OSLO—American psychologist Elaine Aron estimates that 15–20 percent of people in the world have a highly sensitive nervous system, which makes it more difficult for them to filter impressions and stimuli. They easily become overloaded, and many prefer solitude for this reason.
Aron, who has researched this trait since 1991, coined the term “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP).
Some people seem to sense things most people don’t notice. Some may feel it without being directly conscious of it. Ihrén Abrahamsson, a Swedish author and lecturer living in Norway has come to terms with her high sensitivity, a condition she has experienced since childhood. She has raised awareness about HSP with four books on the subject, and a fifth is on the way.
Ihrén Abrahamsson says that being highly sensitive often means that you can register things that are not visible.
“There may not be any physical signs that there has been a quarrel, but you can sense it,” she explained. “You pick up on something invisible, but science usually focuses on things that can be seen or measured.”
It has taken her a long time to understand the dynamics of her condition.
Prison Work Not Ideal With HSP
Five years ago, when she was 34, Abrahamsson moved from her native Sweden to Oslo, the capital of Norway. Her plan was to become a therapist, but instead she became a prison guard.
Her career path was decided in part by a television show about a man who helped former inmates adjust to freedom outside prison walls. She applied for work at Oslo fengsel, the largest prison in Norway, with about 400 inmates and almost as many guards.
“I’m interested in people in general,” she said. “What are the forces that shape our choices in life, which in turn determine where we end up?”
She worked as a regular guard for a while, but eventually transferred to a special department for inmates with drug or alcohol abuse issues, and became more of a counselor. She stayed there for three years.
She realized quickly, however, that this was not the best place for her, being a highly sensitive person. She said that the inmates often feel bad, that they often suffer from anxiety and regret. As soon as she walked into the prison, all of these feelings went “straight into her.”
“I had some kind of plan that I would learn how to shut [these feelings] out,” she said. “But instead, I just got more and more tired. Eventually, I felt like I wasn’t able to go to work anymore. It became too much for me working at a place where people are feeling so bad all the time.”
She went on sick leave and saw a doctor, but the doctor told her the condition was all in her head.
“When I tell people this story, some feel that the doctor acted unprofessionally, but that was an important moment for me,” she said. “When I left, I thought to myself that I needed to find another doctor, because I should be allowed to talk about this. But I also realized that I didn’t see [being highly sensitive] as such a big problem. It was more a case of me wanting to find out more about it.”
Abrahamsson began researching the subject. She contacted people from all over the world who had worked with highly sensitive people, or are highly sensitive themselves. Among the people she has talked to, some approach it from a scientific point of view, while others take a spiritual approach, but they all speak of the same kind of experiences.
Now, she is also lecturing on HSP in various forums and workplaces.
“Many people I spoke to sounded like this: ‘I’m so sensitive; I can’t do this, I can’t do that. I’m so sensitive; I can’t go to parties,'” she said. “I have sort of made it my mission to show that there are other approaches.”
It is absolutely possible to go to a party if you are highly sensitive, Abrahamsson said. You just have to find your own way to do it.
“First of all, you need to choose your company,” she said. “And you can go home a little earlier, before there are 200 people there. And you don’t need to drink alcohol. There are many ways to handle it, and still go out and have fun.”