Do you often walk into rooms and know when there’s been an argument? Do TV shows and movies seem to affect you more deeply than others? Perhaps you feel like the only one who struggles so much with the bright lighting in your office. If you’re nodding your head, you may be a highly sensitive person.
What is a highly sensitive person (HSP)?
This idea of innate sensitivity was first mentioned in 1913 by Carl Jung, a highly influential psychotherapist who helped shape psychology as we know it today. In the 80s, Jungian psychotherapist, Dr Elaine Aron, researched this concept further, coining the term highly sensitive person (or HSP) in her book, The Highly Sensitive Person.
Counsellor Carley Symes explains more about HSP and how counselling can help.
Those who are deemed highly sensitive are thought to have sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS), which makes them highly sensitive to both internal and external stimuli. This means, effectively, that you’re more aware of what’s happening both around you and within you. You may feel particularly sensitive towards light and noise, but also emotionally charged situations and your own internal reactions.
Since Dr Aron published her book on the subject, a large number of studies have looked at the neuroscience and psychology of high sensitivity. Using MRI machines, evidence has been found that the brains of highly sensitive people respond more powerfully to emotional images than those who are not highly sensitive. Biologists have found this trait in over 100 species, with research suggesting at least 20% of the human population is highly sensitive.
Highly sensitive people are often described as having a complex inner life. Like many personality traits, being highly sensitive has its pros and cons.
Being more sensitive in our bright and fast-paced society can be difficult. You may find you’re easily overwhelmed, struggle to manage stress and need more alone time to recalibrate. Before we look into coping with any challenges, however, let’s take a closer look at the key traits of highly sensitive people.
Due to the lack of understanding around being highly sensitive, many HSPs can feel that there is something wrong with them for feeling the way they do.
- Learn how to navigate life as a highly sensitive person
What are the signs of high sensitivity?
While everyone is unique, over 20 years of research into high sensitivity has found that shared experiences by HSPs can typically fit under four foundational traits. These were originally documented by Dr Aron but have been expanded on since by other researchers.
Using the acronym DOES, the four traits are:
Depth of processing
When information is given to a highly sensitive person, they’re likely to process it more deeply than others. For example, if someone gives you a piece of information, like a name or address, you’re more likely to mentally repeat the information again and again in your mind so you remember it. This, of course, makes highly sensitive people excellent at remembering things and is also thought to be why HSPs are often artistic.
There is a downside to processing information in this way though. It means the nervous system is magnifying and repeating the information which, over time, can lead to overwhelm and burnout.
Processing information in such depth and being acutely aware of your inner and outer surroundings constantly can take its toll. Feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated is common in HSPs and you may find you need more time alone, in quiet/dark environments to feel calm again.
Empathy (or emotional reactivity)
Being more aware of other people’s emotions is another trait linked to high sensitivity. Research has found that highly sensitive people’s brains react more strongly towards images of other people’s faces showing emotion. Many HSPs say they feel as if they can absorb or pick up emotions from others, even if they’re not saying anything.
Emotional reactivity means that you’re likely to have a stronger reaction to both positive and negative experiences. The effect seems to be more prominent in positive experiences, however, even if it’s just looking at a picture of a positive event. Being in a more positive environment, therefore, can go a long way in boosting your mood and creativity.
Sensitivity to subtleties
Because you process information more deeply and are sensitive to external and internal stimuli, you’ll likely notice subtle cues or stimuli that others miss. This means you may notice smells, sounds or tastes that others don’t. This could be why certain things in environments like offices or on public transport bother you more than most people - because you notice every little detail.
If you relate to these traits, it’s likely that you're highly sensitive. To explore this further, you may find Dr Aron’s online highly sensitive person test useful.
Highly sensitive children
When people hear the phrase 'highly sensitive' when used to refer to a child, it often conjures an image of a child who cries all the time or one that is easily overwhelmed, very shy or worries a lot. But as parents of highly sensitive children know, there is more to their child than emotional outbursts or big feelings - they can also be sensitive to anything physical that triggers their senses.
For example, is your child overwhelmed by sights and sounds? Do things like seams or labels in their clothes really irritate them? Do they fear loud noises, bright lights, or certain textures? These can be signs of high sensitivity in children.
Raising a highly sensitive child can pose some parenting challenges, especially when it comes to discipline. But, it's important to recognise that there's nothing wrong with being sensitive. In fact, a sensitive child can be one of the kindest, most compassionate children you'll meet. As a parent, it is important to help your child see that, although they may be different to their siblings or peers, there is nothing negative about the way they are.
This is where counselling can help. Having somebody to talk to can help your child to process their thoughts and feelings and learn to navigate their sensitivity for the better.
What are the benefits of being sensitive?
It’s important to highlight that being highly sensitive is not a problem that needs fixing, it’s simply a personality trait to understand. Like many HSPs, you may find it beneficial; you might be intuitive, empathetic, and incredibly creative.
Once you’re more aware of high sensitivity and how it affects you, you can look into ways of supporting yourself with any challenges it may bring. You can begin to embrace your highly sensitive traits as superpowers, let go of past judgements, and seek out other highly sensitive people to connect with.
Finding out that you are highly sensitive can bring up a variety of emotions; often there is a relief that it is OK and normal to be highly sensitive, perhaps dispelling some doubts you had about yourself. In some families, fitting in may have been difficult and you may have been told you were “too sensitive” as a child and carried this lack of understanding forward into adulthood and the workplace.
- Counsellor David Wilson, MNCS (Accred); MBACP explains more about high sensitivity and high sensation seeking
Self-care for highly sensitive people
Self-care is important for all of us, but if you’re highly sensitive, you may notice more than most when you’re not looking after yourself. Knowing what works best for you and creating a self-care routine that caters to your sensitivity is crucial.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Make space in your schedule for decompression time where possible.
- Plan ahead and take any precautions you can when you know you have a potentially overwhelming event coming up.
- If caffeine/sugar/alcohol affects you more than others, look to reduce your intake.
- Create a calming, low-stimulus environment around you where possible, especially in your home.
- Avoid multitasking or at least reduce the number of tasks.
- Embrace your creativity and use this as an outlet.
- Consider journaling and/or meditation as tools to help you cope with overwhelm.
- Reach out to loved ones or a professional if you’re struggling.
Talking to others for support should never be overlooked, even if you’re usually the helper. Sometimes, even the strongest of us need a helping hand from a professional.
Getting professional support
While high sensitivity certainly isn’t a mental health condition, some of the traits may make you more susceptible to conditions such as depression and anxiety. Whether you’re finding it difficult to manage stress or you have been feeling low for longer than normal, you may find it helpful to talk to a counsellor.
Talking therapy gives you space and time to process how you’re feeling, and come up with strategies that can help you cope. Together with your counsellor, you may be able to create a more robust self-care routine and gain more clarity around why certain things affect you the way you do.
If you feel ready to take this step, use our search tool to find a counsellor you resonate with. Reach out to them via telephone or email to arrange a consultation, and see how it feels to talk to them. This is your time to get to know each other, for them to understand what you hope to gain from therapy, and if they are the right person to help you.
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