to others what they really need to see or hear. Of course, this also means you will need to monitor your own emotions as you can easily be hurt by the words or actions of others. Give yourself space – and grace – to quiet your mind if you are in an overwhelming situation.
Some highly sensitive people prefer to serve in smaller churches than in mega-churches due to the smaller environment. However, HSPs can serve roles in the larger churches – you will just need to monitor your emotions and reactions. Sometimes serving in a smaller area of the church building may be best.
As you continue to serve others, pay close attention to the children in your care. You may have a highly sensitive child in your church with whom no one knows how to communicate. Once again, your unique and loving gift could be the key to opening the door to God for a young child.
Photos:”Lake View”, Courtesy of Timothy Meinberg, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Meditation”, Courtesy of Marcos Paulo Prado, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Alone with the Word”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Calm Lake”, Courtesy of Jack B, Unsplash.com, CC0 License