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New Research Shows Empathy in HSP's Brains

A new study reveals some people are built for empathy, awareness and sensitivity

As highly sensitive people, many of us have spent our lives feeling different from other people but not really knowing why. In some cases, others tell us that we’re different, usually in a critical, demanding way – you’re too sensitive, too intense, too shy, why are you hiding out here when everyone else is at the party? These all too familiar phrases, even when they are well-meant, usually have the effect of making sensitive people feel unacceptable, unappreciated and inherently flawed in some way, leading us quickly down the road to feelings of shame, self-doubt and low self-esteem.

When we do manage to become aware of our sensitive traits, it can also be very difficult to explain it to other people, to get them to understand and to get them to take it seriously. To some, it sounds like just an excuse to duck out of events early, to others we sound like cry babies. In some cases, HSPs have been misdiagnosed with ADD, depression or social anxiety disorder. Trying to explain to others that high sensitivity is an innate trait that makes us absorb more sensory information, experience that information more intensely and feel emotions more deeply is not easy. Allowing ourselves to accept it and find ways to live with it is even harder.

Fortunately, Elaine Aron and her colleagues have just published a new study which is the first to prove that the brains of highly sensitive people are markedly different from others. Results of the research showed that sensitivity was associated with activation of brain regions involved in awareness, integration of sensory information, empathy, and action planning.

What this means is that highly sensitive people feel different and experience the world differently because we are different. We are not overreacting, we are not overly emotional, we are not too sensitive. We were born this way and this is simply who we are.

How can this information help us as highly sensitive people? It all comes down to acceptance, awareness and action:

1. Acceptance. Accept yourself for who you are. Don’t let anyone try to convince you that you are too much of something and not enough of something else. You may be born more sensitive to your surroundings and more aware of other people’s feelings, but the more you learn about it and how it affects you, the more you understand what you need to make yourself feel calm, safe, creative, and happy, the more you will be able to accept yourself as you are, rather than trying to change.

2. Awareness. While many aspects of being highly sensitive can be a struggle in the modern world, such as feeling overwhelmed by noise and crowds and life’s hectic pace, there are also positive sides to our trait. Think about what qualities your sensitivity enhances. Every sensitive person has their own strengths and weaknesses, and their own individual personality and our sensitivity affects us in different ways. Pay attention to what overwhelms you and what makes you feel relaxed, what makes you feel creative and joyful and make it a priority to set limits on the situations you find taxing and spend more time doing things that fulfill and energize you. As an adult, it’s important that you see that your needs are met. If you ignore them, so will everyone else. With acceptance of your trait and awareness of your unique abilities, you can choose how you want to respond to your thoughts and feelings and needs, rather than simply reacting to them.

3. Action. Knowing that you have been built this way means that you have special talents and abilities to bring to the world. The beauty of this is that when you do things you love, using the abilities you naturally possess, in a way that helps others, everyone benefits. That is what makes us truly happy. Perhaps you feel particularly stimulated when you spend time in nature and you also have a creative streak. Put those together and you can develop your skills as a poet or painter. Or maybe you find that your natural empathy and listening abilities draw you to people who need help. You may try training as a counsellor or health care practitioner.

Whatever we do, it is first accepting ourselves as highly sensitive people that will allow us to find peace and contentment. Once we gain a clear understanding of who we are and what we need, we can create meaningful lives for ourselves and offer our unique insights, abilities, sensitivities and empathy to others.