Are You a Highly Sensitive Person?
by Sarah Sand
I am Sarah Sand and I am a highly sensitive person, are you? Are you aware of subtleties in your environment? Do other people’s moods affect you? Do you have a rich and complex inner life? Do you get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time? If so…you likely are a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP for short). These questions and many more can be found on a self-quiz created by Elaine Aron, pioneer and lead researcher on HSP. The remainder of the quiz can be found on my website at sarahsand.ca under the resources tab. For those who are sensitive, you probably do not need a quiz to tell you this, you already know. And if you yourself are not sensitive, I bet you know someone who is.
To some, being an HSP is a beautiful thing, and for others it can be a struggle. For me it was a struggle at times, and now it is a blessing. Being sensitive strengthens my ability to access extensive information about clients upon meeting them, and it allows me to be a medium and conduit for those who have passed on.
Regardless of how you feel about your sensitivity, it is important to know more about it. HSP is a temperamental trait that affects 15–20% of the population. This trait is not specific to humans, and can be found in other living species from antelope to fruit flies. Those who are highly sensitive have enhanced awareness of opportunities and threats, and thus are valuable to any species. HSPs tend to pay more attention to details and then use the knowledge gained to make better predictions. They are often more intuitive and creative as they tend to be more right-brained thinkers.
Brain activity in HSPs is different. They take in more stimuli than the average person. One of the most interesting studies done by Acevedo, Aron, Aron, Collins & Brown (2014) shows that HSPs have increased brain activity in regions reflecting awareness, empathy, and motor control in response to others’ emotions. Unfortunately, sometimes the ability to take in an abundance of information from others, themselves, and their environment can result in overload or overstimulation.
Dr. Elaine Aron describes overstimulation by stating:
“If you are going to notice every little thing in a situation, and if the situation is complicated (many things to remember), intense (noisy, cluttered, etc.), or goes on too long (a two-hour commute), it seems obvious that you will also have to wear out sooner from having to process so much so thoroughly. Others, not noticing much or any of what you have, will not tire as quickly. They may even think it quite strange that you find it too much to sightsee all day and go to a nightclub in the evening.”
It is vital that HSPs do not “toughen up” and push through overstimulation. This pushing may result in a meltdown. For some that may be kicking and screaming (i.e. your child) and for others that may mean shutting themselves away from the world for a couple of days (i.e. you, your spouse, or your employee). Instead, HSPs need to use their awareness and check into their level of stimulation. Notice the subtleties when you start to feel overwhelmed. For example, when I begin to feel overwhelmed, I bite my lower lip, clench my jaw, and pull my shoulders up. When I start to feel myself doing these actions, it is time for a break.
Because overstimulation is the number one challenge of an HSP, I have put together many little tricks that I use and teach to others. Here are a few examples. To calm your heightened nervous system, cut out stimuli from your outer environment by closing your eyes, going for a walk, or leaving undesirable situations. To cut out inner stimuli, breathe, focus, and repeat a calming mantra such as “I am peaceful; I am balanced.” To reduce impact from the minds of those around you, know you are respected and create mental boundaries with others.
All these techniques are good to use in the moment, but the real benefits come from both moving through mental and spiritual blockages and then using your sensitivity in a good way; in a way that is aligned with authentic values. This is what I have been taught by my teachers and this is what I teach to others. The goal is not to gain control over sensitivity, but to live in harmony with it and share its beauty with others.
For more information, videos, and material, go to my website at sarahsand.ca. Also check out the upcoming workshop, “Finding Strength in Sensitivity,” on Saturday, April 14th in Saskatoon.
Sarah Sand RSW, MSW Candidate, is a registered mental health therapist and educator. She uses both traditional counselling techniques and intuitive abilities in individual counselling, consulting, group work, workshops, and trainings. For more information, visit sarahsand.ca or call (306) 281-5704 and see the Directory of Services ad under “Counselling & Therapies” on page 19 of the 23.6 March/April issue of the WHOLifE Journal.