One in five of us struggle to cope with everyday smells, sounds and images. Rather than a weakness, this extreme sensitivity could be a strength in everything from the pandemic to the climate crisis
“I feel I’m too sensitive for this world,” says Lena, who can’t cope with crowds or bright lights. Melissa gets her husband to watch films before her to see if she will be able to handle any violence, gore or scariness. When their grownup children bring the grandchildren round, she has to retreat to another room because their “loud laughter, the talking over each other, their swearing and their smells overwhelm me”. Lucia says she can feel “each and every fibre of her clothes” and it feels very ticklish or uncomfortable at times. Sometimes, she has to stop during sex with her partner because it becomes “too ticklish”.
Lena, Melissa and Lucia would all describe themselves as highly sensitive, a label that could be applied to up to 20% of us, according to the US-based psychologist Elaine Aron, who started studying high sensitivity in the early 90s, and published her influential book The Highly Sensitive Person in 1996.