In my therapy practise, I specialize in working with Highly Sensitive People (or HSPs). Many clients come to see me with labels like, “depressed” and/or “anxious.” Rarely, have they ever considered themselves as ‘highly sensitive’ which, I believe, is a more positive – as well as accurate – way to describe their personalities.
The term “Highly Sensitive Person” comes from a fabulous book I highly recommend called, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You (Broadway Books: New York. 1999). The author is a psychologist named Elaine N. Aron.
In short, Ms. Aron explains in her well researched and beautifully written book that 15-20% of the population is “highly sensitive”. These are the folks who are often given the clinical diagnoses of “depression” and/or “anxiety disorder.” I’m not ashamed to say I’m one of them myself. What does being “highly sensitive” (or HSP for short) mean you ask? In short, it means that 15-20% of us have highly attuned nervous systems. I describe this state as “wearing your skin inside out”- we are like cats with big whiskers that reach far out and our ‘antennae’ are always “on”. Aron calls this a “difference in arousability” in that HSPs notice levels of stimulation that go unobserved by others. This can be a plus as HSPs tend to be visionaries, highly intuitive artists, or inventors, as well as more conscientious, cautious, and wise people.
On the down side, being highly sensitive means being stimulated more intensely by everything around one which can often feel overwhelming. Ms. Aron puts it this way: “What is moderately arousing for most people is highly arousing for HSPs. What is highly arousing for most people causes an HSP to become very frazzled indeed…until they reach a shutdown point” (p. 7).
Many of my HSP clients describe situations in which they feel frazzled and overwhelmed. For example, one woman described working as a teacher all day at an elementary school and coming home feeling frazzled and worn out. She said she just needed a night in with the phone off and curled up with a good book. When she woke up the next morning, she felt that her batteries had been recharged and was ready to face another day. Her non-HSP colleagues found this odd as they recharge their batteries by going out after work with their friends and shooting some pool and listening to loud music. That’s a big difference between HSPs and non-HSP’s- they recharge their batteries in completely different ways- the former by retreating and being quiet and the latter by going out and being in a group with lots of outside stimulation (like loud music).
Here is Elaine Aron’s self-test from her book (pp. xxi and xxii) for determining whether you are an HSP. If you answer true to 12 or more of the questions, you’re probably highly sensitive. If this is the case, I highly recommend you read Ms. Aron’s book(s) to learn how to thrive in the world being an HSP.
True or false?
- I seem to be aware of subtleties in my environment.
- Other people’s moods affect me.
- I tend to be very sensitive to pain.
- I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or into a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation.
- I am particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine.
- I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by.
- I have rich, complex inner life.
- I am made uncomfortable by loud noises.
- I am deeply moved by the arts or music.
- I am conscientious.
- I startle easily.
- I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time.
- When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment I tend to know what needs to be done to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating).
- I am annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once.
- I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things.
- I make it a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows.
- I become unpleasantly aroused when a lot is going on around me.
- Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration or mood.
- Changes in my life shake me up.
- I notice and enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, works of art.
- I make it a high priority to arrange my life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations.
- When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse that I would otherwise.
- When I was a child, my parents or teachers seemed to see me as sensitive or shy.