Does any of this sound like you?
You feel everything deeply and often have strong emotions
You tend to get overwhelmed easily by stress at work or in relationships
You withdraw/isolate when you’re overwhelmed, perhaps retreating to solitude or a public bathroom to cry or regroup
You are a perfectionist or people-pleaser, and can be strongly self-critical
You are more impacted by busy places/large crowds, hot/cold temperatures, scratchy fabrics or tags, loud noises, or strong smells than other people
You struggle with changes/transitions and making decisions (especially under time pressure)
You need alone time to decompress after a busy day or social outing
You struggle to let go of things that have happened or been said, chewing it over a long time
You frequently feel worried, anxious or emotionally exhausted and don’t know why
You have trouble getting to sleep because of everything on your mind
You may be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)
Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. High sensitivity, or Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), is a completely normal trait that occurs in 15-20% of the population and has been well researched and documented by Dr. Elaine Aron and many others. It is not a disorder or diagnosis, but rather a normal trait that occurs naturally as part of a person’s inborn temperament.
It exists not only in humans, but across all other species studied, and is believed to be perpetuated because it is helpful for survival from an evolutionary standpoint. (Every tribe needs some members who can pick up on potential dangers and subtitles - like good food sources - that others miss).
What is a highly sensitive person?
Each highly sensitive person is unique and has their own areas, or brand if you will, of sensitivity. But the research shows that there are four characteristics commonly shared by all HSPs. They are represented by the acronym D.O.E.S.
D - Depth of Processing
Depth of Processing is one of the foundations of the HSP trait. Research studies using fMRI brain scans have shown that when exposed to the same stimuli, highly sensitive people’s brains became more activated that non-highly sensitive people’s brains - showing a greater depth of processing of the same information. This depth of processing can lead to careful consideration of all possibilities, sometimes resulting in taking longer to make a decision or pausing longer before taking action or replying to a question.
O - Overstimulation
Because 80% - 85% of the population are not highly sensitive, the world we live in is not always designed for our finely tuned nervous systems (think: loud/busy cities, fast-paced or high-pressure work/school environments, etc). Things that register as a 1 on the scale of a non-HSP might be more like a 10 on the scale of an HSP. What this means is that HSPs can be more susceptible to overstimulation and overwhelm because we pick up on so much more and process it more deeply.
E - Emotionally Responsive / Empathetic
HSPs feel deeply and react more strongly to emotional experiences - both the positive and the negative. What this means is that our environment is very important because we are more impacted by our surroundings (people and places) than others. But fear not, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: research shows that we have the capacity to excel beyond many non-HSPs if given a positive environment to thrive in.
Brain scans have also shown a higher level of activity for HSPs in the parts of the brain that help us relate to other people’s emotions, meaning that HSPs have a higher capacity for empathy.
S - Sensing Subtleties
HSPs pick up on subtle details that others miss (like little changes in our surroundings, or non-verbal cues from other people, etc.). We are also more impacted by sensory input like strong smells, bright lights, loud noises (intense startle responses are common), itchy fabrics, hot or cold temperatures, and hunger.
Common Challenges for Highly Sensitive People (HSPs)
Given how much we pick up on everything around us and our tendency to process things deeply, it’s easy for HSPs to become overwhelmed or emotionally exhausted. Some common challenges that HSPs may face if we haven’t been given the proper tools and emotion-regulation techniques are:
Anxiety and Depression
Shyness or Social Anxiety
Dislike of small-talk or surface-level relationships
Intense emotions (both good and bad)
Difficulty with changes / transitions or making decisions
Feeling misunderstood / isolated / alone
Stress from work or school
Not prioritizing ourselves or setting healthy boundaries / limits with others (e.g., saying “no”)
Don’t worry, it’s not all bad - Being an HSP is a gift!
“Highly sensitive” can sometimes have a negative connotation in our society, but it does not mean that you are weak or broken in any way. And you don’t need to “toughen up”. HSP’s simply have a more finely tuned nervous system than the rest of the population, allowing us (yes, I am one too) to pick up on and deeply process information/stimuli that doesn’t even register for most people.
This can actually be a gift, once an HSP knows how to work with it. There are lots of benefits to being highly sensitive. We tend to be:
Smart, intuitive and perceptive, often noticing nuances that others miss
Highly empathetic, compassionate and considerate of others’ feelings
Creative in one or more areas of life (art, music, writing, problem solving, etc.)
Deeply moved by art or nature & connected to animals
Quick learners and deep thinkers
It’s really more like a superpower, once you learn how to harness it.
What if you could…
Learn to manage your strong emotions without getting overwhelmed or withdrawing
Get off the emotional roller coaster and stay calm even when things feel intense
Stop worrying and feeling stressed so your natural intelligence can shine through
Choose when you want to let something go so that you can fall asleep more easily or relax
Stop feeling like you’re broken, have to hide your sensitivity or “toughen up”
Learn how to work with your sensitivity so that you can improve your relationships
Embrace your sensitivity and find your unique gifts / strengths so they can work for you!
What does therapy / coaching look like for HSPs?
Many people have never head of the trait of high sensitivity until we begin working together, so I often start by providing as much information and resources about the trait as possible. A lot of times clients will come to me feeling like they are “just different” or there is “something wrong with them”. So, learning about what the trait of high sensitivity actually means will dispel a lot of the myths and lies that Western society feeds us about sensitivity. You do not need to be fixed!
