Updated: Sep 24
Do you sometimes feel overstimulated in routine places like open plan offices, public swimming pools etc? Do you quickly pick up on what someone is feeling, their sincerity and undertones, even when nothing at all is said? Do you have very deep emotional responses to suffering? Do you worry you are exhausted? Have you ever been told you are “too sensitive" and need to “toughen up” or felt that you need to "cover up" to just survive other peoples' judgements of your sensitivity?
If you've answered yes to many of these questions, there is a good chance you could, like me, well own the super-power and label of being a HSP - highly sensitive person.
During an exceptionally horrific phase of my life, I experienced emotional overwhelm. I ended up feeling there was something wrong with me. Part of me felt I was the one reacting normally to my very challenging situation being homeless, jobless and penniless for a time and going through a divorce, as a sole parent! One day, I was so frustrated with myself, for not being the person I felt I should be that I Googled: 'I'm not depressed so why am I crying so easily?'
The answers (all of which were plausible options) were menopause, grief, depression, post traumatic emotional dysregulation, loss and being a 'highly sensitive person', which I had never heard of but sounded like an insult which I had repeatedly thrown at me from as long back as I can remember.
What I read described me to a T. Perhaps you'll have a light bulb moment too. I can honestly say that that finding out about HSPs has informed my life, my parenting of my daughter (also a HSP), my spare time, my career (change from teacher to therapist), my friends (standing up to those who repeatedly judged me without insight) every day since. It was utterly revelatory and today I wanted to share on this topic, a brief overview, in the hope that it helps a few of you too.
What are the elements of being a HSP?
To be a HSP means you will recognise four characteristics, all linked to your brain. Very simply, scientifically, we have a more reactive brain than most other people and this can be shown with brain scans and neuro research (1). We think more, experience more, feel more and sense more. It can be exhausting or can help us to be empathic and wise beyond the norm.
We, as HSPs, are neuro atypical. Only about 15-20% of the human population have brains that are like ours. That said many repress the HSP qualities as the labels of 'sissy', 'weak', 'drama queens', 'depressed', 'over emotional' and even 'pathetic' are just too painful. I myself, am perceived by most people as 'the strongest person'. That is because we learn to be tough to survive our sensitivity.
Our world is built and made for the '80%-ers' - those who do not have a highly sensitive make up. Though being a HSP is like having a superpower, too often, those with a HS personality type, struggle with burn out, judgement and overwhelm, trying to give their love in a harsh world, only to be out of place, out of time and out of sync. Rejection and 'mis-fitting' is quite heart-breaking. Remaining true to who we are in the face of this, is exhausting.
Here are the 4 characteristics, under the acronym DOES, that help diagnose this personality trait and make up.
D is for deep processing
HSPs think more. Brain scans show our processors are working off the scale, compared to 'neurotyps'. We are very thoughtful, and analytical, able to analyse very deeply. We love deep conversations and relationships. We have complex, very active minds. Even our dreams are often atypical. Although we are deep thinkers, HSPs could have fast or slow processors.
The superpower of being 'deep' is that we can become very wise, insightful and be great at coming up with wide ranging options and ideas. We have thought through so many things in our lives previously that we are at an advantage when posed with a new question to think about. We are able to draw on so much deep thought which we have as a foundation that we generally are wise decision makers.
Despite this, there are downsides. We need to bring our over thinking back to stillness or we can become exhausted and also exhaust others. Over thinking can also result in too much thinking and never getting to take any action. We can be prone to worry and the consequences of that. We can get bored with less deep people and conversation or unchallenging work because we like it when we can think.
Most crucially we absolutely need to create some space in our minds to relax and sleep or with all this thought we suffer fatigue. Of course, as a mindfulness teacher, I found mindfulness my go to, to train my monkey brain to give the brain a break.
O is for over sensory arousal / over sensory stimulation or over sensory sensitivity
(Sometimes called sensory processing sensitivity)
The senses of HSPs are scientifically shown to more active and sensitive than for non-HSP (1). We will frequently have lots of the following: nuanced senses of smell, vision, taste, acute hearing, high levels of body awareness and sensitivity often to pain. The downside is massive over stimulation which can make us hyper alert, anxious and exhausted.
