Why being “sensitive” is not a put-down

Have you identified with being an empath, having a sixth sense, or grew up being labeled as too sensitive? You may have Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS). At the beginning of the twentieth century, Carl Jung was one of the first to notice that some individuals were born with a propensity for being more sensitive than the majority of the population. He estimated that only 15-20% had a unique ability to pick up on their surroundings and tune into the emotions and energy of others.

Aron and Aron (2004) have spent their professional career looking into Jung’s concept of “innate sensitiveness” and proposed the new term: Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) and those with SPS as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). What this means is that HSPs are born with a highly active nervous system that is more responsive to information picked up by the senses. Lights seem brighter, noises seem louder, smells can cause migraines, medications either don’t work or work too intensely. Some HSPs struggle with perpetual fatigue as everything in their environment feels overwhelming and their energy quickly drained without much effort.

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So, you’re an HSP. Now what? Well, let’s first be clear that being a sensitive person is not a negative character trait. For many of us, we grew up hearing that we were too sensitive. Sensitivity was a label put on us with a negative connotation. We need to change this narrative. Being sensitive means that there are biological differences in a person’s genetic composition. It’s not wrong, it’s just more. HSPs tend to be more in tune with the emotions of others. They often have a rich inner life experience, meaningful dreams, and profound intuition. It’s like a superhero power that must be explored, learned, and effectively managed.

“Having an active nervous system makes the HSP prone to a more responsive arousal system in the brain, especially after exposure to bright lights, dense and chaotic environments, loud noise, or just strong smells” (Aron, 2003).

Rizzo-Sierra (2012) stated, “On the other hand, having an active nervous system allows higher amounts of sensory information to be processed simultaneously by the brain, making HSPs excellent at picking up subtle environmental details and cures. This heightened sensitivity leads to sensory overloads, maximizing brain activity and making HSPs feel easily worn out, overwhelmed, and exhausted since they seem to sense every single detail in their interactions with the environment.”

Sensory Processing Sensitivity can be exhausting. But doesn’t it feel good to know that there are biological differences in the body and brain that cause this reaction? I don’t know about you, but when I first came to understand myself as an HSP, all of the things I had heard about myself for so long finally began to make sense. Others had complained that I was too introverted, a loner, took too many naps, etc. The truth is, I was an HSP that had not learned to take care of myself with good self-care and emotional boundaries. I was always exhausted because I had not learned to manage my sensitivity.

An HSP must maintain a good self-care regiment to stay healthy and mentally well. For most, this means at least 8 hours of sleep per night, regular healthy meals, personal retreat space, emotional boundaries, and time to decompress after stressful situations. You may notice that some HSPs are constantly turning lights down or off completely. Some prefer to wear noise-cancelling headphones in noisy environments. Each HSP must tune into her own body and recognize what depletes energy. She must also learn what works so that she can function well in her environment.

Resources:

Rizzo-Sierra, C. V., (2012). The human sensory processing sensitivity: biological implications for introversion, submission, and creativity.

Aaron, E. N., (2003). The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP): How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.