My Introduction to High Sensitivity
When I was a child I could only handle 30 minutes to an hour in a shopping mall before I developed a stomach ache and began asking to go home. I’d feel completely drained. I can vividly remember sitting down on the floor between racks of clothing to rest—knees pulled up to my chest, arms crossed tightly over my knees—while my mom shopped.
I first discovered Dr. Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person when I was 20, and upon reading the title I immediately felt less alone in the world. But it would take me another 15 years to truly understand the deeper implications of my sensitivity. To understand that as a highly sensitive person I’m different from the majority of people. My brain works differently and so, naturally, I have different needs.
What is a Highly Sensitive Person?
“Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP) is a term that was coined in the 90’s by Dr. Elaine Aron to describe a subset of the population that have a lesser acknowledged form of neurodivergence called, Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS). I use the terms sensitivity, high sensitivity, and sensory processing sensitivity interchangeably throughout this blog.
The term Highly Sensitive Person is also often used interchangeably with the more colloquially term “empath.” Although technically HSPs and empaths are distinct categories, there’s a significant amount of overlap between the two—namely, that both groups are impacted by the energy of others.
High Sensitivity is an innate temperament trait that is expressed as an awareness of subtleties in the environment as well as a potential to be overwhelmed by too much stimuli. This enhanced perception is due to differences in the brain of those with sensory processing sensitivity, exhibiting a strategy of processing information especially deeply. In other words, HSPs are highly perceptive. And due to perceiving more subtlety at any given time than the non-sensitive majority, they also naturally hit their sensory threshold—and need time to rest and withdraw in order to recuperate—more quickly than the non-sensitive.
High Sensitivity as a Survival Strategy
High Sensitivity has been found in over 100 species, including dogs, cats, primates, horses, and even fruit flies, and sensitivity is found in equal numbers across genders. Biologists have found that there are two general survival strategies in animals that give rise to two innate personality types. These two types are called by several different names, including bold vs. shy and responsive vs. unresponsive. 80% of humans, and other animals, fall into the bold/responsive type, while the other 20% are the highly sensitive (Aron & Aron, 2010).
According to Dr. Aaron, the survival strategy of the non-sensitive majority is to move quickly and forcefully toward feeding or mating opportunities without much observation beforehand. Whereas the sensitive minority evolved an approach centered around avoiding risks by carefully observing the subtleties in their surroundings before making moves. Both strategies have merit and can be successful, depending on the situation at hand.
The more sensitive strategy of scanning the environment and noticing and making sense of subtle details, leads to traits that HSPs are known for, like high levels of conscientiousness and creativity. It also leads to a greater potential for sensory overload and being overwhelmed by stressful life experiences.
Highly Sensitivity is Not a Mental Illness
Highly Sensitive People are deep thinkers and deep feelers who’ve often sensed their difference from a young age, and most remember being told they were “too sensitive.” But high sensitivity is not a mental health diagnosis. There are some sensitive people who have diagnosable disorders, just as some non-sensitive people do. But most do not, just like most non-sensitive people do not.
However, highly sensitive people have been found to be more deeply impacted by their childhood environment—both positively and negatively. For this reason, highly sensitive children have been referred to as “orchids,” because much like HSPs, orchids do exceptionally well in ideal conditions and exceptionally badly in poor ones. Children who test low for sensitivity are referred to as “dandelions” because they are less sensitive to environmental quality and therefore, exhibit resiliency anywhere. There’s evidence of a third group who fall into a medium level of sensitivity, that researchers called “tulips” (Read the study here).
Because HSPs are more sensitive to their environments, those who had difficult childhoods are more vulnerable in adulthood to depression, anxiety, and shyness than their non-sensitive counterparts, but they also appear to benefit more from good childhoods. Those with sensory processing sensitivity are simply more deeply impacted by their experiences—both good and bad—due to their depth of processing.
An illness is something that we seek to fix or change. High sensitivity is not something that can be eliminated with treatment, nor would we want to because it’s advantageous in many contexts. Highly Sensitive People benefit greatly from learning about the traits of high sensitivity and learning how to use these traits to their advantage.
High Sensitivity is Not Autism
Sensory Processing Sensitivity is not the same as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It’s also not the same as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).
ASD is characterized by two primary diagnostic features: 1. Persistent impairment in reciprocal social communication and social interaction, and 2. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th Edition). HSPs do not have impairments when it comes to social reciprocity and social interaction. In fact, quite the opposite: most HSPs are highly attuned to social cues, commonly HSPs have an above average capacity for empathy due to heightened mirror neuron systems, and have average to excellent social skills, especially in a familiar environment.
HSPs also do not struggle with restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. The sensitivity in ASD and SPD is due to faulty use of sensory information. Sensitivity in HSPs is due to processing sensory information at deeper levels, and as HSPs mature they typically become increasingly skilled at coping with and reducing levels of stimulation (Aron & Aron, 2010).
High Sensitivity is Not the Result of Complex Trauma
Research has shown that high sensitivity is an innate trait—something that one is born with. As mentioned above, high sensitivity has been found across many species in approximately the same percentages as in humans. Research has also shown that trauma history has no bearing on whether one displays the characteristics of HSPs or not—many HSPs had “good enough” childhoods.
While high sensitivity is not thought to be the result of trauma, those who are highly sensitive have been found to be more deeply impacted by traumatic events in childhood, as mentioned above, due to deep processing, deep thinking, and deep feeling.
Highly “Sensitive” or Highly Perceptive?
The word “sensitivity” holds a lot of cultural connotations—many of them not positive. And while I’m all about challenging that paradigm and embracing sensitivity in myself and others, another way of talking about what it means to be highly sensitive (in the specific context of Highly Sensitive People) is perceptivity. As mentioned above, Highly Sensitive People are highly perceptive people.
HSPs are “sensitive” because they’re perceiving more data and they’re processing what they are perceiving more thoroughly. Perceptivity and deep consideration of what is being perceived often leads to more awareness and deeper understanding. Just something to remind yourself of the next time you’re feeling insecure about your sensitivity!
Looking for an Online Therapist in Kansas?
Do you identify as highly sensitive? Learn to embrace your sensitivity and harness your superpowers as an HSP. As an HSP specialist, I love helping fellow HSPs learn to live a life that respects their highly sensitive nature.
My Lawrence, Kansas counseling practice specializes in providing therapy for codependency, therapy for anxiety, therapy for self-esteem, therapy for Highly Sensitive People, and grief and bereavement counseling. I help people overcome shame and the fear of being their true selves. Breaking the cycles of people pleasing and self-abandonment is possible, and I'm here to help.
I offer online counseling throughout Kansas. Reach out today to schedule your free 15 minute phone consultation. I'd love to hear from you!
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