PHOTO: Keenan Constance
Text: Alejandra Misiolek
Over the past years the term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) has become popular among our patients. On the one hand, as the author of the term explains, although only 20% of the population are highly sensitive, the majority of psychotherapy patients are. But, on the other hand and probably most importantly, I found that this label, unlike any other labels that people can be diagnosed with in the area of menta health, brings relief.
What does it mean to be highly sensitive?
A highly sensitive person (HSP) is a term for those who are thought to have an increased or deeper central nervous system sensitivity to physical, emotional, or social stimuli.
Many patients state: “My whole life I have been told that I am overreacting.” “My parents always criticized me for being shy.” “I have thought that there is something wrong with me.” And then they discover that this “over-sensitivity” is not pathological nor is it acquired. It is a feature they are born with and it could even be adaptative, depending on the circumstances and the bonds we are surrounded by from the early childhood. No wonder then it is a relief. Finally, someone, who is also a psychologist, a psychotherapist and a scientist, confirms that I am perfectly normal. That can be really liberating!
How do we know it is not pathological? E. Aron, the author of this theory, researched this feature for many years among humans (babies, children, and adults) and animals and confirms that 20% of the population can be described as highly sensitive. According to what we understand by pathology, it is too frequent. Pathologies tend to affect a little percentage of the population (up to 5% more or less). She also confirms that this feature, if met with adequate surrounding (secure attachment, attunement, no discrimination for being sensitive, etc.) can even be beneficial because this high sensitivity conditions us to take better advantage of our surrounding. Moreover, people who are highly sensitive and are in therapy, can take better advantage of their treatment.
Although high sensitivity is not a pathology itself, it can be a risk factor to develop other psychological conditions like social anxiety, general anxiety, cyclothymia, depression, phobias, etc. Moreover, differentiating between a patient with a disorder conditioned by their high sensitivity from a person who is only highly sensitive or who is not highly sensitive and developed psychopathology due to harmful life events, can be tricky for specialists and different treatment approaches might be necessary.
While discovering that someone can be highly sensitive without pathologizing this feature can be very liberating for many people, there are some risks of self-diagnosis with the HSP feature. Some people might try to explain their pathological shyness or anxiety with being sensitive, while they are not, and they could be treated. Others could try to explain some of their needs (of isolation) by high sensitivity while the base could be different and modifiable, leading to not making an effort to change. Finally, there is still research going on and the validity if the feature as being separate from others already studied (like the big five) and of the self-administered questionnaire, cannot be totally confirmed.
To conclude, having seen how alleviating and liberating it might be to so many people that what they feel is recognized, not criticized, comprehended, and normalized, I wonder why can´t we make an effort to stop stigmatizing the conditions that are listed as pathological. If people could feel understood and not criticized for being anxious, depressed or bulimic, it would be so much easier for them to look for help and obtain it!
Want to take the test yourself? It is available for free here
Aron, E. N. (2013). The highly sensitive person: How to thrive when the world overwhelms you. Kensington Publishing Corp..
Aron, E. N. (2011). Psychotherapy and the highly sensitive person: Improving outcomes for that minority of people who are the majority of clients. Routledge.
Smolewska, K. A., McCabe, S. B., & Woody, E. Z. (2006). A psychometric evaluation of the Highly Sensitive Person Scale: The components of sensory-processing sensitivity and their relation to the BIS/BAS and “Big Five”. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(6), 1269-1279.