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highly sensitive persons (HSP)



Highly Sensitive Person Counseling St. LouisSound Familiar?

Olivia found that she often was caused to reflect that something seemed different between her and those about her, particularly in terms of her likelihood to feel a stronger sense of impact than her peers to current events, things on the news, and even entertainment/media.  That is to say, she noticed that she seemed to feel repercussions from these things more thoroughly and more intensely than her friends, and to some degree, more frequently.  For example, though she’d enjoyed scary movies when she was younger, she found herself unable to watch them as an adult without having strong fear responses, which at times had caused her to walk out of films or shut them off.  Her friends felt sympathy for her, but concurred — she seemed to be feeling things more and more intensely than they were.

Grant never fully processed the trauma that occurred growing up.  His dad was a successful chiropractor, well-loved by many of his clients, but at home he was brooding and unpredictably rageful, often climaxing in violence within the home directed at his mother, though Grant would frequently intervene, thus directing the violence at him.  He knew it all had an impact on him — that he had an exaggerated startle response, that he didn’t like to get close too people because he often found them overwhelming and chaotic, and that he had a hard time trusting authority figures — but his resistance to ever talking to anyone about his trauma meant his understanding was limited and hazy.  One day recently, he took a quiz on social media that assessed him as a “Highly Sensitive Person,” and the description fit him to a tee.  Of course, Grant’s best friend (who also happened to be a counselor) told him that some of his sensitivity was likely the result of what she called “PTSD,” but he felt strongly that even if he was traumatized, he had an inborn disposition to be more sensitive than others as well.  They both agreed it was probably time to talk to a professional to sort it all out. 

Marcia had become a community organizer as a result of what seemed to her to be higher than average levels of empathy for the suffering, particularly persons experiencing homelessness and poverty.  Her own childhood grappling with these very same things left a profound mark on her, and she thought of herself as a natural empath and someone who could literally feel others’ pain.  It was her gift, she reasoned!  The quarantining and Zoom meetings COVID-19 had required of her had certainly allowed her to take more command over her schedule and to attend more to herself, but when she did, she was surprised to discover how sensitive she’d been feeling about a few other things she didn’t spend much time talking about.  For example: dissatisfaction with her relationship, the boredom she felt working in otherwise worthy community causes, and the level at which she was pretty certain she didn’t know what she was doing.   When she hazarded some of this to a friend who also considered herself an empath, the feedback she got was that she was “just a highly sensitive person.”  Marcia liked the idea, but confessed that right now, she simply felt like a highly sensitive mess.

Are you a Highly Sensitive Person?

See if the following items apply to you some or most of the time:

  • Feeling easily overwhelmed by bright lights, loud noises, strong smells, or the feeling of certain fabrics
  • Feeling overwhelmed in crowded spaces and chaotic environments
  • Arranging your life to avoid such upsetting or overwhelming situations
  • Avoiding violent media like movies or TV shows
  • Feeling emotions more deeply than others seem to
  • Feeling distressed by having to do a lot in a short period of time, dislike feeling rushed
  • Needing to withdraw and seek privacy or relief in a dark or isolated room during busy times
  • Enjoying more delicate sensory experiences, like fine scents, textures, sounds, or artworks
  • Experiencing a vibrant and complex inner life
  • Others call you sensitive or shy, or tell you that you feel things “too deeply”

If these sound familiar enough to be regular our life,occurrences in y you may identify as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).   HSP’s experience acute physical, mental, or emotional responses to stimuli, both external and internal. External stimuli include your surroundings and people in your environment, and internal stimuli are your own thoughts and feelings.

3 Important Facts about HSP’s.

1) Being highly sensitive is normal and healthy.

Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), the trait associated with being highly sensitive, is a healthy and normal trait that’s found in 15 to 20% of the population. Sensory sensitivity is naturally found in over 100 species including birds, fish, cats, and primates. According to Dr. Elaine Aron, researcher of SPS for nearly 3 decades, this trait is a survival mechanism – a way of observing the environment before responding.

2) High sensitivity is a real, research-based trait.

As mentioned, Dr. Aron has researched high sensitivity for decades. People with high sensitivity are not “just too sensitive” or “too” anything; they are having a real, neurologically and biologically based overwhelming experience. Sensitive does not just refer to feelings, but the nervous system of HSPs. In fact, the brains of HSPs function slightly differently from others’. Sensory Processing Sensitivity has roots in genetics – one reason why being told to “toughen up” is not useful. Research has indeed found 3 specific genes related to those with a highly sensitive personality (Source).

