Are you Highly Sensitive?

In the 1990’s, psychologist Elaine Aron developed the concept of highly sensitive persons (HSPs) to describe those who experience notable sensitivity to various forms of sensory stimuli. Researchers often use the term “Sensory-Processing Sensitivity” in reference to the experiences and realities of highly sensitive people.

You may ask yourself, “well isn’t that the same thing as autism or sensory processing disorder?” The answer to that is less defined and this article on neurodivergence and re-evaluating the way we think about autism may be helpful.

In a nutshell, being autistic and being highly sensitive are not the same thing. However, there is certainly lots of overlap in sensory processing experiences and sensory processing sensitivity. For example, ASD, ADD/ ADHD, and HSP all fall under the spectrum of neurodivergence.

Neurodivergence simply means, your brain is wired differently than what is considered typical or “normal” from the rest of the population. This includes the way your brain processes information, the way you think, learn and interpret the world.

The term “neurotypical” is a term that’s used to describe people with typical neurological development or functioning. In other words, it’s not used to describe someone who has neurological differences.

Some signs of high sensitivity include:

Low threshold for sensory awareness: You may notice and experience sensory stimuli more strongly than others. For instance, loud noises and chaotic stimuli are likely to have a greater impact on you.

Overstimulation: You may become easily overstimulated and overwhelmed by your surroundings.

Personality and temperament: You may be introverted or very emotionally sensitive. This may also be because if your environment is very stimulating, you may feel overwhelmed by it.

Empathy: Others’ moods strongly affect you. You may also notice subtle social cues others do not.

Pain sensitivity: You are often more sensitive to pain or touch.

Withdrawal: If your surroundings are not ideal, you may withdraw more or need more alone time to cope.

Take a Deep Breath

If you resonate with the above, you may find some relief and comfort knowing that the way you feel and think is completely natural and that there is nothing wrong with you!

You may just be a highly sensitive person experiencing sensory sensitivity. It turns out that neurological differences in the population are normal and come with their own benefits!

Although it can feel like there’s so many downsides to being highly sensitive, this 2014 study highlights the benefits including that sensory processing sensitivity is thought to be one of the strategies that evolved over time for promoting the survival of the species. “By being more responsive to their environments, these more sensitive organisms have an enhanced awareness of opportunities (e.g., food, mates, and alliances) and threats (e.g., predators, loss of status, competitors), and thus may be more ready to respond to emerging situations. Those with the sensitive survival strategy will always be in a minority as it would cease to yield special payoffs if it were found in a majority.” (Wolf et al. 2008)

Other advantages of being highly sensitive include having a rich inner life, increased empathy, picking up on subtle social cues that others may miss, creative thinking, and the ability to deeply process and think about big issues.

Another valuable trait is the thought that highly sensitive people pick up and assimilate information they obtain unconsciously. This means, they pick up on information that lies below the threshold of the five senses and consciously use this information at a later time. This may describe the concept of the sixth sense– feeling psychic or having this natural “knowing.” Turns out that the sixth sense is not magical or supernatural, but an expression of just how powerful our brains are!

The Highly Sensitive Child

Elaine Aron acknowledges the highly sensitive trait in the population and the same is applied for children as well: the Highly Sensitive Child. If you are a highly sensitive person, chances are you may also have a highly sensitive child as this trait is known to be genetically inheritable.

This means that you have the ability to connect and understand your child in a way that not many others can. Sometimes the simple acknowledgment of letting your child know you understand their sensitivities makes the world of a difference. You can now say to your child “I understand how your body sometimes feels overwhelmed because I feel the same way too. Tell me more about how you’re feeling and we’ll work through it together.”

Growing with your Child

Fred Rogers once said, “parenthood is an inner change. We ourselves grow because parenting is so deep and intense.”

As a mom of 3 young children (ages 8, 6 and a 2 month old), I often think about this quote because it rings of truth. Our children force us to look at ourselves in new ways and old memories of childhood resurface. You begin to analyze your own childhood and see it through a different lens. You begin to remember…

You see the challenges your little one experiences. You are by their side as they try and navigate this big overwhelming world. You see their sensory sensitivities and how it affects their life. It may take you back to your childhood, remembering that you too went through the same experiences… and still do, just in a different way.

Raising a neurodivergent child may help you realize things about yourself that you haven’t before. It may help you become more self aware and reflect on your own neurological differences. 

The more you understand your own sensitivities, your triggers, and type of stimuli you’re sensitive to, the better you can help your own child establish coping strategies and regulation skills. 

In a way, parenting your child and “parenting yourself” go hand in hand. The same strategies you use for yourself can be used to help your child!

If you know that after a very overstimulating event, you need to take 20 minutes to lay down in a dark quiet room to recharge, you can also apply this to your child to help him/ her better self regulate. For example, when you notice your child beginning to escalate, you can take them to a quiet space to help calm and reset. If you’re out in public, you can take them aside to somewhere private that has less noise and stimulation. 

Remember, being highly sensitive means you are using up a lot of energy because you’re processing information very deeply and intensely. This increased cognitive and metabolic demand means that you are more likely to “burn out” faster. The need to be alone and away from stimulating situations is legitimate and valid- it’s a way to gain back the energy you have expended to be able to return to your normal level of functioning again. Being aware of this need can help you take the time you need to recoup- and validates your need for it. You aren’t being selfish, anti-social or lazy. It’s necessary.

What to do with all this information? A first step and helpful strategy might be to keep a casual sensory journal where you jot down how you feel throughout the day. When you notice feeling overwhelmed, write down what was going on at the time and the time of sensory stimulation that may have been too much for you.

Becoming more self aware and conscious will ultimately help in your understanding of the neurodivergent mind and select coping strategies that work for you. Over time, you can empower yourself and embrace the unique way your mind works (which includes all the positive advantages as well.)

Author: Christina Kozlowski, Occupational Therapist, OTR/L & Owner of Sensory TheraPLAY Box


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