Dr Evelyn Lewin unravels everything you need to know about Highly Sensitive People, who are roughly 30 per cent of the population.
You’ve been running around like crazy all day and you feel totally frazzled. You’re starving, too, and it’s making you full-on hangry.
Plus, that comment your friend said about being oversensitive keeps playing on your mind. If any of that sounds familiar, you could be a HSP.
What is a HSP?
HSP stands for Highly Sensitive Person. It describes a person who has “high sensory processing sensitivity,” says clinical psychologist Rachel Samson, from the Centre for Schema Therapy Australia. In simpler terms, she explains it is a temperament trait (meaning, it describes your nature). Everyone varies on how high or low we are when it comes to sensory processing sensitivity, and HSPs are “really high” on that front, says Samson.
Singer Alanis Morissette is one. In a documentary on HSP called Sensitive – The Untold Story, she talked about having the trait. “I remember probably about ten years ago, my father and I were sitting down. I was hosting a show in Canada and [I] was having a moment and I was crying about something, which he’d gotten used to I suppose at that point,” she said.
“[And] he said to me, he said, ‘Alanis, I’m so sorry. We just never really knew what to do with you, we were at a loss.’Something about that moment, it validated a lot of my having felt alone in a world where I felt misperceived and misunderstood,” she said. But she’s far from alone. Samson says it was first estimated that around 15-20 percent of the population were highly sensitive. “But more recent research has shown that up to 30 per cent of the population has the trait,” she says.
Like what you see? Sign up to our bodyandsoul.com.au newsletter for more stories like this.
What are the characteristics of an HSP?
There are four main characteristics, Samson says. These are:
A greater depth of processing: In basic terms, Samson explains this just means you’re someone who thinks really deeply about things.
Being prone to overstimulation: HSPs get easily overwhelmed. That can be from physical stimuli – such as being in a crowded shopping centre – or emotional stuff, such as when you have a whole heap of things going on in your life.
Emotional reactivity and empathy: HSPs feel things more intensely than others. They also have more empathy than others.
Ability to sense subtleties: These people can pick up slight changes in the environment. In other words, they notice things that other people don’t.
How can HSPs cope better with everyday life?
The first step to navigating life as an HSP is to understand the trait, says Samson.
“The more people that understand how their nervous system works and how they’re wired differently to other people, the more they can give themselves permission to respond to their own needs and then carve out a life that’s a better match for their temperament,” she says.
Part of carving out a better life involves ensuring that people with high sensitivity get more rest, as their need for time out is higher than average. Getting adequate rest “usually leads to them being more emotionally balanced and fulfilled and able to do more of what they enjoy,” Samson says.
Therapy can also play a significant role. Because HSPs have all those intense emotions, and think about things deeply, they need a good shoulder to lean on, and therapy can provide just that. Plus, Samson says the research shows that people with high sensitivity are also affected more strongly by therapy than the average person. That means that they may get more out of such sessions than other people would.
Lastly, Samson says, HSP shouldn’t worry that their trait is a negative influence in their life. Sensitivity often gets a bad rap, she says, but it’s certainly not all bad news. “In the right environment,” she says, “HSPs have the potential to flourish above and beyond the average person”.
Quiz: Are you a Highly Sensitive Person*?
1. Do you think about things deeply?
A. Yes, all the time
B. Meh? Sometimes
C. Not really
2. Do you get overwhelmed easily, especially when you have a lot to do?
A. That’s me in a nutshell
C. I’m cool as a cucumber, tbh
3. Do you feel things intensely?
A. I have all the feels, all the time
B. Some days I get the feelz, especially when I haven’t slept well
C. I’m not an overly emotional person
4. Do you take on other people’s problems and get affected by their moods?
A. Every. Single. Day.
B. At times
C. Nup. Other people’s problems aren’t mine
5. Do loud noises and bright lights bother you?
A. Absolutely. I get frazzled when there’s heaps going on
B. Kind of? I guess it depends
C. I barely notice those kinds of things
If you answered mostly A’s: You could be a HSP
If you answered mostly B’s: You may have HSP tendencies
If you answered mostly C’s: You’re unlikely to be a HSP
*This mini-quiz can only give you a rough idea of where you lie in terms of being a HSP. For a more detailed analysis, check this out.