Are you a HSP (a highly sensitive person)?

The below article is taken from the information taken from a ground-breaking documentary about the temperament trait of high sensitivity found in 20% of the population in both men and women. Based on the findings of bestselling author-psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron (The Highly Sensitive Person), who discovered the brains of sensitive people work differently. Highly sensitive people (HSPs) process all information (stimuli) and experiences more thoroughly, have more empathy, and are more aware of the subtleties in the environment they live in. The evidence is in the brain studies. The HSPs can make remarkable contributions to our world, but, especially in their youth, they can pay the price of being considered “too shy” or “too sensitive,” and made to feel like misfits. Featuring: Dr. Elaine Aron, Alanis Morissette, Dr. Bianca Acevedo, Dr. Maike Andresen  

HSP’S – (a Highly Sensitive Person)

Have you ever felt you have spent most of your life feeling you were different? Have you felt alone in a world where you felt mis-perceived and mis-understood?...if you have said ‘yes’ to these questions …hello and welcome to my world ….you are not alone!

In 1987, now a Psychotherapist, Dr Elaine Aron sought therapy to understand why she always felt different. It led to a discovery waiting to happen.  

In 1991 Dr Elaine Aron made an amazing breakthrough that she identified the trait of a high sensitivity. High sensitivity is nota disorder or a condition. It is an innate trait and is found in the same numbers as both adult men and women and 1.4 Billion people (20% of the population) are affected, including children and animals. And although a minority, we do not need any special care or treatment – we just process things differently, feel more deeply, and have many gifts we can contribute to this world as a result of our high sensitivity and deep insights.

Veterinary Behaviourist, University of Bern, Switzerland, has studied animal behaviour in highly sensitive animals. It is part of their personality that is just a bit different but nevertheless distressing if not understood and not recognised early. This is a trait that has both up’s and down’s and the core of it is not being upset by things but noticing things more intensely.

This trait has four key characteristics using the acronym ‘ DOES’

D – Depth of Processing
O – Over-stimulation
E - Strong Emotions & Empathy
S – Sensitivity Disutilities (causing inconvenience, harm, or distress, etc)

This can get labelled as shyness, introverted, and unsociable because they are a minority and therefore treated differently. In children, this can be recognised as mild autism or asperger’s syndrome, when indeed there is nothing going on. Of course, this does not apply to all shy or introverted people, or apply to those diagnosed with autism or aspergers … but some are simply Highly Sensitives.

HSP’S can easily ‘tune in’ to other’s feelings. We feel both the pain and joy of others. HSP’s can also ‘tune in’ to other kingdoms, such as the mineral kingdom, plant kingdom and the animal kingdom. HSP’S are highly affected by the environment also - some may call it intuition. We know things without being told as we are able to ‘tune into’ another person or thing because we are feeling into our environment so when we are with others we are going to feel ‘overstimulated’ and this can be overwhelming!

We reach a threshold that is much lower – we see things, we feel things, we perceive things and we process things DEEPER, therefore it becomes a balancing act to be able to be out in the world.

HSP’s need their ‘download’ time to re-charge and prepare for the things that most people deal with easily which is important to understand because HSP’s FEEL so intensely.

The positive side of being highly sensitive means we feel extreme excitement, love more deeply, and are highly creative and intuitive. However, we find it hard to deal with the negative side which is feeling extreme loss (of a loved one or separation, for example), grief, overwhelm, phobias and anxiety which can lead to depression, and in some cases, suicidal thoughts, meltdowns and breakdowns, and feelings of ‘not wanting to be on this planet’ because it’s so harsh on over-sensitive people.

We find it hard to share with others unless we meet another like-minded HSP, bringing us solace and validation and a deep connection.

HSP’s cry easily. Other people can also cry easily, but it seems to be true of HSP’s because we process information more thoroughly and the same things would not make someone else cry because they’re not quite attending to it in as much detail.

Findings show that HSP’s show greater activation in area’s associated with empathy. When we walk into a room we can tell if someone’s having a bad day, or when we walk among crowds in shopping malls, or a public place, for example, as we can feel overwhelmed by the feelings emitted by what other people are feeling. This leaves us feeling drained and if we don’t re-charge we will procrastinate leaving our homes.

On the positive side we are like an antenna. We feel many things others don’t notice, especially when out in nature or when we are among animals, and when alone become very creative. With this in mind, we can change our perception that being overly sensitive as being a curse to that of a blessing in order for us to help ourselves more and to help others.

Empathy means we can understand what the other person is feeling so we can be supportive. We can also use empathy to help ourselves. And, in a professional capacity we can use our high sensitivity to develop our professional reputation for sensing what our patients, clients, or students need even before they do.

Extensive brain imagining conducted at Stoneybrook University, and published in Neuroscience journals, showed that areas of the brain understanding subtle cue’s are more active in HSP’s than non-sensitive persons. The study showed that HSP’s notice more about the world they live in but the key thing is that they don’t just notice more, they take what they notice and they combine it with information they’ve noticed all their life. And because of this, they can come up with innovative and new ideas thus becoming the essence of their unique creativity.

HSP’s can have an affinity with animals which can lead to professions that involve animal communication and understanding their temperament, including unusual behaviour. HSP’s are more likely to come up with ideas of new research breakthroughs, revolutionary art, or world changing insights. We’re not saying that all creative people are HSP’s but surely the qualities we see in them contribute substantially to creativity.

Another striking finding was that there was more activity in sensitive people in the insula (a small region of the cerebral cortex in the brain located deep within the lateral sulcus, which is a large fissure that separates the frontal and parietal lobes from the temporal lobe). The function of this part of the brain was virtually unknown until the last couple of decades and is still quite controversial.

