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What does it mean to be highly sensitive?

Updated: Mar 1, 2022

Do you find yourself feeling easily overwhelmed? Do you notice being more susceptible to external stimuli like sounds or smells? Do you feel you need extra time to process things? Do other people’s moods affect you? Are you moved deeply by works of art or music? Have you ever been called “shy” or “too sensitive”?

If you answered yes to any of these questions you might be a highly sensitive person.

High sensitivity is an innate trait (meaning you are born with it) that approximately 20% of people across all populations exhibit. It is a relatively newly researched trait and is often misunderstood. It is NOT a disorder, disability or deficit. It is simply a characteristic, that means that you process sensory data more deeply than most.

The term was coined by Dr. Elaine Aron in the early 90s. She used the acronym DOES to highlight the main qualities of the trait. D stands for depth of processing; people feel things on a deeper level and process stimuli more thoroughly. O stands for overstimulation. Highly sensitive people, HSPs can get more easily overstimulated in their environments. E stands for emotional responsiveness/empathy. HSPs react more to both positive and negative experiences and are also able to understand the feelings of others more easily.. S stands for sensitive to subtle stimuli, HSPs often notice the little things that others might miss.

I myself am a highly sensitive person, many therapists are. I have come to learn more about the trait and see it as a gift, something that benefits me and my clients, and also something that I have to keep in mind in terms of my own self-care. I know that I can more deeply attune with those around me, I am sensitive to not just the words my clients say but the way they say it, their body language and their emotions. I am able to have greater empathy and be present with my clients in a meaningful way. I also know that I need to manage my schedule and not have too much going on in one day so I don’t get overworked, and I need to take time to myself in nature or in silence to recharge more than others might.

I’ll be the first to admit that at times being HSP can feel hard. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by an emotion and I can’t just ignore it, I have to take the time to process my emotions in order to move past them, and that isn’t easy work. I sometimes wish that being in a crowded and loud room didn’t make me want to hide, and I could certainly do without the inevitable tears that come when I watch those emotional videos of animals online. Feeling all the feelings in this day and age means often being overwhelmed. But there are ways to cope with and manage these feelings. They don’t have to take over your life.

There are plenty of advantages of being highly sensitive. HSPs tend to be highly creative, conscientious, and aware. They feel more deeply, they have a stronger connection with animals and nature, they are interested in deeper and more meaningful conversations and relationships and they make great friends/partners.

Many HSPs have been told they are Too sensitive or Too much. They have been told to “just cheer up” or “get over it already”. Our culture tends to look down on those who are emotional. Crying is seen as a weakness and it starts from a young age, especially with boys (who by the way are just as likely to be high sensitive). Being highly sensitive can sometimes make people feel insecure, like there is something wrong with them and it can be an isolating experience. My hope is that more people will learn about the trait and be able to identify it in themselves and those they love; to learn that it is not a disability and that with more awareness people can find ways to embrace the trait and even benefit from their unique qualities.

I love working with highly sensitive clients. I do a lot of education in my work with clients about the trait and ways to find the good and manage the not-so-good. I’ve heard from my clients that by acknowledging the trait and talking about it with a caring HSP therapist, they have been able to be more accepting and connect to their strengths.

If you are wondering if you might be a highly sensitive person I encourage you to take the self-test on Dr. Elaine Aron's website

You can also find a list of HSP trained therapists on her website.

You don’t have to work with a therapist who is an HSP but it can be helpful for your therapist to have some knowledge about the trait.

I currently have openings in my practice and love working with highly sensitive

teens and adults. If you have more questions about the trait or are interested in a free 15 minute consultation to find out how working with me might be helpful you can call me at 510-877-0711 or send a secure message via the contact me page on my website.

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