This summer I had the opportunity to attend A Weekend for Highly Sensitive People with Elaine Aron, the researcher who coined the term HSP and has dedicated her career to researching this trait, and some of her HSP protégés. The retreat was held in the Santa Cruz mountains with redwoods outside our windows and hiking trails onsite. I felt a bit like a kid in a candy store with getting to meet THE person who identified, researched and verified this trait of sensitivity, on top of being in one of my favorite settings. As I reflect on my takeaways from this weekend, I wanted to start with a review of the basics--an appreciation for who we are and for how legit this trait is.
What does it really mean to be a HSP?
- Depth of processing—This is where all of our deep thinking comes in. You know, the whole I’m-gonna-think-about-every-possible-outcome and try to come out with each different detail that could play out? Yea, this is that. It’s also the insightful, analytical part that loves to really dig in and jump past all the surface-level junk. One of my favorite comments I heard from a fellow HSP was that she appreciated how as soon as any of us started to get to know one another we went DEEEEP. This is the part of us that loves the real, honest, substantial, meaningful, deep stuff.
- Overstimulation—We may get overstimulated when there’s too much sensory input, we’re being watched, we feel put on the spot, or we may have too many things coming at us at once. While it can certainly be a challenge, the real key is recognizing overstimulation when it happens (“Oh, I’m overstimulated”), managing it while it’s occurring (which might include taking breaks, deep breathing, closing your eyes for a few minutes, hiding in a bathroom stall briefly, talking to a friend, zoning out and imagining your fav place) and then giving yourself time and space to engage in self-care and recover. It can help to sort out whether you need rest (like a nap, alone time, a hot bath) or to get the overstimulation out of your body (through exercise, yoga, screaming into a pillow).
- Emotional responsiveness and empathy—This is that beautiful part of us that connects us so deeply with other people. Our empathy allows us to really meet someone else where they are and support them in their experience. Our responsiveness helps us know what is needed in a situation, tells us to offer the kind words or a gentle hug to someone who’s hurting, guides us to reach out to a friend we haven’t heard from. Such emotional responsiveness can mean we feel situations intensely and experience emotions others may not, which can have its challenges. However, this part often leads we HSPs into the helping, teaching and guiding professions and makes us great friends, wonderful listeners and people whom others are easily drawn to.
- Sensitive to subtle stimuli—This is that awareness of all the information we receive through our senses. For some, this may include how the sound of other people chewing really grates on your nerves. For others, this can be jumping when there’s a loud sound. For all, this may be noticing the gorgeous colors in the sunset, the ripples in a pond, the pleasure of noticing a scent of jasmine on the breeze.
These four items also spell out the handy-dandy acronym DOES. For me, it’s helpful to have something easily remembered like an acronym to refer back to, especially if I’m overstimulated by trying to explain being an HSP to someone!
Seriously, there is mounds of research now backing up that sensory processing sensitivity (SPS)—the scientific term for the personality trait of highly sensitivity—is, in fact, an innate (yep, that means we’re born with it) personality trait that occurs roughly in 15-20% of the population. (Kudos to Elaine for really kicking off this research!) Being an HSP is not a pop culture term or something cooked up online. HSPs are backed by valid, reliable research.
Highlights of some findings (You can find all sorts of journal articles on the hsperson.com site.):
- SPS shows up all over the place in the animal kingdom, including in over 100 species, who take either one of two approaches—1.Do it once and do it right, or 2. Go for it, if wrong, go again. Yes, even a percentage of animals are watchers and waiters who observe first and then react in an effort to “do it right.” (Wolf et. Al 2009)
- SPS is not really on a bell curve. Mostly, people are highly sensitive or they’re not. (Borries, 2012)
- Brain scans show that HSPs respond stronger to both positive and negative emotional states, and their perceptual processing parts of the brain are more activated when HSPs are looking for differences in images, as opposed to non-HSPs. (Did you catch that? Brain scans show our brains light up differently!)
- HSPs can both be more impacted by negative life events and derive more pleasure and benefit from positive life events than non-HSPs.
- Highly sensitive people respond similarly across cultures, whereas people with low sensitivity respond in very culturally-dependent ways. (PsychScience, 2008)
There’s so much I may have to write more articles about the research findings too, but the main takeaways I want to share with you right now are:
- Your trait of sensitivity is real—science says so, over and over again. (Just reminding you, in case you start to doubt yourself, as we can be known to do. J)
- DOES provides a handy acronym for how to think of the components of being HSP and to refrence when explaining your trait to others.
- Being HSP offers us strengths and challenges, as does any personality trait. The key is in accepting and working with, instead of pushing against, the challenges and wholeheartedly embracing the strengths.
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Take good care, dear HSP!
By Ivy Griffin
PS--Think you're an HSP but not quite sure? Take the HSP assessment based on empirically sound research here: http://hsperson.com/test/highly-sensitive-test/