Perhaps you’re familiar with the term “highly sensitive person,” or HSP. If not, your mind probably jumps to someone you know who gets their feelings hurt easily, or takes everything personally.But, the term “highly sensitive” actually describes a person who is strongly affected by sensory input. Part of their reaction can include their emotions, but their response is rooted in the way their brain processes stimuli. They tend to take everything in, having a heightened awareness of their environment and other input.
In 1996, psychologist Elaine Aron published her groundbreaking book, The Highly Sensitive Person, and the book has only gained in popularity, selling almost a million copies.
Aron describes an HSP as someone with “sensory processing sensitivity,” or SPS, a neural trait that exists in as many as one in five people. Someone with SPS reacts to stimuli more often, and processes it more exhaustively, than the average person. Because of this high level of processing, sensory input is more tiring and overwhelming for HSPs.
Signs of a Highly Sensitive Person
According to Aron’s website, these are some specific traits you might notice in yourself or someone else with sensory processing sensitivity:
You notice things other people miss.
It’s harder to filter out distractions. You are constantly aware of your environment and of the emotions, words, and behavior of people around you.
You experience intense emotions.
Both your positive and negative emotions tend to be strong. You might feel that you are more emotionally reactive to events, situations, and conversations than other people around you.
You need a lot of down time.
Can you think of a time in your life when you were in a group situation and you were all doing the same activities? Did you feel overwhelmed and want to get away from the group before other people seemed to feel the same need? This is an example of an HSP becoming easily overwhelmed and needing space and time to process, especially when surrounded by other people.
You are disturbed by too much noise or by having too many tasks to complete.Some people seem to thrive in fast-paced, chaotic environments; they might even enjoy the stimulation. But HSPs can’t thrive in such environments for long periods of time, and their productivity will most likely suffer if they don’t have periods of calm to focus.
If any of these symptoms of SPS sound familiar to you, keep reading to find out more about being a highly sensitive person, or what to do if you think you have a highly sensitive child.
Let’s talk a little bit more about the definition of a highly sensitive person, how to tell if you are one, and how to handle everyday life if you or your child is highly sensitive.
The Basics of Being a Highly Sensitive Person
Being highly sensitive is different than having Sensory Processing (Integration) Disorder, which is a neurological disorder. An SPD brain processes information and stimuli in a random and disorganized way, eventually leading to overstimulation and distress.
While an HSP’s brain also reacts to overstimulation, the cause is different. Aron and her colleagues Barbara Allen-Williams and Jacquelyn Strickland say that being highly sensitive is simply a neural survival strategy.
Someone with Sensory Processing Sensitivity has a normally-functioning brain; its processing is simply at a more intense level than that of the average person. In other words, being highly sensitive doesn’t mean you’re unable to process stimuli normally, it just means you process at a faster rate, or more comprehensively.
This theory originated with Aron when her book was published, but it’s grown to be widely accepted, although not without occasional controversy.
Four Basic Aspects of Sensory Processing Sensitivity
Aron has also coined the acronym DOES to describe the four basic aspects of SPS:
- Depth of processing. HSPs mull things over more than the average person. They think about more aspects of a given situation.
- Overstimulation. Since HSPs notice so many details, they are prone to becoming overwhelmed quickly, as discussed earlier.
- Emotional reactivity & empathy. They have stronger emotional reactions to life events and are also able to feel the feelings of others more intensely.
- Sensing the subtle. They notice details that others are likely to miss.
Are You a Highly Sensitive Person?The Highly Sensitive Person Scale, created by Aron and her husband, can be used to measure an individual’s level of sensory sensitivity. You can self-evaluate by answering the questionnaire on Aron’s website. If you think you may be the parent of a highly sensitive child, there is a questionnaire available for assessing your child as well.
In addition, you can read descriptions of HSPs, such as the ones above, and probably easily tell whether you fall into that category or not.
For many people, learning about sensory sensitivity for the first time rings so true with them that they can’t believe they’ve never heard about it before. Finally, someone is describing the way they’ve felt their whole life, and not only that but other people feel that way too.
How to Handle Being a Highly Sensitive Person
When you are unusually sensitive to your environment, you might find yourself getting tired and overwhelmed more quickly than those around you. This is one of the biggest indicators that you might be highly sensitive.
You can, however, learn to adapt:
Set yourself up for success.
Plan times of quiet where you can process more easily. Not all HSPs are introverts, but all HSPs will need times when they can take a break from stimuli.
Learn to filter out distractions.
Do you need to wear earbuds and listen to instrumental music when you work? How can you make your environment quieter so you can be more productive?
Take care of your health.
Dr. Susan Biali recommends that HSPs make sure they get the recommended amount of sleep, eat healthy foods at regular intervals, and spend time in nature whenever possible.
You may be sensing a theme – self-care is crucial when you’re highly sensitive. If you know this about yourself, you can take responsibility for being a well-rested person who’s pleasant to be around.
When you understand and embrace this part of your nature, you can make self-care a priority without feeling guilt or shame. Many HSPs spend a great part of their lives feeling secretly different from other people but without understanding why, and sometimes those feelings become the source of shame or guilt.
There is nothing wrong with needing more quiet, rest, or space to recharge. It’s how you go about it that matters. As an emotionally healthy adult, taking responsibility for your own needs isn’t selfish – it’s the mature thing to do.
Anne Bogel, author of the personality book Reading People, emphasizes routines and boundaries for highly sensitive people:
“Embracing routine is helpful for many HSPs. Smooth routines make for fewer decisions, which is good because decisions tax HSPs’ mental energy more than that of non-HSPs…Good boundaries are crucial for the care and keeping of intuitive types. The same inner radar that lets them ‘know’ things about people and places can also work against them, causing them to adeptly take in negative energy. This can be so draining that Aron [author of The Highly Sensitive Person] advises HSPs to make setting good boundaries an explicit goal.”
Parenting the Highly Sensitive Child
Parenting a highly sensitive child can be an extra challenge, especially if you aren’t an HSP yourself. If you are, you understand what your child is going through, and this can help you know instinctively how to help them.
But, either way, the same actions that benefit an adult HSP can also apply to your highly sensitive child:
- Plan regular times for quiet and unwinding.
- Set aside a quiet, uncluttered environment for homework and relaxation.
- Enforce good eating and sleep habits.
- Get your child outside frequently.
- Rely on predictable routines.
How can you tell the difference between a child who’s highly sensitive and one with Sensory Processing Disorder? Since children can’t always articulate their thought processes, it can be hard to know the underlying cause of their sensory sensitivity. Are they easily overwhelmed, or is their brain not able to organize sensory input effectively at all?
Elaine Aron has also written the book, The Highly Sensitive Child, and in the FAQ section of her website, she shares this about HSP children vs. those with SPD:
“Many with Sensory Processing Disorder have found success with occupational therapists who help them better integrate stimuli into their experience…In contrast, many with Sensory Processing Sensitivity have found success by simply becoming educated about their genetic trait (or their child’s). They learn to create a proper balance in their day which may include meditation, creative arts, walks in nature, yoga, and learning which environments serve them best.”
If you think your child may have SPD, it’s important to rule out this disorder, because it may require professional treatment. But if SPD has been ruled out and you simply are aware that your child is highly sensitive, this awareness can create an informed approach that allows you to tailor your child’s routine to his or her needs.
Being an HSP simply means that you process input at a higher level than the average person, so once you recognize that your brain is extra sensitive, you can use this knowledge to manage yourself and your life more effectively.
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