Are you too sensitive?

Genetics may be to blame

If you find yourself overreacting to even the most minor of inconveniences, your thoughts might not be as irrational as you think. Jade de Souza discovers why some people just can’t help the way they feel.

 “Hi, my name is Jade and I am an overreactor.”

“Hiii, Jaaaade,” I hear a singsong chorus in my head from my fellow overreactors encircling me in an imaginary Over-sensitives Anonymous meeting.

I’ll admit it. I don’t take things a little too personally; I take them way too personally and am more than a little embarrassed to admit that it seriously affects my relationships. I spend far too much time anguishing over the tiniest remarks and taking everything as a personal attack. So too do I fret endlessly about my own shortcomings, things I should have said, should have done, desperately wishing to change the past. As someone who operates in high-stress mode on a regular basis, when something upsets me, I’ll have a complete meltdown.

It’s like a treadmill in my head. First my feelings get hurt. For example, why didn’t I get a reply to my text message? Then I begin to image all the reasons why that person may be mad at me. What did I say when we spoke last? Next, I get mad at them and at myself. Why can’t they just be there and show me love all the time? Why can’t I stop worrying about this? After hours of circular thinking and dozens of phone calls and text messages later, I’ll be in the throws of a fight that had no basis but that which I invented in my head.

I’m not sure I’d consider myself ‘sane’ necessarily, but I do consider myself smart. Yet, I fall into the cycle over and over. Sound familiar?


It pleases me to find out and inform you that our genetics may be to blame. Scientists now believe that sensitivity can run in a family, with 15 to 20 per cent of the population described as thin-skinned. A study in Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience explains that highly sensitive people have a distinct pattern of brain and nervous system functioning that means they cannot help how they react. Everyone is born with a particular temperament, a personality set point based on his / her genes, says the study.

“It’s not us, it’s our brains,” confirms family therapist and author of Stop Overreacting – Effective Strategies for Calming Your Emotions, Judith Siegel.

“We get flooded with feelings that are too intense to handle and our reasoning goes right out the window.” But she holds out hope that we can tame the emotional beast; we can train ourselves to stop overreacting, respond more thoughtfully, and end up solving problems instead of making them worse.

Ask your mother and father what kind of a toddler you were and the answer may shed some light on why the grown-up you, has such a hard time shaking off intense feelings. But our DNA is only half the story. Your upbringing and environment also lay the blueprint and it’s this combination of nature and nurture that ultimately determines how tuned in you are to your feelings.

This concept can be hard to swallow for all concerned in a society that tends to pathologise seemingly negative personality traits rather than accepting that they fall within the realm of normal human experience. “To pathologise someone to the point they feel marginalised is harmful,” says Siegel.

When you think of an overly sensitive person, you think of someone fussy and difficult, someone so fragile you have to tiptoe around their feelings for fear they’ll get hurt. It seems exhausting. Bear in mind, however, that whatever your perception may be, telling a sensitive person to get over it is an exercise in futility. They can’t change their response any more than the person asking can change their eye colour. If this is you, understanding this can make a huge difference in completing your personal puzzle and helping you put in place methods to better cope in the future.

Coping strategies

“When you are in a calm state, think about the past experiences you haven’t yet healed that might be your triggers,” suggests Siegel. “Think ‘how can I take my adult self, my life experiences and coping strategies and make peace with the past and subdue the material that gets evoked when I’m upset?’ You can then learn how to respect and use your body to achieve calm in a hyper-reactive state,” she says.

“When people are in a state of hyper-arousal, they’re often being flooded by the past. It can distract the way we are experiencing the present, as we’re experiencing emotions that we’ve already lived through once and they caused us pain. When that is stimulated by a similar event, we experience all of it, the past and the present. A state is temporary, unless you allow it to hijack you,” says Siegel. “Accept that it’s just a moment and it will pass. In the moment, you can handle it if you prevent the past from flooding it.”

The problem with this kind of overreaction is that you let go of mindfulness, presentness and balance every time you react instead of respond to life. Your emotional reaction becomes paramount and you temporarily lose sight of your purpose and intentions. So how can you achieve more balanced behaviour in response to potential upset?

Be mindful of:

  • The triggering emotions. There are four main triggers for overreaction, says Siegel: envy, rejection, criticism and loss of control. Even the most generic interaction can spark one of these responses, triggering our fight-or-flight response and limiting our ability to react in a rational way.
  • Black-or-white perception. As an emotional overreaction builds, you’re likely to see situations or people as either all good or all bad. “At those moments,” says Siegel, “it’s as if we have a two-drawer filing cabinet in our heads. When the ‘bad’ drawer is open, the ‘good’ one has to be closed. We can’t see any redeeming features in the situation or the other person.”
  • Flooding. “In addition to dealing with the challenging moment at hand, you may find that every old and negative emotional memory associated with the situation floods over you,” Siegel explains. That can make the current situation seem bigger and more connected to higher stakes than it really is.
  • Feeling entitled. The black-or-white response, intensified by ‘flooding’, can result in your feeling justified in having an outburst or other extreme reaction.
  • Notice the body’s signals. “Your neck may get tense, your heart may start to pound,” says Siegel. “Anxiety, which is a bodily response, may encourage your thoughts to start racing. These are warning signals.” If you’re in tune with your body and recognise these signs, you’ll be better able to shift emotional gears and avoid overreacting.
  • Breathe. Conscious breathing will help you interrupt the fight-or-flight response and give you a chance to shift out of overreaction mode. Practise deep breathing whenever you feel your body’s warning signals switch on.
  • Assess your state. Feeling tired? Ragged? Siegel suggests withdrawing from the situation and revisiting the issue when you’re feeling more centred.
  • Name the emotions. Overreaction is a loss of access to the left brain. Siegel suggests naming the feeling you are having in the moment, i.e. anger, loss of self-esteem. “This requires reflection and memory, and that’s a left-brain activity,” says Siegel. “It re-establishes the neural networks that connect left brain and right, and restores balance.”
  • Recast criticism. “Strive to reframe less-than-positive input as useful information,” advises Siegel. When faced with criticism, ask yourself constructive questions that can turn potentially quarrelsome moments into learning opportunities.

When you respond instead of react, you learn that you have limited control over life. No matter how hard you try, you can’t control the outcome. You can only control your input and your ability to handle tense moments with grace and dignity. 

NEXT: 5 ways to control your emotions>>

Author: Jade De Souza; Photo credit: Thinkstock


Rate This

Average: 5 (1 vote)
The information presented on this website is not intended as specific medical advice and is not a substitute for professional medical treatment or diagnosis. Read our Medical Notice.