That being said, there may be some areas of your life where not knowing how to manage your sensitivity is getting in the way (e.g., you experience stress, anxiety, depression, etc.). That is very common, because our society doesn’t go a great job of understanding - let alone teaching - people about sensitivity and how to manage it. I work with each client to identify what your challenges are and teach you how to manage your sensitivity so that it no longer leads to overstimulation that gets in the way of your life or work.
Learning to work with your sensitivity can take many forms, and we will assess together which are the best fit for you. I often teach clients mindfulness / awareness practices to help create a greater understanding of emotions and patterns in their lives that might not be working, and then we add on skills and techniques for handling things more effectively. Don’t worry, this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to practice formal seated meditation!
I incorporate many different methodologies into my practice, including using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to work with negative thought patterns, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) to work with strong emotions, and nature-based techniques for calming the nervous system.
You always have choice about how we approach your treatment and I work collaboratively with my clients to figure out what works best for each person. If you want to learn more and get a personalized plan, sign up for a free consultation call below to explore your options.
Now, I know you may still have some concerns or questions about therapy and coaching for HSPs…
Does Being an HSP mean that I’m weaker than other people?
Absolutely not!!! In fact, given the amount of sensory data you’re processing, integrating, and responding to, I’d say it actually means you’re stronger in many ways. There is a misguided notion in Western cultures that having or showing strong emotions somehow makes a person weak. You may have had people say things to you like, “You’re too sensitive”, “Just shrug it off”, “You just need to grow a thicker skin”, “Don’t be such a sissy/cry baby”, or “Why are you making such a big deal out of this?”.
People who say things like that to an HSP likely do so because they don’t understand what it’s like to notice and be impacted by so many things. Being an HSP is like being a very sensitive metal detector: it’s exactly what you want when you’re trolling for treasure on the bottom of the ocean…but if you bring that same metal detector into New York City without putting a protective casing on it, then it will go off constantly because it’s picking up on SO MUCH STIMULI!
Being able to sense subtleties that others miss can be a huge advantage, which is why evolution continues to perpetuate the trait. And once you learn how to manage all the input, there will be no limit to what you can do with your newfound superpower!
Is High Sensitivity the Same as Sensory Processing Disorder, Autism or being gifted?
No. Being a Highly Sensitive Person is not a disorder, it’s a completely normal biological trait, just like having red hair or blue eyes. Approximately 1 in 5 people will possess the trait of high sensitivity, or what is sometimes referred to as Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) in the research. It is different from Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and being gifted. There may appear to be some similarities on the surface, but research on the brain shows very different underlying neurological processes.
People with SPD, Autism, or gifted individuals will often appear to be sensitive to certain stimuli/environments, much like highly sensitive people, and they may have “meltdowns” when they are overstimulated. However, they also typically struggle to read social cues, understand implied meanings, and foster empathy for others - all areas in which HSPs excel.
If you have further questions about you or your teen’s situation, I’d be happy to discuss them in more depth on a free consult call.
If being an HSP is so common, why haven’t I heard about it until now?
The term HSP was originally coined by Dr. Elaine Aron, a psychologist, in her 1996 book The Highly Sensitive Person. Prior to Dr. Aron’s research on highly sensitive people, different aspects of the trait were researched under different names, most of which focused on negative aspects of the trait like shyness or social inhibitedness. However, she was the first to distill down and be able to identify a unique trait that unified all the disparate characteristics previously studied, and also included the gifts.
Since then, research on HSPs has drastically increased, showing higher levels of brain activation in tasks involving sensing subtlties, feeling empathy, and many other areas. But it takes a long time for research to reach the mainstream culture, so there are still many misconceptions and myths about highly sensitive people. We are sometimes pejoratively referred to as, “shy”, “weak”, “cry-babies”, “awkward”, or “too sensitive” by people who don’t truly understand what it means to be an HSP.
In some eastern cultures, HSPs are more revered and sought-after by their peers for their empathy, good listening skills and ability to function in community. But in most western cultures, where competition and capitalism are king, the trait of high sensitivity is often undervalued. Western society is slowly coming around to recognizing the value of soft skills like empathy though - skills that come naturally to HSPs.
My mission is to spread awareness about the trait of high sensitivity so that people who are highly sensitive, or people who are a parent/teacher of or partner to a highly sensitive person, truly understand the trait and all of the gifts it can bring when the overwhelming aspects are accounted for and managed.
I’m an extrovert, can i still be an hsp?
Absolutely! In fact, research shows that 30% of all HSPs are extroverts. This may seem confusing because many highly sensitive people tend to be introverted and value their alone time. But being highly sensitive and being extroverted aren’t mutually exclusive.
Extroverted HSPs will often need decompression time after a busy day too or can be overstimulated by social interactions, despite also feeling energized by them. This can seem difficult to manage at first, because you may be drawn to highly stimulating activities or social situations, but then feel somewhat overwhelmed or exhausted by them because of the onslaught of sensory input. This is completely normal for an extroverted HSP and I can teach you how balance the needs of being both extroverted and highly sensitive.
Want to manage overwhelm so your gifts shine through?
I have worked with many, many highly sensitive adults and teens to help them manage the challenges of sensitivity so that their natural gifts shine through and they can lead happier, more balanced lives. Schedule a free consult call today to see how your life could be different with less overwhelm & more energy for what you love.
Sensitive & Strong: An HSP Survival Guide
Concrete tools for managing overwhelm & creating balance