My youngest daughter has always struggled with being overwhelmed by sensory things – sounds, lighting, smells, and even just the presence of other people in the same room. We never fully understood what she was experiencing – people would call her shy, quiet, even rude. She struggled in school not because the work was too hard but because the environment overwhelmed her so much that she wasn’t able to think. So she homeschooled most years – if she could sit in a quiet, dim room, she did quite well, but in a classroom with 30 other kids, bright lights and lots of sound, she simply couldn’t absorb everything that was coming into her brain.

When she was 13, I took Jillian to see her favorite musician in concert at a music festival. She had looked forward to seeing him for months and was so thrilled when we first headed over to take our place right in front of the stage. Halfway through the first song, she looked up at me wish tears and trembling and in panic said “I don’t know what to do!” I whisked her out of the concert and we found a quiet place for her to re-center and calm down. She wanted so badly to stand in the center of the crowd, hop up and down and sing along – but the overwhelming lights, loud music, screaming and chanting, and just overload of surroundings was too much for her nervous system. Her heart was broken – but she knew she wasn’t a person who would be able to enjoy events like that.

A few years later, she saw a billboard that posed the question: “Is your child overwhelmed by sounds, lights and touch? They may a be Highly Sensitive Person“.

She quickly pointed it out and of course googled it and learned that Jillian is about as highly sensitive as they come.

There is a sense of relief that comes with applying a term to unexplained symptoms and traits. It’s as if knowing that someone else understands somehow makes it ok. She’s not shy, she’s not rude, she’s extremely over-sensitized by the world.

Psychologists Elaine and Arthur Aron’s first developed the term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP, sometimes referred to as Sensory Processing Sensitive or SPS) in the mid-90s. They identified a percentage of the population as having a difficult, slower responsiveness to stimuli.

The Aron’s noted that HSP is not a disorder – they refer to it as a characteristic, trait, or survival strategy, as it is not what happens to the sensory organs but rather how the brain processes sensory information.

HSPs have an “increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social and emotional stimuli” (Boterberg, et.al. 2016) – which essentially just means they take in everything around them more deeply.

Highly Sensitive People are often:

  • Easily overwhelmed by lights, smells, sounds and touch
  • Highly aware of subtleties in the environment
  • Highly response to stimuli such as pain, caffeine, hunger
  • Intimately affected by others moods

HSPs process the world on a cognitively deeper level, often causing an increased reaction time, which can be interpreted by others as being shy or rude.

However, because HSPs process everything more deeply, they have a richer, more comprehensive understanding of the world around them. This can give them the ability to enjoy life more fully and even be one step ahead of the rest of the world.

It takes work. It takes knowledge. It takes understanding. And it takes appreciating the details of the trait rather than focusing on the aspects that are different from other people.

It is estimated that up to 20% (1 in 5) of the population is HSP to some degree, which means you interact with them daily. I encourage you to look at people you used to call shy or rude just a little differently and perhaps give them a little more acceptance and appreciation for the way they experience the world.

More of my HSP blogposts: Highly Sensitive People

For more information on HSP, go to Elain Aron’s website: https://hsperson.com/

Watch the trailer for the movie Sensitive: https://vimeo.com/102296720

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