I’m very pleased to welcome Taylor from Frayed Books to the blog today. Taylor has a strong interest in mental health and is currently pursuing her degree to become a clinical mental health counselor. She is going to tell us about the high sensitivity trait and how to better deal with overstimulation in her post. Thank you for sharing, Taylor!
You may think you know what this means, or what society defines being sensitive as. One definition defines it as “easily hurt or damaged; especially easily hurt emotionally”. And, while being sensitive does mean this, being highly sensitive means something completely different.
High sensitivity—a term coined by Elaine Aron—is an “innate temperament trait” that includes “neurological sensitivity to sensory and emotional stimuli”. Now, what does that mean? In lay terms, it means someone with high sensitivity—a highly sensitive person (HSP)—is “aware of subtleties of stimuli” in the environment and processes the world on a much deeper level. Fifteen to twenty percent of the population are highly sensitive: that is a MASSIVE number! Chances are you, or someone you know, is highly sensitive but you, or they, don’t even know there’s a term for it.
I wasn’t aware of the high sensitivity trait until I began my graduate school career in a clinical mental health counseling program. Once I had learned about it, I found myself ticking off almost all of the boxes on the checklist provided on Aron’s website about high sensitivity (you can find that here to take it yourself, if you like). Being aware of my high sensitivity has helped me so much in my life and I honestly live a better life knowing what the cause of some of my reactions to things are. I am able to tell people that I am highly sensitive and let them know what that means for me, including accommodations in certain situations.
One side of this trait includes being “very cerebral”, “observing and reflecting on the sidelines, compassion & empathy, and emotional intensity”. The cerebral trait causes a person to be very detail-oriented and concerned with many possible outcomes of a situation before making a decision. It could be seen as overthinking but it is more about being prepared. Observing and reflecting causes a person to seem shy and quiet. This aspect is about the person processing all of the stimuli they are faced with from all five senses and taking it all in. Compassion and empathy in HSPs is extremely strong. Because we feel things on a different level, we can truly feel when a person around us is upset and we want to do everything in our power to lessen their pain, since we can feel that too. Finally, emotional intensity refers to feeling our own emotions much stronger than others feel things. We take things to heart a little bit more and when we are sad, we are extremely sad, and conversely the same when we are happy.
The other side of this trait includes “easy overstimulation and over arousal”. This is where it is so important to understand whether you are an HSP and how to deal with these two factors. Overstimulation/over arousal can occur in a variety of situations, mostly in social ones where there is a lot to process at once. For example, as I mentioned before, understanding my high sensitivity has helped me in my job as a retail cashier. During a certain time of year, we have an influx of customers and the lines can get incredibly long, so long that you are ringing people out for hours straight. I have gotten so overwhelmed that, after work, I had to go home and sleep or just lay on the couch to recover from this overstimulation. Now that doesn’t mean that I can’t do it, I just need extra time to recover and I absolutely need to take my break so I have fifteen minutes to do so. There is a technique some use in regards to the symbolic meanings of a traffic light: green, yellow and red. Green means that the HSP is dealing adequately with stimulation. Yellow means that they are starting to become overwhelmed and to be cautious/observant. Red means that the HSP needs to remove themselves from the stimulation as soon as possible because of the affects it’s having on them.
The final point I’d like to talk about is misdiagnosis and variety of the trait. Because being highly sensitive is not a mental health disorder, it cannot be used to diagnose a person in counseling. High sensitivity can look like “shyness, anxiety, perfectionism or even neuroticism”. While a highly sensitive person can definitely be clinically anxious or depressed, it is important to understand that this might not always be the case. Even so, many HSPs can benefit from techniques such as mindfulness and yoga to help cope when they encounter overstimulation. One that has certainly helped me is using square breaths. Square breaths include visualizing the sides of a square while breathing in for four seconds and breathing out for four seconds as you imagine the square dissolving. This exercise helps to stimulate both the mind and the body and calm the person down. Additionally, it is important to mention that not every HSP is the same. Some HSPs are thrill seekers and love the rush of adrenaline from activities such as skydiving. The trait is as diverse as the people themselves are!
I hope that this post was helpful both to educate those who might have this trait and also those who might know someone with this trait. It cannot be helped and telling someone they need to “deal with it” is not going to be beneficial to them. Using the traffic light metaphor and respecting an HSP when they need to be alone can really change your relationships for the better!
Taylor loves traveling, binging TV shows and using copious amounts of highlighter so she glows like the sun. She is currently a graduate student studying to be a clinical mental health counselor and has a passion for mental health, as well as diminishing the stigma surrounding getting help when one needs it. She lives in Connecticut but travels to New York City quite often to visit her co-blogger and one day she hopes to live abroad in the U.K. Her favorite city is Paris and she could go on for hours about how magical and at home she feels when she visits. She loves Marvel movies and has a slight obsession with Wonder Woman. She loves to read books centered around LGBT and mental health themes, as these are two of her passions in life. Her favorite books include the Shadowhunter chronicles, Stalking Jack the Ripper, the Grisha saga and any book by Rick Riordan.
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Thanks again to Taylor for this very informative post! Feel free to talk to her in the comments or stop by her blog.
**The quotes in Taylor’s post come from Dr. Misty Ginicola’s presentation entitled: Counseling the Highly Sensitive Person**