Have you ever been told you were “too sensitive”? Do you feel things deeply? Do you notice noise or visual details perhaps more than most? Maybe you sometimes struggle with feeling overwhelmed or drained, especially when you try to keep pace with what the rest of the world seems to be doing.
There is a trait prevalent in about 20% of our population (and many other animal species!) called high sensitivity (or, in research terms, sensory processing sensitivity). It has actually been documented in brain scans--HSPs notice details and process things more deeply than 80% of the world, yet it seems many people still don't know this exists, and some HSPs don't know that this is them! I happen to be an HSP myself, and speaking from personal experience and from clients and friends who are also HSPs, learning more about the trait and beginning to honor it can be absolutely life changing--in wonderful and surprising ways.
According to Dr. Elaine Aron, who has done great work to research and bring awareness to this trait, it can be understood through the acronym "DOES":
D: Depth of processing. HSPs have more activity in the area of the brain associated with awareness and consciousness (the insula). They also tend to do better at perceptual tasks and usually have a strong intuition. Not only do HSPs notice more details but we also process them more deeply. This can feel like "a lot" sometimes but it's also a huge gift, especially if HSPs are operating from a place of balance and self-care so these strengths can come through.
O: Overstimulation. Because HSPs notice sensory experiences (and emotions and relationship dynamics) more, they can be prone to feeling overstimulated. I've found that this is very individualized for each HSP. Some HSPs don't notice loud noises as much but for others, noise is very noticeable and sometimes troublesome. Some HSPs notice that they're very tuned into others' feelings, but not as upset by sensory stimuli. One great thing about being an HSP though is that supportive sensory experiences are experienced even more deeply--so this overstimulation can absolutely become a strength once supported!
E: Emotional reactivity and Empathy. HSPs tend to notice and be more impacted by emotions visible on others' faces or detectable by being in the same room. The same goes for any emotional experience--both good and bad. But the important thing to remember here is that HSPs benefit even more from positive experiences (vantage sensitivity is a newer term to describe this phenomenon). HSPs also have extra strong mirror neurons that help them relate to others' experiences and emotions.
S: Sensing Subtleties. HSPs often notice the little things. Perhaps something is different with someone's face, or something changed in the room. Or maybe HSPs remember a small detail from a few days ago that helps them today and others might comment they never noticed that thing. HSPs notice non-verbal cues, often without realizing it. Sometimes this means HSPs have a sense about someone's feelings, personality, or trustworthiness without necessarily knowing why.
So, are you an HSP? There are several self-tests available online that take only a few minutes to complete. My favorite, from Dr. Julie Bjelland, is here. There's another by Dr. Aron here.
If you or someone you know are indeed highly sensitive, feel free to check out the following resources for HSPs, and subscribe to my newsletter to stay informed when I post a new blog or resource about high sensitivity.
Brain Training Course for HSPs