Updated: Feb 26, 2019
Psychologist Dr. Elaine N. Aron wrote best seller, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, which presented research supporting the theory that roughly 15-20% of the population possesses a nervous system which is more sensitive to stimuli than the general population. In general, Western Society values extroversion, individualism, speed, force, and efficiency. The qualities of a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), however, may minimized, criticized, and shamed. Dr. Aron identifies how HSP’s qualities are actually gifts that can be developed, refined, and fully utilized if understood and embraced.
HSPs may feel things more intensely than others and they may also pick up on the nuances that others miss. For this reason, these individuals can easily become overwhelmed by what they sense, which can result in depression, anxiety, and even panic attacks. One way to empower HSP’s and help them cope better is to reframe their natural sensitivities. While they may have previously been criticized for being “too shy,” “too sensitive,” or “feeling too much,” HSPs can begin to use and develop their creative gifts to their own benefit.
While being an HSP comes with heightened gifts of creativity, depth, and intuition, it’s important to limit overstimulation and stress. For example, some HSPs have unrealistic expectations of themselves, fear of rejection, or experience somatic symptoms from emotions or stress. Others may take things very personally, hide negative or vulnerable feelings, have a difficult time being in large crowds, or experience sensitivity to lights, sound, or scents. Take the time to learn about your own unique sensitivities and triggers to help minimize unnecessary stress.
Dr. Aron identifies four main characteristics of HSPs, according to her book Psychotherapy and The Highly Sensitive Person.
1) Depth of Processing 2) Over Stimulation 3) Emotional Responsiveness & Empathy 4) Sensitive to Subtleties
One way that Dr. Aron emphasizes HSPs can learn to better integrate these qualities and take care of themselves include making time for solitude or silence and setting boundaries with others. If you identify as an HSP, it may be important for you to carefully consider what type of work would be most meaningful and engaging to you while also taking into account what types of environments best support you. While there are some HSPs that are also high sensation seekers, most HSPs work best in calm and quiet environments with minimal distractions.
Living in a society that places value on busyness and extroversion, HSPs must learn to prioritize themselves by making time to decompress from the stresses of work and relationships and honor their rich inner life. The more HSPs are able to engage in cultivating inner silence and practice self-care, the more they can support their own growth, as well as those around them.