When a person who is HS become over-stimulated and this is not addressed, or we fail to ground ourselves well, we can feel overwhelm. Overwhelm negatively impacts cognitive function, sense of safety and even leads to shut down or the fight, flight, freeze response to kick in. We may seem anti-social when we are trying to block out stimulation or alternatively become agitated from sensory over stimulation.
To manage this, and stay at our best, HSPs must ensure they have 'quiet, low-sensory intake breaks and recovery times'. The perfect, perfect tip for me, is I like to put my feet up a wall (or on a chair) whilst I lie on the floor on my back and close my eyes for 3 minutes. My problem is that it doesn't do your reputation any good in an open plan office or the hospital ward! Other ideas are: try moving to a different space or talking to your managers about what is most helpful. See if you can get a desk by a window - it was a small change that made a huge difference to me. Check out 'heart hugs' (2).
I can't really think of an upside to this sensory sensitivity except I love to taste the nuances of wine and can enjoy fine food to the full. I remember giving birth, being topped up full to brim with an epidural, during an emergency c-section, asking 'have you done it yet as this pain is terrible: feels like a tree opening inside me?'. They said you've had the max and yet I could still feel intense pain! Not an upside!
E is for emotional responses or heightened reactivity
Very simply, HSPs are scientifically proven to feel more deeply than the norm (1). It's like we have an emotional vividness gene. Scientific research shows more brain activation and activity, hormone release and so on when looking at emotional pictures than the 80% non-HSPs. Scientific studies show we have more empathy and understand others' feelings better. In real life this manifests with us experiencing deep emotion ourselves and caring deeply about the world and others around us.
The superpower to this element is that we have potential to guide policy and live lives that make the world better, lives more full of love and kindness, compassion and insight. HSPs do not need to be told to 'Be Kind'. Our life mission is often to serve others and focus on helping others and living things to feel happy, accepted, safe and without suffering. We can literally feel the pain of others without them having to tell us with words. People feel understood at a deep level by us. That is a superpower to treasure - if only the world had more HSP leaders.
The downside of the superpower is that we burn out, we get tired, we get overwhelmed emotionally. Even the TV upsets us at times and we can find ourselves crying over news, films, even pieces of music. That upsets other people I have found! I'm not sure why but people seem unable to cope with other people's sensitivity. When my school was going through a redundancy process, one lady sneered with absolute disgust 'they're crying in the staff room' as if it was the sad people, expressing their anxiety, who needed therapy. I thought 'Wow! That's so weird. Ours is the normal reaction.' But she thought we were the weird ones. HSPs can really struggle to feel understood because they are different and feel judged, especially in the UK with our non-public emotion culture.
HSP give of themselves fully and not unsurprisingly, find yourself a HSP and you are likely to find yourself someone suffering symptoms of burnout or extreme tiredness. Self-care is essential. I've recently started 'heart hugs' (2) which I find really grounding. I'm currently teaching this to my clients.
Sensitives to subtleties
HSPs are highly perceptive, and this is both a blessing and a curse. HSP brains process more, and our senses are more alert. We notice so much more than neuro-typicals, especially with regard to emotional matters and reading people or even reading a place we can feel subtle things from observation and our senses.
This skill is a superpower as it builds empathic connection and intuition. The downside is that we often can read others, and this is not always pleasant. If you 'just know' someone is being incongruent, whilst helpful in counselling or with your friends, you cannot unsee what we see about our work colleagues or family members.
The big picture for HSPs
When all of the 4 elements come together - sensitivity and awareness to what's going on, sensitivity to others, sensory sensitivity, our own emotional intensity and over thinking - it is easy to see our main problems: tiredness and burn out and feeling like we just don't fit in.
But our superpower is having a powerful potential for good in the lives of others and the universe. I love my highly sensitive nature. I think it suits my career as a teacher and as a mindfulness teacher and a therapist very well. Whilst I have to guard from overwhelm or too much empathy, the connection I form with others is productive and valuable. The biggest need I believe HSPs, and people generally, have is acceptance. HSPs can give this and understand people at a deep level.
HSPs is genetically passed on and runs in families.