You can find Dr. Aron’s research and more here:

3) Being highly sensitive can be both a strength and a challenge.

According Highly Sensitive Refuge, HSPs “tend to be empathetic, artistically creative, intuitive, and highly aware of the needs of others – so much that many thrive in careers as therapists, counsellors, artists, musicians, and writers. But highly sensitive people also deal with overwhelm, exhaustion, and burnout, especially from ‘absorbing’ or sensing all the emotional cues of the people around them” (). A high-performing nervous system allows HSPs to process everything, from ideas, to sights, relationships, and social cues more deeply than most.

D.O.E.S. this ring a bell?

In her research, Dr. Aron breaks down the Sensory Processing Sensitivity trait into four main traits that define a highly sensitive person using the acronym D.O.E.S.:

  • Depth of Processing – People with high sensitivity process information deeply. For example, if someone tells a person with high sensitivity their address, the HSP might repeat the address over and over in their mind. They may make connections with the street name and other ideas or words. Practically, the HSP is likely to remember the address due to their deeper level of processing. On the other hand, this is overwhelming for their nervous systems and can lead to a sense of overload.
  • Overstimulation – It makes sense that all that cognitive and bodily processing would feel exhausting. An example of how feeling overstimulated shows up in real life for those with highly sensitive personality could be choosing a quiet, low-energy environment instead of a packed restaurant or high-energy venue. HSPs can handle such environments, but perhaps for shorter periods of time and may need to prepare and reserve energy for the experience.
  • Empathy or Emotional Reactivity – Emotional Reactivity describes a strong reaction to both negative and positive emotional experiences. Positive environments may feel good and encourage creativity and thinking for someone with high sensitivity. Having higher emotional reactivity may explain why HSPs seek private spaces where they can control more of the atmosphere.
  • Empathy is the experience of understanding someone else’s emotions. HSPs may feel as though they absorb others’ emotions even when someone isn’t expressing them. The brains of highly sensitive people react more strongly when shown images of other people’s faces expressing emotions, in particular the HSPs’ mirror neurons are very active (which help us understand and empathize with the feelings of others).
  • Sensitivity to Subtleties – As it sounds, HSPs are wired to pick up on small and subtle stimuli that many others may not notice. Tiny noises, smells, and tastes are processed by those with high sensitivity, which can understandably contribute to feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated.

If you’ve identified with the majority of what you’ve read, there’s a good chance you may be a Highly Sensitive Person!

highly sensitive persons st louisWhat does this mean for me?

  • Labels are everywhere.  On the one hand, it often feels good when we have a label which identifies something we’ve struggled to name for most of our lives.  There is a sort of “Eureka!!” feeling that emerges within us as we begin to be able to classify oursevles in a way that makes sense to us and gives us connection to others who are the same.  This is surely true!  On the other hand, in a culture that has tended to overvalue individuality, remember that it is easily to become somewhat quickly enamored with labels.  Try to think of HSP as a shorthand description of some things that are particularly true about you rather than an identity through which everything else should be funneled.  High sensitivity describes some of who you are, but you are SO. MUCH. MORE.  Working with someone you trust to investigate what else goes along with the label may be worth it.

  • HSP and Mental Health?  Remember, HSP describes some things that are true about you, not how they came to be true.  Some of us are born with wiring that is on the sensitive side — our genetic or otherwise physiological inborn traits may make us more sensitive than the average bear.  Sort of like some cars run a little hot, some persons run a little more sensitive.  There is nothing wrong with these cars — they just run hot.  Also, both for those persons and for others who aren’t necessarily wired for high sensitivity from birth, we may acquire even more sensitivity through traumatic events in childhood or adulthood, which may lead us into bonafide mental health disorders.  In other words, HSP’s can develop mental health problems that have a compounding effect on their existing sensitivity.  For example, one characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is increased arousal, where persons who’ve been through traumatic events may respond to situations more quickly or with more intensity than others, largely due to hypervigilance – a feeling of lack of safety and the need to be always on-guard.   There are lots of other examples (e.g., anxiety, depression, etc.), so remember, HSP’s may have in-born characteristics that co-occur regularly with mental health struggles.

Need some guidance with all of this?  We can help!

Our therapists aren’t just expert counselors – they’re agents of change!  They can help you discover how to take care of yourself as an HSP, and also, how to challenge yourself beyond the limitations of labels.  Acceptance and growth can go together!

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