Have you ever heard someone say about you or your child:
“You’re so sensitive”
“You just need to relax”
“Stop worrying so much”
These are all things that, if you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), you’ve probably heard on numerous occasions. Well-meaning advice, that has at its core the best of intentions, but forgoes the understanding of what it is and what it means to be Highly Sensitive.
High sensitivity is becoming a phrase that’s more and more common to hear. The world over, we’re also becoming more aware and accepting of the idea that some children are innately born into this world with different needs, sensitivities and temperaments (event though we still have a long way to go!)
But what exactly is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
In simple terms, an HSP is someone who is more sensitive to the nuance and subtleties in their surroundings. Someone with what we can understand as a heightened nervous system, one that registers and absorbs more from the world around them, which tends to result in deep, inquisitive, thoughtful thinkers.
Someone who easily gets overstimulated by all that stimuli coming at them – both from inside their bodies (stomach aches, gas, feelings of anxiety, butterflies in your stomach, pain) but also stimuli out in the world around you (noise, smells, light, emotions of others, etc.)
And while it is a trait that’s often mistaken for introversion (a label that has since shown to be wrong, given 30% of HSPs are extroverts), research shows that it’s a trait all its own. One that’s present in 20-30% of the population and has been found in hundreds of species other than humans.
So let’s start by breaking it down a bit more.
There are four main facets of this trait that can help us to better understand the HSP. They include:
Depth of Processing
Emotional Responsivity & Empathy
Sensitivity to Sensory Stimulation
So let’s dig in!
Depth of Processing is the main characteristic of high sensitivity. What it means is that HSPs absorb more from their surroundings and analyze that information more deeply. They spend a lot more time than their non-highly sensitive counterparts reflecting, worrying and wondering about all that information they’re processing. HSPs spend a lot of time consciously or unconsciously perceiving, analyzing, categorizing all that stimuli – which is most often sensory or emotional in nature. Research has shown that highly sensitive people use parts of their brain associated with deeper processing more than most & tend to think things over for longer, spending time questioning whether their decisions are right or wrong.
Overstimulation is common for HSPs given their nervous systems are more sensitive. Due to the absorption and processing of more information those nervous systems can easily become overwhelmed. Both adults and children who are highly sensitive can become more stressed & dysregulated by noise, clutter, chaos, as they notice every little thing in their environment. Over time, with repeated exposure to all that information coming at them, they’ll get worn down and no longer be able to manage all those sensations they’re experiencing – which is often when we see those big meltdowns in our little ones, but also anxiety or rage in our older kids & ourselves. You may have found that you needed to rock, bounce or feed your children more as a baby or toddler to help them calm down and regulate their overstimulated nervous systems. And there is often no “drowsy but awake” with these children, much to the dismay of their very tired parents!
Emotional Responsivity and Empathy are traits of the HSP, because as we’ve learned from brain imaging studies, they actually have more reactive mirror neurons in their brains. Mirror Neurons are those that fire and wire in the brain in response to observing others, helping us immediately and instinctively learn merely by watching, but also helping us to better understand what others are feeling by feeling it ourselves as well. There is an evolutionary benefit to this, given we’re social creatures us humans, so there’s an advantage to having a certain emotional connectedness to others. So, when someone you know is feeling stressed or overwhelmed, these neurons in your own brain will fire and leave you experiencing those very same feelings. So while there’s a benefit to this, there’s also a cost and we can end up feeling more overwhelmed and exhausted by all those emotions we’re feeling as we go through our day. And within our families, while you’re going to be more likely to feel what your child is feeling, they’re also more likely to feel what you’re feeling. So we have to be conscious of this relationship so that we can prevent ourselves from getting into a situation where we’re all triggering each other (It’s hard, though, I’ll be the first to admit!)
It also means that for our highly sensitive children, who are much more attuned to their parent’s emotional states, it’s important not to downplay our feelings. Saying things like “mummy’s not mad” or “daddy’s fine”, will only leave these kids doubting their interpretation of their world, when they already know you’re feeling sad or angry. So it’s always best to name our feelings, rather than diminish them, when they come up in front of them.
Finally, HSPs are more Sensitive to Sensory Stimuli. Which means we’re not only more attuned to sensory input like changes in temperature, smell or sounds, but that we tend to be hyper-sensitive to some of this sensory stimuli. Meaning, it feel like too much – too loud, too strong, too cold, too bright. We can struggle to tune out a dripping shower or ticking clock. We can startle at loud noises. And we can be more distressed & sensitive to discomfort within our own bodies – like teething pain, or gas, etc. This internal sensory system is known as interoception and it means that we’re much more aware of the subtle changes happening inside of our bodies.
Where Does High Sensitivity Come From?
Research points to high sensitivity being inherited. Certain genes and brain differences have been identified between HSPs and non HSPs. And if either you or your partner are highly sensitive, it’s very likely one of your children will be too.
While there is this innate predisposition to sensitivity, it’s also important to remember that it’s not an all or nothing concept. Sensitivity exists on a spectrum – so if we understand epigenetics, which is the science of our genes being switched on or off due to our environment, we can see that for a child predisposed to sensitivity, how their sensitivity shows up in the world is very likely to be impacted by that environment. So while there are suggestions that it is based in our genetics, there is also undoubtedly an interaction going between the highly sensitive person and their surrounding.
Being highly sensitive can be a gift that makes you more attuned, empathic, and connected to other people and your children. Yet, you might find that these same gifts lead to feelings of overwhelm, exhaustion and overstimulation.
If you’re unsure as to whether you’re highly sensitive yourself, click HERE to take the quiz!
Once you become aware and see your sensitivity for what it is, you can start valuing and prioritizing the need for down time and regulation in a way that helps you navigate the world as the beautiful sensitive soul that you are.