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Published: Sunday, 1/16/2005

Finely tuned: Some people are extremely sensitive to outside stimuli

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Psychologist Cher Morrow-Bradley says she shares many of the traits of people with highly senstitive nervous systems. Psychologist Cher Morrow-Bradley says she shares many of the traits of people with highly senstitive nervous systems.
DIANE HIRES / BLADE Enlarge

You won t see these folks on Fear Factor, The Apprentice, or Survivor. Nor are these are your party animals.

Music teacher Marie Moore doesn t care for noisy rooms with poor acoustics, or for lots of socializing. By nature, she s a quiet person. We need more down time than the average person, says Ms. Moore, who lives near Hicksville.

Cher Morrow-Bradley doesn t do malls, fluorescent lights, or big groups. I love fireworks but I don t do crowds, says Ms. Morrow-Bradley, a Maumee psychologist. She dislikes the lights and music in big-box stores. And when I work, I need quiet.

Both women figure they re among the 15 to 20 percent of the population who are thought to have finely-tuned nervous systems that are especially receptive to certain types of stimulation. Put another way, they are less able to screen out and more easily overwhelmed by physical, social, and emotional stimuli such as noise, time pressure, or smells. Bright lights might be disturbing. They can be very sensitive to pain, caffeine, or medicine.

Like Ms. Moore, they re likely to need more down-time to unwind from social events. Some have trouble falling asleep. Their emotional responses are likely to be more intense than average, making it hard to let upsetting situations roll off.

You re too sensitive, Cry baby, and Get over it, are terms they probably heard as a child and remember as an adult. They might be adept at picking up social cues and subtleties, and be affected by the moods of others.

In the early 1990s, Elaine N. Aron was researching and identifying a cluster of characteristics she termed the highly sensitive person. It s not a medical condition, but a neutral trait of temperament, she says, and it s probably inherited. She estimates that 70 percent of highly sensitive people are also shy or introverted.

In 1996, her The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You (Carol Publishing Group), was the first book on the subject. With scant marketing, it has sold more than 400,000 copies and been translated into eight languages, she says.

The trait has lots of advantages, says Ms. Aron, a research psychologist and psychotherapist in San Francisco and New York. I ve really come to appreciate how much the world needs these people.

Learning how to cope with the challenges it poses is often an aha! for people who never understood why they reacted differently to life than others, she says.

In a culture that values aggression and speed, highly sensitive individuals are sort of like canaries in coal mines, she says. They re likely be aware of subtleties in the environment, may be reflective, insightful, conscientious, and ethical. They re rejuvenated by nature and serene places. Compassionate and deeply moved by the arts, many choose careers in the helping professions and the arts, says Ms. Aron, who has also written books about high sensitivity in adult relationships and in children.

It s important to identify such traits in children, who might otherwise be made to feel, as she did in her childhood, that there s something wrong with them.

She points to a telling study of two cultures in which Canadian and Chinese children were compared to see what traits made kids most popular. In China, shy and sensitive children were among those most chosen to be playmates. In Canada, shy and sensitive children were among the least chosen.

Kenneth Cunningham, director of Family Service of Northwest Ohio s Lucas County office, recalls an adolescent client who was picked on by other boys regularly. The boy was much bigger than others his age, but they d beat him up. He was crying and saying, Why can t people be nicer? He didn t have a lens to shade him, to let things other people would let roll off their shoulders.

Such people may be more prone to adversities such as depression and anxiety, he adds. I have encountered many adults and children who are overly stimulated by environmental conditions.

Despite its grass-roots popularity -- there s lots of web-sites and message boards on the topic -- the term is little known even among therapists. Several diagnoses, including attention deficit disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder include distractibility as a symptom, notes Kevin Arnold, director of the Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy in Columbus.

In the self-help arena, it's not uncommon for trendy ideas to come and go, says Mr. Arnold. Moreover, people who think they're highly sensitive may in fact have a condition that can be treated, such as attention deficit disorder, he adds.

Nevertheless, the idea continues to grow. Last year saw the publication of two books by psychologists: Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person by Barrie Jaeger (McGraw-Hill) and The Highly Sensitive Person's Survival Guide by Ted Zeff (New Harbinger Publications).

"I was so liberated by reading the [1996] book," says Jacquelyn Strickland. She's organizing the third annual East Coast gathering of highly sensitive people, set for April in Pennsylvania, and has hosted several meetings on the West Coast.

Gatherings are especially good for people who tend to seek safety and comfort over risk. "It's easier to hide your sensitivity than to always defend it," says Ms. Strickland, a counselor in Colorado.

For Ted Zeff, studying stress management while earning a doctoral degree in psychology taught him that his difficulty screening out stimuli was the root of anxiety he first experienced as a fifth grader in a big, noisy classroom.

"Once you have the necessary skills to cope with it, there's a lot of positive characteristics to being HSP. We can actually be more enthusiastic for life, and experience life and love more deeply because we're more attuned," says Mr. Zeff, author of The Highly Sensitive Person's Survival Guide. He adds that as people age, they may have to make an even greater effort at not cocooning.

A daily walk in nature is probably the best tonic for a highly sensitive person, he says. "My feeling is, the whole hope for society is based on being more sensitive."

For more information about highly sensitive people, check www.hsperson.com.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.



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