What is HSP?

Literally an HSP is a ‘highly sensitive person’. It is a term that gets used and misused so let’s clarify. HSP specifically, is a term coined by Dr. Elaine Aron a clinical psychologist in the 1990s, to describe a commonality of certain personality types she was finding in therapy. It is important to note here Dr. Aron has always maintained that this observation and resulting research is about a healthy personality type. It is important to emphasise that HSP is not a ‘diagnosis’ nor a mental health problem, it is indeed a ‘processing style’ – which comes with challenges and advantages.

The HSP tends to receive and process more information than most – especially sensory input and social information. The depth and speed of processing can mean such people experience challenges such as overwhelm, higher tendency to anxiety and low mood, self-doubt and so on – but the flip side of this offers ‘vantage sensitivity’ in the forms of heightened empathy, creativity, intuition, intelligence and, what’s more (from my own research speciality), a higher natural capacity for ‘psi phenomena’ aka psychic capacities. It is perhaps no surprise that HSPs can feel ‘different’ and misunderstood by others and are drawn to caring or creative roles in life.

We use the term ‘HSP’ now quite widely in psychology as an informal shorthand to refer to people who think and feel very deeply but it goes by many names according to field of research e.g. it is more scientifically termed ‘sensory processing sensitivity’ which focusses on the processing ‘style’. In bio psychological terms it is ‘environmental sensitivity’ where the emphasis is on a persons reactivity to information in their environment.

This HSP processing style and reactivity is considered to be an innate trait found in approx 20% – 30% of the population (equally across male/female genders) and so far, has been identified in over 100 over species too. Living as an HSP can be paradoxical – it is a minority of us humans yet this minority make up almost half of people in therapy. Certain dimensions of the trait are thought to be linked to giftedness and mystical or spiritual states of consciousness too. Yet the HSP is likely to be stuck in self-doubt and procrastination. Whatever we called it, it is a very real, beautiful and tangible way of being with so much inherent good to cultivate.

To this effect, it is observed that HSPs make up bout a 20% – 30% of the population yet almost half of people in therapy. The term SPS is often used to refer to the same traits – ‘sensory processing sensitivity‘. What is believed to be occurring in an HSP according to the ongoing research, is that an HSP processes their sensory information, (especially emotional and social cues) much faster and more deeply than is the ‘norm’ or average. This is in some ways, the opposite trait to someone with sensory processing disorder, where the information isn’t processed well at all. Curiously, almost as though two sides of the same spectrum, the manifested results can be a similar overwhelm (but for different reasons).

The high sensitivity is an innate trait, found in both men and women – and also in many other species too, which intrigues me as a parapsychologist, as this also relates very well to the research on psi phenomena, i.e. high sensitivity in people and animals, predicts their ability to know when they are being watched by unseen observer…, intuition, ESP, spid-y senses, if you like (it is more formally known as ‘remote staring detection’, and the work of biologist Prof. Rupert Sheldrake has many good examples of this).

Anyhoo, back to the topic in hand.

Dr. Aron has offered us a handy acronym: DOES

D – Depth of processing, especially social and emotional information

O – Overstimulation, tendency to be over stimulated by what’s going on around us (external world – bright lights, loud nose, crowds…) and also inside (internal world of thoughts-  bodily sensations, emotions)

E – Empathy, tendency to really feel what others are feeling – not just sympathise.

S – Sensitive to subtle cues, nuance of both what’s going around us e.e atmospheric changes, and also what we sense within us e.g. body hunger, temperature, stress, illness or pain.

So here are some examples to help frame this. You may relate to being:

  •  Quiet and focussed whilst you take in information and think it through, thoroughly. This may also mean you are observant for much of your time socially.
  •  Anxiety triggered by physical discomfort or feel alarmed when your environment turns really loud or bright or crowded.
  •  Overcome with sadness when seeing a child cry, an injured animal or an advert for a charity on TV.
  •  Aware when a storm is going to break or when another person, pet or yourself are beginning to feel poorly.

Each of the aspects is also an interplay with the others – and have positive and challenging results. The above are examples from my own experience – and below are how such sensitivities can manifest in both good and challenges way:

  •  Sometimes I feel a tight pressure around my head (like I’m wearing a tight hat) and I note this reliably correlates to changing weather activity outside… just before heavy rain or even a storm breaks. Both the headache sensation and weather are related to subtle changes is atmospheric pressure.
  •  Similarly, I get knock out by smells and can be physical sick because of unpleasant odours.  I have been known to ‘sniff out’ the locations decaying rodents – projects that my cats had ‘forgotten’ about yet I can also smell the intensity of fresh flowers and grasses like no-other in my household.
  •  When I was learning at school, I always needed to examine and process how mathematics, laws of physics and geometry ‘worked’  in such a way that I invested a lot of time and effort to  understand the underpinning logic and philosophical bases. It may have meant more effort and time but the upshot is that I have a natural habit of looking deeply and therefore, becoming able to make many interconnections that most would simply miss by being only on the ‘surface’ of what they are doing. Just ‘accepting’ the equations and facts was no good to me.

The key is to not fixate on the negatives as though there is an overall problem to fix, the key is reliance to what challenges there are for you – and celebration of what is progressive and wonderful. See this experience as a whole, greater than the sum of its parts – and you get to CHOOSE the direction of experience.

All of this means that an HSP requires certain optimal conditions to thrive. The flip side is that when we do thrive… we have a heightened potential than average. This is why leveraging the sensitivity as a strength needs to be a practical and holistic in approach. I believe that the enhanced or heightened sensitivity is a Strength – when channelled in to a creative purpose such as art, healing, caring and intuitive professions. It’s an immense resource and skill to be able to perceive more than most. Although HSPs can be easily fatigued or overwhelmed by say, crowds and the emotions of others; on the other hand, they have an intense insight in to how to heal and help others.

Understanding your HSP processing style – as the gift it actually is – can be totally life-changing when you realise that all that dud advice about being ‘too sensitive’ and your need to ‘toughen up’ is false and misguided rhetoric from an lesser sensitive, arguably ‘masculine’ dominated culture that has historically valued competition and empire building – the patriarchy some would say. Sensitivity is the clear key to any success now in this emerging era of intense communication and interconnection above all else.