By Kelsey Miller, LPC
I recently attended a training on highly sensitive people (HSP). I knew a little bit about this trait, but throughout the training I kept thinking this is so me. It can feel extremely validating and comforting knowing there are other people out there that experience intense physical and emotional responses to stimuli. Do you get overwhelmed by crowded and hectic places? Do you seem to feel more deeply than others? Do you need to withdraw and be left alone, especially after busy days? If you’re answering yes, this article may be helpful for you.
A highly sensitive person is someone who has an increased or deeper central nervous sensitivity to physical, emotional, and social stimuli. This sensitivity is both external (to surroundings and people you’re around) and internal (your own thoughts and feelings).
Being a highly sensitive person does not mean there is something wrong with you. Every trait comes with both advantages and disadvantages. As a left-handed person, don’t even get me started about how hard it is to sit in the standard right-handed desks in school. HSPs can be proud of the fact that they are highly empathetic, creative, intuitive, and aware of the needs of other people. With their strong degree of attunement to self and others, however, they may experience exhaustion, burnout, and feelings of overwhelm.
Dr. Elaine Aron, who coined the term highly sensitive person, has done extensive research and identified the following core aspects of this trait:
- Depth of Processing. HSPs take in as much information as they possibly can. This is why they tend to seem quiet and observant.
- Overstimulation. Processing deeply takes quite a bit of cognitive energy and can be quite exhausting. HSPs thrive on getting alone time, not having a busy schedule, and having a peaceful environment.
- Empathy or Emotional Reactivity. HSPs have highly active “mirror neurons,” cells in the brain that help us understand and empathize with the emotions of others. HSPs pick up on both positive and negative emotions more deeply.
- Sensory Sensitivity. HSPs are hypersensitive to the environment, to small sounds, distractions, smells, or tastes that other people are not normally aware of. It is easy to see how this may very well lead to overstimulation.
If you’re identifying with these traits or even identify as a HSP you may be thinking, What now? The answer is simple, embrace it! This is a normal trait, something that 15%-20% of the population have. If you’ve heard from others that you care too much, feel too much, or are too sensitive, the truth is that you are not “too” much of anything. You have a powerful personality trait that can be used for good. Your ability to deeply feel and empathize with the emotions of others can be instrumental. You provide your friends with encouragement, actively listen to others with different opinions, and offer compassion when it’s needed the most. Or, if you’re reading this and know a HSP, you are on the road to gaining more insight into what they are experiencing and hopefully a better appreciation for their gifts.