I overheard her on the phone saying to a friend, “You’re so lucky that your mom likes to shop. My mom HATES the mall.”
It’s true. Malls, like carnivals and amusement parks, give me anxiety. They always have. When I was my daughter’s age (11), adults and peers thought there was something seriously wrong with me because I relaxed under a tree at Kings Island amusement park in Mason, Ohio, while my sisters and friends headed to The Beast — the tallest, fastest, and longest wooden roller coaster in the world when it was built in 1979.
I was managing my anxiety just fine at the mall until we hit the main drag, when the kiosk people come at you like spider monkeys with their hair straighteners and phone cases and perfumes.
“Ma’am, here you go,” one says spraying a potent perfume in your face.
“Ma’am, take this!” another one says, right as you dodge the two in back of you.
By the time I got to Forever 21, I was having heart palpitations, my breath was shallow, and I was sweating all over.
My daughter rolls her eyes. Here we go again.
I am a highly sensitive person (HSP) as defined by Elaine Aron, PhD, in her bestseller The Highly Sensitive Person. I am among the 15 percent to 20 percent of the population that is easily overwhelmed by loud noises, crowds, smells, bright lights, and other stimulation.
There is a lot going on inside my noggin at any given moment — HSPs have rich interior lives. I feel things very deeply and tend to absorb people’s emotions. I have a low tolerance for stress and don’t like to be rushed by deadlines. Highly-sensitive persons need lots of sleep (eight hours or more) and time to decompress and chill out because they see, hear, feel, smell, and taste things more intensely than the average person.
I am also aware of subtleties in many different situations that others miss. It’s a little bit like wearing a pair of 3D glasses through life. Processing all of the nuances of situations, feelings, colors, and sounds can be exhausting. I explain it more in this video.
As much as we HSPs curse our conditions when we are at the mall or a street festival or a work conference — and especially when perfume is sprayed in our faces — our oversensitivity benefits us in many ways. We are creative, spiritual, conscientious, loyal, kind, and compassionate. We have a fine-tuned sixth sense (our intuition), a strong sense of justice, and an enthusiasm for life. We appreciate beauty, art, and music. We can often sense potential danger before others. Because we feel so passionately about certain causes, we do the work that is involved to make the world a better place.
In his new book The Power of Sensitivity, Ted Zeff, PhD, collected 43 success stories from highly sensitive people in 10 different countries. Some of the stories are fascinating — the way that people have turned a so-called limitation into a strength in their careers, personal relationships, parenting style, and self-care.
For example, there was a story written by a Canadian intensive care unit nurse about a patient who came in with shortness of breath and had some distress right after a valve surgery. As the day progressed, the patient grew increasingly more uncomfortable, lying only on her right side. The nurse had recently read Dr. Aron’s book on HSP qualities, and she decided to trust her keen intuition that something was seriously wrong with this patient. She ordered a test without the approval of the surgeon (because he said it wasn’t needed) that validated the need for immediate surgery. A huge clot of blood was removed from her heart. She was, in fact, only minutes away from her heart stopping. If the nurse hadn’t performed the test and pursued the surgical team to help this woman, she would have died.
That inspiring story reminded me a recent study published by the National Institutes of Health and the National Center for Biotechnology about how individuals with social anxiety disorder are often gifted “empaths,” people whose right brains are advanced and can perceive or scan another person’s thoughts, feelings, intentions, and motivations. Brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD, gives an amazing TED Talk about the right brain and its surprising capabilities. The scientists in the NIH study found that persons with social anxiety “demonstrate a unique profile of social-cognitive abilities with elevated cognitive empathy tendencies and high accuracy in affective mental state attributions.”
I don’t have social anxiety. Not really. I’m just afraid of the mall and noise and too much commotion. Apparently, I can’t shop without sweating and skipping a breath here and there. However, with that so-called weakness comes the strength of being able to identify in a crowded room any persons who don’t want to be there, and oftentimes anyone who has a history of depression and anxiety.
Isn’t that more important?
Maybe not to a fifth-grader. But she’ll come around.
Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.
Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.