Are You Highly Sensitive?

During high school and several years into college I had terrible anxiety. I would often think about the future, get overwhelmed and panic. Projects, papers, studying and work would overwhelm me when I felt like I wouldn’t be able to get it all done and often caused me to “shut down.” But the thing that most often caused my anxiety to spike was interactions with other people. 

I’m an extrovert for the most part and like to be around people. But many hours or even days after interactions with people I would replay the conversations we had in my mind, over and over again. Often my self-talk would include berating myself or shaming myself because I had said or done something I didn’t mean “exactly” or “wasn’t trying to say.” For example, if I told someone something that wasn’t exactly what I was trying to say, I would talk and talk to try and explain what I meant. Then later I would replay the whole conversation, creating dialogue of what I really meant to say. It was exhausting! 

It wasn’t until I was in my late 30’s and had learned coping skills to manage my anxiety fairly well, that I realized that I am a highly sensitive person. I began reading the book, The Highly Sensitive Child, by Dr. Elaine Aron because a colleague suggested my younger son might be highly sensitive. Since the trait is usually hereditary, I decided to take the parent test. I was actually surprised that I was highly sensitive, especially since the anxiety and panic in college had long since passed. Finding out I had this trait helped put many pieces of the puzzle together and gave me a lens of understanding for how I respond to the world. It also helped me parent my son better too! 

When I suspect one of my client’s is highly sensitive, I have them start with taking the highly sensitive person self-test ( When I first introduce this trait, most people usually think it is related to Autism Spectrum. But the two are very different. One of the main reasons a person will be put “on” or “off” the spectrum is based on how well they can read social cues in their environment, although many other factors are involved. A highly sensitive person on the other hand, “over reads” the social cues in their environment and often results in getting overwhelmed easily. 

According to the latest research, high sensitivity is found in about 15-20% of the population. In addition to people, the trait is also found in animals, fish and insects. It occurs at the same rate in males and females. Often when I explain this part of the trait to my clients they tell me they have a highly sensitive pet. I don’t think is a coincidence since highly sensitive people tend to find the animal with whom they share the trait! 

One of the biggest components of being a highly sensitive person (HSP) is how a person reads their environment, or the depth of processing. For example, this person is very good at taking in a lot of information from the environment and then making quick decisions about it. HSPs usually read social cues very well, pick up on people’s moods and intuitively know when someone needs something. Most often HSPs are in the helping profession (e.g., teachers, pastors, nurses, doctors, counselors, etc.). And they need more downtime due to the amount of energy it takes to process all of the information they take in. 

Overstimulation is the second part of the trait. Bright lights, crowds, strong smells and loud places tend to overwhelm HSPs because they notice more all at once. For example, when an HSP is in a crowded shopping mall at Christmas, they might notice the baby crying, the kid whining, someone rattling their keys, the bright lights and how noisy it is with everyone talking. They tend to notice all of these things at once versus being spread out over the length of a visit. 

The third part of the trait is emotional reactivity and empathy. Typically HSPs react more positively and negatively to events and feelings and experience a deep level of empathy. Research has found that HSPs have a more active mirror neuron system. Mirror neurons are the type of neurons that fire in the brain when we perform an activity and when we see someone performing an activity. For example, when you wince or recoil as you see someone get hit in the face with a ball. Instinctively you know the person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions. 

Sensing more subtleties is the fourth part of the trait. Since HSPs tend to have a more complex processing neurological system, they have a greater awareness of people’s feelings and moods and are able to read nonverbal clues and subtle facial expressions. Therefore, HSPs often react by instinctively knowing a person’s wants or needs before they ask. For example, HSPs will notice when someone is uncomfortable and will attempt to remedy their discomfort quickly. 

Part of the difficulty of being an HSP in our culture is the fact that sensitivity is not highly valued. Research has shown that in places like Eastern Asia, the quiet, sensitive children are usually more popular because they are considered wise and intuitive. In our culture, HSPs are usually considered to be babies or shy because they “can’t stand up for themselves.” 

Most of the clients I see who are highly sensitive report symptoms of:

  • high anxiety

  • difficulty navigating social situations

  • being overwhelmed easily

  • needing more down time

  • difficulty sleeping, depression 

  • low-self esteem or self-worth

  • difficulty handling criticism

  • perfectionism

  • feeling stuck or taking a long time to get over something

  • ruminating and/or obsessive thinking

  • problems with change

  • difficulty with crowds

  • being a people-pleaser

  • and an increased focus on helping others and ignoring the needs of self. 

While this is not a complete list and high sensitivity issues can be as complex and varied as people, these are the symptoms I see most often. High sensitivity is also considered to be on a spectrum, meaning people experience various levels of intensity and difficulty with processing their environment. 

One of the goals I have when working with someone who is a HSP is get them to set good boundaries around their emotions and relationships. It took me a long time to figure out that I don’t really enjoy large crowds or noisy places. So rather than working hard to avoid these situations altogether, I stay for shorter periods of time and then am kind to myself when I have to leave. In the past, when I encountered similar situations I would berate myself for not being able to “handle” that situation better or longer. I have also learned to give myself grace when I’m in a social situation and I don’t say something exactly the way I meant, or when a job I do is good enough but not perfect. And once I teach my clients similar self-care skills and good boundaries, they begin to experience relief and freedom from the symptoms of high sensitivity they once found wrong or bad. 

I hope this helps you find the answers to questions you may have about highly sensitive persons in Greenwood, IN. If you’re feeling like you are highly sensitive and you need help figuring out how to set good boundaries and get freedom from self-criticism, please feel free to contact me! I’d be happy to hear what is happening and help you find the right fit for counseling. I also offering coaching opportunities for parents with highly sensitive kids. Find out more about this resource HERE.

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