Are you a Highly Sensitive Person?

Are you a Highly Sensitive Person?

Article on high sensitivity, how to recognize it and tips for handling it.

For many years I have said that one of my greatest gifts, and curses, is that I’m highly sensitive. My feelings get hurt easily, I need to make sure I eat at regular intervals, my system is thrown off by disruptions in routine, I can’t handle too much noise, crowds are a nightmare and my skin requires me to be incredibly careful when I pick fabrics, shampoos, laundry soap and creams. An amount of my life is dedicated to managing my sensitivity. On the positive side, I am highly creative and imaginative, I am usually acutely aware of what is going around me, have great insights into how others feel, and a deep well of empathy—all of which serve me well as an artist, educator, personal coach and counselling hypnotist.

Truthfully, I never realized this level of sensitivity wasn’t normal, or that I was unconsciously in constant "sensitivity management mode", until read the work of Dr. Elaine Aron, on Sensory-Processing Sensitivity (SPS), or, in layman’s terms, “high sensitivity”. Then, as they say, the light bulbs went on.

According to Dr. Aron, 10-15% of the population are highly sensitive. Another 20% are very sensitive. Dr. Aron believes that high sensitivity is a personality trait like introversion. It is normal, natural and not something you "get over" (something we highly sensitive people are told all the time--just get over it.) And, most importantly, highly sensitive people have needs that "ordinary" sensitivity people don't always understand. It's similar to the way extroverts don't always "get" introverts.

One of the things I’ve observed, through both my personal work and my work with students and clients, is that when we are under extreme stress, dealing with a significant issue, or health conditions, most people exhibit signs, even if only temporarily, of “high sensitivity”. However, highly sensitive people live this way all of the time. And, according to Dr. Aron, highly sensitive people (HSP) are potentially more prone to certain health conditions such as anxiety, depression and stress related problems. This explained a great deal about what I was seeing in my clients. The areas I specialize in tend to be the exact conditions HSP are more likely to face.

So what is sensory-processing sensitivity? According to Dr. Aron, high sensitivity is characterized by the ability to pick up more delicate sensory nuances then “ordinary” sensitivity people. So, you know how dogs can hear sounds outside the range of the human ear? Well, you could say HSP pick up sensory details outside of the range of non-HSP perception. Basically, HSP sense things others may not be aware of. As a result, the nervous systems of HSP are responding to more input all of the time! No wonder we sometimes get exhausted, overloaded and overwhelmed! We are processing more information all of the time. It is often even worse for highly sensitive children then it is for adults.

On the surface, it appears that HSP can handle fewer stressors than others. But the truth is, they are always handling more. More information is always being taken in and processed. In our fast-paced world, HSP are overloaded. The other thing I have personally noticed is that HSP don't seem to become "desensitized" the way others do. Everything is full blast all of the time. Sometimes, in that overwhelm, HSP begin to shut down as a way of managing the sensory overload.

Characteristics of HSP’s

Below are some of the characteristics of HSP’s. For more details, you may want to visit Dr. Aron’s website or purchase her book, The Highly Sensitive Person. HSP have some or all of these traits:

• High sensitivity to pain

• Aware of subtleties in the environment

• Affected by other people’s moods

• Need alone time

• Need amounts of quiet

• Sensitive to noise and crowds

• Startle easily

• Can become overloaded or stress with demands and pressure

• Deeply moved by art

• Imaginative and creative

• Have a rich inner life

• Disturbed by pictures or discussions of violence and cruelty

There are more traits then those listed above. And of course, you can have the above traits and not be highly sensitive. To determine if you are a highly sensitive person you can take the “self-test” in Dr. Aron’s book or on her website. You are also welcome to contact me. I specialize in working with HSP!

The Anxiety Ah-Ha!

One of the reasons I specialize in working with people with anxiety and intense stress, is because I have also spent a life-time dealing with what I call my “stress-spin”. Today, the situation has to be pretty negative and drastic for me to enter the spin, but unfortunately, I’m not immune to it—yet. One of the powerful insights I received from Dr. Aron’s work is that anxiety is often a common problem for HSP. However, much of what is labeled anxiety is actually overstimulation. When HSP become overloaded with sensory input, their nervous systems are processing more sensory input than can be managed at once. Their nervous system, in essence, short-circuits, and they enter the stress-spin.

I found this insight powerful because years ago I began to distinguish between what was really fear and what was what I refer to as “my change agitation”. This agitation usually showed up several weeks before a significant event. It is characterized by a huge amount of restless energy that wanted to move into action--even though I didn't know what action to take. It took me some time to discover this pent up energy feeling wasn’t fear or anxiety, but anticipation of an unknown event, or a response to too many incoming signals from my environment.

When I work with anxiety clients, we spend some time learning to distinguish between what is actual fear and what is simply overstimulation, or like me, a form of intuition. If you struggle with anxiety, you might be interested in my free webinar “If It’s Not Anxiety, What Is It? Which explores the seven “pretenders” that can masquerade as anxiety.

Managing High Sensitivity

As I mentioned earlier, I have observed that many non-HSPs exhibit traits of HSPs when they are recovering from illness, traumas or difficult life events. As they recover, their sensitivity returns to normal. While they are recovering, it can be helpful to use some of the techniques recommended for HSP.

However, HSP need to manage their sensitivity for life. I was thrilled as I read Dr. Aron’s work to discover how many of her tips I had already figured-out for myself and (even better) was already sharing with my clients.

The biggest thing to remember is that high sensitivity is not something you can just "get over". It is something that must be managed. If you are a highly sensitive person, you may need to develop lifestyle habits that help you manage your sensitivity and reduce the constant bombardment of external input.

Top Ten Tips for Managing High Sensitivity

1. Alone time is a must. Schedule some in every week/day

2. Quite time is a must. Spend some time every day without the TV, radio, or other "noise" in the background

3. Do less. Because HSP take in more information all of the time, they are always doing more. We need to compensate for that by putting "less on our plates".

4. Get lots of rest. HSP need more sleep than ordinary sensitivity people.

5. Time in nature. Time in nature away from all the "hidden" stimulation like Wi-Fi, microwaves and electrical magnetic currents is very helpful for HSP--especially being near running water like rivers or waterfalls.

6. Meditation or hypnosis. These tools allow HSP to go inward and "reset" their nervous systems. Hypnosis is an especially good modality for HSP.

7. Message or other body work. Massage or other forms of body work remove stress from the body and allow the nervous system to relax and calm.

8. Take frequent breaks. Your system needs to come back into balance. Frequent breaks will actually increase productivity.

9. Create good boundaries. It's easy for HSP to pick up other's distress and feel so much empathy that it appears as a responsibility to help solve problems and situations that are not their responsibility. This also becomes the foundation for learning to shut-out over stimulation from the environment.

10. High Sensitivity cannot be changed. If you are highly sensitive, it is part of what makes you wonderful and who you are. Find a way to accept your sensitivity and work with it. You can learn how to harness your sensitivity. When you do, it is a wonderful gift that will serve you and your loved ones well.

If you think you might be a highly sensitive person, you are welcome to contact me through my website , and I would be happy to share my own experience with you. I also highly recommend Dr. Aron's book, The Highly Sensitive Person.