HSPs are equally spread in men and women - it is hard for male HSPs to 'come out' and be themselves as authentically sensitive, in our culture. It could explain why men struggle so much when things get challenging. HSP men have often depleted themselves pretending and eventually cover sensitivity to survive.
HSPs are both introverts and extroverts, across all cultures and all times, as far as we know.
HSPs make up about 15-20% of the population and known to be present in over 100 other animal species.
HSPs is linked to scientific proof - is it not nurture alone. It can be nurtured or repressed but it is our brain that is clinically different.
The future for you and me as a HSP
We live in a world that is currently designed by the 80% neuro-typical set, seemingly so with them thriving. It is tough and strong, and sensitive people and emotional sensitivity is definitely not valued generally, let alone in leadership. Consequently, too often, we repress our own voice for fear of judgement or wrong labelling as being mentally ill or depressive. We emphatically underperform and this is not a time in which to be born a HSP.
We often feel isolated, 'wrong', like we don't fit in, like we can't thrive without being someone else. We may have tried pretending to be tough to self-protect and fit in but eventually we are exhausted from pretending and being our non-authentic self. We may have traumatic experiences from bullying, attachment issues and we may indeed become depressed and anxious from all of this. We can find ourselves just worn out.
The good news is that mindfulness can help going forward and counselling and talking through some of the potential rejection, attachment and traumatic feelings of overwhelm, can help to deal with what has happened so far. I can say with empathy for anyone who is a HSP, that you are likely to have struggled to be understood and to be your authentic self. I care about that. I understand what it is like to feel like the odd one out in a family or workplace.
The most important thing I would pass on to you, if this has resonated, is my 5 to Thrive tips below. You have a superpower and that needs to be managed. You have a warrior heart that can really make the world better, but you need to learn how to manage that intensity if you are not to burn out. We are atypical. The world needs us to embrace our HSP and then for us to use our empathy for good. We do not need to be an 80%-er! The world needs us to stay true to our superpower. Good luck.
If you would like help with anything, either mindfulness to manage your HSP tendencies or counselling to deal with the issues as a result, please get in touch and I can help, or sign post you.
5 to Thrive - tips for the HSP
1. Know HSP is a real thing and understand its impact on you. Whilst it was only recognised and given a name in 1996, it has existed in people long before the research recognised it. Think of The Buddha, Jesus, Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, Alanis Morisette, Emma Stone, Abraham Lincoln - all highly sensitive, insightful, emotional and empathic outside the norm. Knowing more, changes everything. When we understand what works for us and how to manage this superpower, we can use it effectively without overwhelming ourselves.
2. Reframe our history - We may have been bullied, certainly judged. I believe we, as HSPs, often need to heal at quite deep levels from attachment issues and rejection of ourselves and from others. You may benefit with help from a qualified Counsellor, knowledgeable about HSP research, to do this.
3. Know that HSPs are resilient but we may cry, we may be tired, we may be sensitive. We are deeply resilient: if others felt what we felt, they would also cry and need more rest. To stay resilient, rest. Don't feel guilty that you get tired. It is traumatic to live in this world as a HSP. We need to develop our soothing and steadying of ourselves to thrive and use our sensitivity. To stay a warrior of sensitivity, my key tool has been mindfulness. If you would like help developing this practice to manage overwhelm, please get in touch. I offer 1:1 sessions ,for this.
4. Honour our trait and honour the trait in others. Tell your story with pride and change the world. Use your gift in the same way an artist or highly skilled stone mason might... Have empathy for others you know who may be HSPs and educate others if you hear others judging HSPs.
5. Get in touch with others who are HSP. Spending time in your tribe I have found to be very therapeutic. See (3) for a chat room for HSPs.
(1) These 3 Sets of Genes Make You a Highly Sensitive Person (highlysensitiverefuge.com) Links to the scientific research about HSP brains.
(2) T Touch Heart hugs - (30) Linda Tellington-Jones TTouch Heart- Hug - YouTube
(3) A chat room for HSPs Highly Sensitive People (reddit.com)
(4) Elaine Aron’s book: Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person: Improving Outcomes for That Minority of People Who Are the Majority of Clients
(5) I love this article on how to manage HSPs in the work place Managing Highly Sensitive People - From MindTools.com
(8) Books about HSPS Amazon.co.uk : highly sensitive person