Are you easily startled by loud sounds? Do bright lights or strong smells impact your ability to stay focused? Can you sense a person's mood before they even tell you? Answering “yes” to these questions may be the start to uncovering if you are a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) or not.
In recent times, the phrase "Highly Sensitive Person" appears to be cropping up more and more in the media. But what exactly is it? Some may think of the shy, introverted person who struggles to socialize. Others may think it's simply someone who can't stand scratchy clothes, always has a tough time getting comfortable, and "always has his/her feelings hurt." Some of the descriptions are true of the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) but some of these can also be a loose stereotype with a rather negative connotation based on having a sensitivity. It's important to have a basic understanding of what this sensitivity is and how it may impact a person.
Discovery of the HSP
In the late 90's, author and therapist, Elaine Aron, of the book “The Highly Sensitive Person: When the World Overwhelms You,” has estimated that roughly 15-20% of the population are HSP's. (It's been studied that even some animals have a sensitivity!) Through her ongoing research about the highly sensitive, Aron has also compiled a list of questions that can help you determine if you have HSP traits. This, however, would only be the beginning of discovery for yourself and would require some more research- although, once several sensitivities are realized, many can quickly identify with the traits that are often associated with a highly sensitive person. Through Aron's work, a number of individuals have been able to take comfort in knowing they are not alone and what they are experiencing is not exactly a terrible thing, a negative aspect which may have been suggested out in a world of peers. A number of publications also now exist to help the HSP with relationships, work, and even personal strengths.
So What Exactly Does It Mean to Be Highly Sensitive?
Signs you may be an HSP may relate to how you handle stimulus in your life. You might be easily overwhelmed by being in crowds, needing time alone to recuperate from a full day of activity, sensitive to the effects of caffeine, and even noticing small nuances in your environment that others may not initially see. There are a number of ways in which a person may be highly sensitive and it may take time to realize what the sensitivities are for each person.
Understanding some of the underlying factors that play a big role in sensitivity is key to help oneself or gain support from others. It has been studied that what occurs in the highly sensitive stems from the nervous system of either being over-aroused – and sometimes under-aroused (too much stimulus or not enough.) An example of this may be when a highly sensitive person enters a crowded room. Stimulus such as how loud or bright the room is, the number of people, smells, and even personal space (bumping into others while trying to navigate through the room), can all be sensed at one time. The non-sensitive person may have little reaction to these or may not notice the noise, for example, until they realize they are struggling to hear someone talking to them. In addition, the highly sensitive person may be reacting to a past experience that was highly uncomfortable for them and entering a similar environment can serve as a trigger for over-arousal.
Having so much stimulus in one room can be distracting to the highly sensitive person and may affect their ability to have a casual conversation with another person. (For the non-sensitive to understand this it may be helpful to think about how a headache, or a painful injury can take away the focus of other things.) The HSP is absorbing all this stimulus at one time and may be seeking a way to “escape” the environment to recover from how this can feel overwhelming. Finding a quieter environment may serve to calm the nervous system and decrease the over-stimulation.
As previously noted, the term “sensitive” can also be taken as a negative thing for many people and the current culture of the US may frown upon someone being considered sensitive. In reality, it serves as quite a great benefit to those who carry the trait, as the HSP is likely to be very thorough in drawing conclusions about things. A loose example of this may be that an HSP will have completely considered all security measures very carefully (and even quickly) to an environment. They may be very thorough in completing tasks, writing, and creatively solving problems. It is very possible that some of the more well-known performers and entertainers of the world may fit the trait for a highly sensitive person as creative thinking and ability tends to be a significant part of the HSP. As well, a highly sensitive person has been also said to have a rich and complex inner life- likely due to their ability to process a large amount of information rather quickly.
Is Every HSP Shy and Introverted?
Not every highly sensitive person is shy and introverted. (At the same time, not every shy person is highly sensitive.) A percentage of highly sensitive people are actually extroverted. This can be a mind-blow for many people because the outside doesn't appear to match the inside! Because some HSP's are extroverted it can be more difficult to catch in those individuals. Some may even doubt that they are highly sensitive but realize they struggle from day to day never connecting the idea that sensitivity may be a key factor to feeling over-stressed and overwhelmed. To further note, the HSP, introverted or extroverted, may be having a difficult time because they feel they cannot keep up with the demands of everyday life the way others are able to around them. Even after a full day of leisurely activities the HSP may feel drained and struggle to attend to a dinner gathering with a group at the end of the day- and requiring some downtime rather than continued socializing because the stimulus of the day is still reeling.
For the HSP (possibly more for the introverted type) comments like “you're too sensitive” may come about from others. This also sends the message “you're not normal” or to "toughen up"- comments which can greatly impact one's self-esteem. These are all part of the concerns that the highly sensitive person lives with on a daily basis- measuring up to how the rest of the world thinks and reacts.
Is Being Highly Sensitive a Disorder?
It most definitely is NOT a disorder. Being highly sensitive is a trait. The affects of the trait are what can lead to other disorders though- such as Anxiety or Depression. Depending on their personal experiences, an HSP can live a fairly balanced life without having to manage these disorders. Again, it is dependent on the individual and their own life and experiences. However, not every highly sensitive person will be able to avoid trying to manage Anxiety and/or Depression. Oftentimes, an HSP may find that once they identify their sensitivities thoroughly, they may see a great amount of relief and live a better adjusted life. One way to approach whether or not you may be an HSP could be to consider psychotherapy with a trained professional and especially if anxiety or depression has been overwhelming.
One of the more significant ways to achieve a healthy therapeutic relationship would be to locate a therapist who has a deep, if not personal, understanding of the HSP needs. It is especially important to be mindful that other issues at hand may be contributing to anxiety and/or depression – not just one of being highly sensitive. Working with a knowledgeable therapist who is open-minded to consider the HSP trait, but also highly skilled at identifying if something more significant is causing any disruptions in your life, would be a good option.
How Will I Know if I am Highly Sensitive?
Some people may get cues from others, as mentioned previously, of often being told they are "too sensitive." Some people may not realize it until a serious mental health issue arises, such as not being able to get out of bed, have stopped going to work/school, or even spent a lengthy time avoiding people altogether. Again, it is all very individual to each person. There is no “cookie-cutter” way to determine a high sensitivity. For today, as with many other struggles, it may be helpful to stay educated about supportive options and learning more about what can help you achieve a healthy life. If you believe you have many traits suggesting a high sensitivity and you are living a well-balanced life, odds are you found a way to have your sensitivity work for you. On the other hand, if you are struggling and feel you have many HSP traits- it would not hurt to start reading about the HSP traits. (Elaine Aron's book is actually a great resource to start). If you still feel unable to meet the daily needs of your life after trying on your own, it may be helpful to get a professional opinion and support.
If you are seeking a local support, Art Therapist, Sheilagh McGreal, specializes in treatment of the Highly Sensitive Person in Rochester, NY.
Creative Pathways- Rochester Art Therapy- is devoted to helping individuals face their struggles in a supportive and gentle way. If you are considering therapy options, Art Therapy may help you achieve your personal goals and develop in-depth solutions. If you would like to learn more, please contact us today to determine how we can help.
Sheilagh is an Artist and Art Therapist who believes in healing with art and creativity.