Understanding a Highly Sensitive Person

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Sometimes with mental health conditions, it seems there are vast differences between grown-up children who experienced the same dysfunctional family life during childhood.

This can be conveyed as someone saying something like: “But your brother/sister seems fine, so why are you struggling so much?”

This is an understandable viewpoint. But, firstly, some people are better at hiding their internal struggles than others.

For instance, a workaholic who might be financially successful with all the material trappings to show usually has a less obvious problem than an alcoholic or drug addict.

Secondly, everyone is born with different levels of sensitivity. For a sensitive child, for example, getting regularly raged at by a furious parent is extremely more disturbing than for a less sensitive child – and they will consequently be more damaged by it on a long-term basis.

Some people who are sensitive in this way are often derided or even bullied for their sensitivity. They can be accused of being “too sensitive” or that they “think too much”; they might be called daydreamers, a loser or a weak person.

But it could be that they have a personality trait that makes them a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).

This means that they have an increased sensitivity to emotional, social and/or physical stimuli – and this can actually be both negative and positive to their lives.

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What is HSP?

As a term, Highly Sensitive Person was first used by psychologists Elaine and Arthur Aron during the 1990s. Bestselling recovery book The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You by Elaine Aron, herself an HSP, was published in 1996.

Since then an increasing number of people have identified with this character trait.

In fact, singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette said: “I wept through almost every page of this book out of sheer self-recognition. To say this book changed my life would be an understatement.”

Someone who is an HSP will have a much more powerful and deeper emotional life than the majority of other people.

Elaine and Arthur Aron stated that “sensory processing sensitivity” or SPS was the defining trait of HSPs.

A person with an especially high SPS measure is said to be an HSP, sometimes also described as someone who has “hypersensitivity”.

The Arons and their colleagues believe that people with high SPS make up around 15 to 20 per cent of the population. However, a high SPS personality trait and being an HSP are not considered mental health disorders.

What are the major signs of being a Highly Sensitive Person

For someone who is an HSP, emotional lows are usually lower than for most people. But emotional highs can be much higher. It can make for an emotional rollercoaster.

An HSP will most likely be overwhelmed by stimuli much more quickly and/or frequently than is usual for others. They will often be swiftly affected by other people’s moods.

They will get very nervous if somebody is competing with or observing them, and they are more easily startled than is considered normal. They will frequently feel the need to find a quiet place where they have their own privacy and space.

They can suffer from stress much more intensely than the majority of other people. This is thought to be because not only do they get stressed more easily, but due to the fact that they sense more things to get stressed about.

This is because they can sense hostility in situations when people who are not highly sensitive cannot perceive anything.

An HSP can also get stressed about having too much to do at a certain time. They can swiftly feel extremely overwhelmed.

Highly sensitive people also sense the needs of others, often almost immediately and certainly ahead of most other people. Many are perfectionists: they cannot bear the thought of being criticized.

They might be people-pleasers too. This is because they detest feeling as if they are letting anyone down – and so they often say “yes” when they really mean to say “no”.

This can lead to them being extremely self-critical, which they most likely are a lot of the time anyway. To a large and often overwhelming extent, they feel responsible for other people’s happiness.

They also swiftly feel embarrassed. Self-doubt is a huge problem for many HSPs.

No compromise in a relationship

Frequently, they will get very stressed by confrontation. They seem to sense when something is amiss in this way before other people do: an HSP can feel a confrontation is coming.

They become swiftly stressed too around social comparison. This is because of their own feelings, but also as they often feel the feelings of others towards them too.

An HSP can find it very difficult to concentrate. This is because distractions around them are stronger: smells, noises, lights, movement and so on.

When they watch something on television it can really affect them. So something sad or emotional can really grab at their insides. They can be similarly affected by music/song lyrics, art, poetry, a showing of the human spirit, animals or beauty in nature.

HSPs are deep thinkers. Sometimes this level of thinking can seem too much

One way of looking to stop this is to turn to drink and drugs. Or a behavior that might also become addictive – and so be a behavioral addiction.

It might sound as if everything is negative about being highly sensitive. But in fact, experiencing what are widely considered to be negative emotions can help us as people. 

For instance, allowing ourselves to feel sad and let the tears flow rather than fighting it and never crying can be beneficial. This is because it can help us to process and get perspective on something that we are upset about in life.

Resisting our emotions causes much worse problems in the long-term. So in many ways letting our emotions out is a courageous thing to do, and means we are being true to ourselves.

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How does someone know if they are an HSP?

There is no official HSP diagnosis. But psychologists Elaine and Arthur Aron have developed a Highly Sensitive Person questionnaire to help.

Known as Aron’s Highly Sensitive Persons Scale (HSPS), it has around 25 questions to answer. It can be found here: https://hsperson.com/test/highly-sensitive-test/       

There are also similar personality traits and mental health conditions to those experienced by an HSP. These are often confused, so a professional diagnosis is always encouraged.

For instance, introverts share many similar traits to HSPs. But an introvert’s sensitivity is almost always connected to people, such as feeling overwhelmed in crowded places.

People with autism usually have high sensitivity. But there are many other aspects of autism that are not traits of an HSP.

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is also easily mistaken for HSP. However, SPD can cause under-responsiveness to sensory stimuli and decreased motor function too, both of which are not characteristic of someone who is an HSP.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and HSPs also share similar characteristics, but they are different conditions with other different aspects.

That is not to say that someone diagnosed with ADHD cannot also be an HSP, and the same applies to introverts as well as those diagnosed with autism or SPD.

The Lost Child

How does HSP start?

Most likely the innate nature of someone plays a part. Just in the same way that some people are naturally more extroverted than most others, so we are all born with different sensitivity levels.

However, nurture plays a significant role as well. A deeply thoughtful child with intense feelings who grows up in a family that does not understand this powerful inner force is going to feel confused as to who they are because their feelings will frequently be ignored, discouraged or even ridiculed.

They might be made fun of or accused of being frail, abnormal or slow. So they will learn to keep their emotions and thoughts inside.

This child will grow up feeling that those who are closest to them do not actually understand or approve of them. Likewise, they will not understand their family and their family’s ways.

They feel different, an outsider in their own family. They may be seen as the “black sheep” of the family.

This is all made even worse by their increased sensitivity. It is amplified – and they can often feel quite alone.

Their intense feelings and sensitivity are usually dismissed in some way. So they can feel guilty and ashamed of their true self.

A lack of parental emotional warmth, love and/or trauma while growing up may be something that brings on high sensitivity. The child grows into an HSP.

So it could be that someone has a propensity for being an HSP. Then it is brought on during their childhood.

Particularly in the case of trauma, someone may develop higher sensitivity. This is so that they are aware and ready for any new trauma.

It is also thought that genetics can play a part, as well as learned behavior. It could be connected to dopamine, a compound present in the body as a neurotransmitter that’s a precursor of adrenaline.

Thankfully, there are many effective coping mechanisms for an HSP. This includes ways to manage stress and anxiety.

Also, identifying triggers and learning specific ways to deal with them if they do occur. Gentle exercise helps many HSPs too, especially if it’s in nature.

Our vastly experienced therapists at Tikvah Lake have treated people with every type of mental health condition and emotional problem.

Get in touch with us to speak with a member of our friendly team about how we can help you or someone you care about, starting today.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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