However, it is thought the insula appears to be activated during a wide array of events. Depending on whom you ask, the insula is involved in pain, love, emotion, craving, addiction, the enjoyment of music, or even the tasting of wine. So, what is really going on here?

The answer may be that the insula is at least partly responsible for all of these seemingly disparate things because it facilitates our concept of self-awareness. This would include the awareness of our bodies and emotions, and how they interact to create our perception of the present moment. This sounds very metaphysical, and is only a hypothesis, but it would help to explain why the insula seems to be involved in such a diversity of thoughts and behaviours. And some are even deeming it the part of the brain as “The Seat of Consciousness’ because it brings together all of our inner and outer experiences.

HSP in children means they are affected more by others and the world around them profoundly in both a positive and negative way, and because it is a hidden trait, and cannot be seen, and insufficient information is available to the public or mainstream, it can be overlooked. Therefore, creating awareness in this wonderful trait is paramount for the child’s development into adulthood.

Having a high degree of sensitivity has its advantages and disadvantages. If parents are unaware and the necessary nurturing, support and understanding is not given the child can develop certain traits and behaviours that are more likely to develop into issues such as anxiety, depression, overwhelm, fears etc. in adulthood, and find it difficult to embrace change and venture out into the world, especially when in an unfamiliar environment.

Whereas if parents are aware they have a highly sensitive child they can best provide the adequate nurturing, love and support needed in order to build a strong foundation and stability the child needs to grow and thrive in the outside world. And when they are faced with a set-back they can bounce back more easily.

In essence, when HSP children are treated appropriately they are more likely to thrive MORE in many aspects than non-sensitive children. In contrast, they will struggle to cope with their highly sensitive emotions and become introverted to the point of possible alienation and isolation from the world.

What’s interesting is that the percentage of HSP’s is equal in both men and women. This can be very misunderstood with men, particularly due to conditioning of the male ‘role’ and expectancy of a said behaviour. (recommended read: The Strong Sensitive Boy by Ted Zeff, Ph.D)

Most sensitive males have a hard time growing up as they don’t fit in with the so-called boy-code culture and many times when a boy expresses with another group of boys “I’m afraid of something” or “I’m scared” or “I’m sad” or I’m anxious”, they get ostracised and humiliated. When we are too scared to express how we feel we feel unaccepted for who we are and become more insecure. We may even change our behaviour to conform to what others will find acceptable in order to fit in.

When these highly sensitive children are nurtured and treated in accordance with their sensitivities, they can become the most innovated creative visionaries and inventors of our time.

HSP’s are usually highly valued in the workplace but have the lowest sense of well-being due their perfectionism and ability to be highly stimulated. However, in a negative environment they can become depleted and overwhelmed due to taking on negative energy more deeply in their environment. If HSP’s don’t apply self-care we can set ourselves up for emotional issues leading to ‘burn out’.

If we don’t practice a vigorous and almost a religious form of self-care, we really set ourselves up for a number of health issues, both emotional and behavioural, that can affect our entire lives and our sense of well-being.

HSP’s must value themselves so they can balance the other 80% and do their part. It is essential therefore we take ‘time out’ for ourselves, some alone time, and extra ‘me’ time to re-charge, along with emotional support in times of need.

Sensitive people, by nature, pick up on criticism so that they can revise their behaviour and do better. If all they get is criticism, very soon they feel beaten down. Sensitive people do well being self-employed so that they can enjoy their own space and choose a peaceful stress free environment where they work better.

However, that is not to say they don’t work well and can blend into any workplace environment. As HSP’s equate to 20% of the population, they are highly valued due to their high perceptivity, attention to detail, empathy toward their work colleagues and customers, and innovative new ideas.

As always, we need all walks of live to make things work and both perspectives of the HSP and the non-sensitive’s need embracing.

When HSP’s recognise this trait as more of a ‘super power’ rather than a defect, and the fact that we’re not alone, we will feel more confident to connect to people and able to embrace more fully for who they truly are – visionaries and soulpreneurs.

Oftentimes it’s the sensitive people in our culture who are the pioneers, visionaries, and the oracles who see into the future and see what’s coming and the non-sensitives don’t give them enough credit as guides, and instead, demean them because they’re different than others.

Sensitivity clearly benefits the 20% and the 80% alike. But there’s also the actuality of differential suspectability which means the sensitive gains more from a good environment and are most affected by a poor one. Right now, they are most noticed by the other 80% when they’re being overly sensitive. Those with happier histories adapt and make their valuable contributions and only those close to them know they’re different and that they grew up feeling a little flawed.

Whatever their backgrounds however, the HSP’s see the subtle signs of what’s coming and they think about it deeply more than others do.

In conclusion – It is both a spiritual and scientific journey of understanding human culture if we can become engaged in the construct of the High Sensitive trait 20% of the population possess so that we can begin to understand the nature of who we truly are. There is a great deal of scientific studies that support the construct of HSP’s and how it relates to other aspects of psychology.

Our world is going through some vast changes, some of them frightening, and many not clearly understood. We all need these sensitive minds and hearts as they are more likely to feel what needs to improve to live in a more humane world. So I say to all Sensitives….please, speak out, stay in your power, you’re in  good company, know you are supported, seek out other sensitives. Because YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY ONE!

Recommended books for reference: The Highly Sensitive Person (How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You) by Elaine N Aron, Ph.D. & The highly Sensitive Person’s Workbook (The Practical Guide for Highly Sensitive People & HSP Support Groups) by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D.