Do you sometimes feel that you seem to be more 'sensitive' or reactive than most other people you know? Do others often say that you’re ‘too sensitive’ or do you say this about yourself? Do you sometimes struggle or feel overwhelmed in stimulating environments with high levels of noise and movement? Do you tend to have very strong emotional reactions (both positive and negative)? Do you have a rich and complex inner life?
It’s possible that you are a ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ or 'HSP' (scientifically known as having ‘Sensory Processing Sensitivity’). This is not a disorder or impairment, but simply a largely genetic character trait shared by 15-20% of the population. In the same way that some people are ‘introverts’ and some people are ‘extroverts’, some people have a high level of sensory sensitivity, which is accompanied by emotional intensity, a tendency to process thoughts and feelings deeply, and a proneness to over-arousal of the nervous system. People with this trait also usually score highly on measurements of qualities such as creativity, conscientiousness, loyalty and empathy. The existence of the trait and its effects has been confirmed by numerous scientific studies.
Being Highly Sensitive affects people in 4 main ways:
Highly Sensitive People process thoughts and feelings more deeply. They tend to reflect on their experience a lot more than others, and are naturally disposed to think things through in a complex and multi-faceted way.
HSPs have a nervous system that is easily over-aroused. If you have this trait you may end up feeling frazzled and over-stimulated by situations which others might take in their stride.
HSPs are emotionally intense: the range of their emotional responses to both good and bad situations tends to be unusually wide.
HSPs are highly affected by sensory stimulation. They tend to spot finer details and make more more subtle differentiations in what they see, hear, feel, taste and smell. They may also find that some types of sensory stimulation (such as bright lights, traffic noise, rough clothing etc.) bother them more than other people.
If you think you might be highly sensitive try this online test. While not 100% accurate it can give an indication as to whether or not this trait might be part of your makeup.
Benefits and Drawbacks
High Sensitivity is a trait that comes with many potential benefits, but because Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) are in the minority and live in a culture which is not attuned to their needs or way of being in the world — and because this trait may be viewed negatively by others — they may at times struggle with issues such as:
Low Self Esteem: Sensitive people may take on a negative view of themselves if negative attitudes towards the trait are prevalent in those around them.
Unrealistic Lifestyle Choices: lack of understanding of their true needs, pressure to conform, and a wish to fit in and please, can cause sensitive people to make life choices which do not work well for them. As a result they can end up frazzled, overwhelmed and unfulfilled.
Difficulty at Work: most workplaces are not set up to meet the needs of sensitive people! As a result, HSPs can struggle to fit into a work environment and may end up performing below their best. This is a shame because often their best is, in fact, very good indeed!
Problems in Relating: High Sensitivity is not in in itself an indicator of relationship problems, but difficulties in relating caused by other factors may be exacerbated by the emotional intensity and tendency to nervous over-arousal that highly sensitivity people often experience.
In spite of these potential problems, research has shown that when sensitive people are validated and supported appropriately they can often be among the most high-functioning and productive members of the community. HSPs tend to particularly excel where the positive aspects of their trait such as creativity, conscientiousness, loyalty and empathy are valuable and make a difference.
How I can help
I work with many highly sensitive people, and as one myself, I am well acquainted with both the promise and pitfalls of the trait! I can offer information, validation, and a safe, non-judgmental space in which to explore, heal and grow. I am happy to work with these issues either online (video call) or in person, and I offer a free half initial consultation. Contact me for more info or to book a session.