When I read the list of questions for identifying a highly sensitive person I immediately and without hesitation connected utterly and wholeheartedly to this “diagnosis.”
Among the elements that identify a HSP is the aversion and the powerful sensory impact on them of bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, the sound of sirens, drab environments and violent movies, to name a few. I always felt that these elements impacted me much stronger than most of the people around me. The pronounced and extreme sensitivity of HSP’S to other people’s moods was also something that I totally identified with.
Not surprisingly a lot of my answers to the 27 questions in the questionnaire were a resounding yes!
Once it was confirmed that I may indeed fall into this category something clicked in me that felt joyfully liberating: was it possible that finally, in midlife, I found a context and a welcome validation for some lifelong needs that, until that moment, had seemed to me (and sometimes to others) out of proportion and awkward?
And what a reassuring discovery that these needs and tendencies are not “just in my mind” but have a biological basis in a nervous system that is wired in such a way to be more open and receptive to sensory input.
In 1996, Dr. Elaine Aron published her groundbreaking book: “The Highly Sensitive Person.”
In it, she detailed the special nature of the highly sensitive person, which she attributed to genetic causes. What this means is that through no fault of their own and because of a biological inheritance, a highly sensitive person has a different nervous system and is therefore biologically different from other people. One out of five people is highly sensitive, a trait that exists in humans and more than 100 other species. Most highly sensitive people are introverted but approximately 30% of HSPs are extroverted.”*
In the book Dr. Aron speaks about a lot about “reframing” past experiences in the light of the knowledge of being a “highly sensitive person.” Reading about the highly sensitive person started that process for me: Is my strong and daily need to spend time alone, in silence and in soothing spaces not just a private aberration, but seen in this new framework, a skillful way to protect and restore my highly sensitive nervous system?
Were my weekly average of 10 hours of Yoga practice in my twenties, whilst working as a television news producer, not a form of escapism (as some had described it), but simply the only way to rescue my nervous system from the constant overstimulation that I experienced in my job? Were the times that, as a child and member of a large family, spent in solitude either in nature or in the pews of the many churches (they abound and were open 24 hrs during my childhood in my native Italy) not a symptom of social awkwardness, but instead a honest need and attempt to manage my interactions with highly extraverted parents and a chaotic family life?
The fact that after leaving my job as a television producer, I embarked on a journey to create a sanctuary by a creek for Yoga and Wellness, called Healing Waters, now seems an even more of a natural choice: Not only do HSP’s apparently thrive near water, but often find or create jobs that specifically address their needs for quiet time and inner directive-ness.
I often joke that if, would I have not found Yoga and other contemplative practices I may have gone crazy: these practices gave a “legitimate” framework to be quiet, introspective and in touch with my body on a daily basis, and allowed my nervous system to recover from the states of over arousal that occur on a regular basis for a HSP.
As Maria Hill states in her book “The emerging sensitive” (2015-12-07): “Overstimulation is a complex and serious issue for highly sensitive people. Because HSPs work from the inside out, which means they take in energetic information, process it deeply, and then respond from what they have learned, they can easily become depleted and stressed and burn out.”
She goes on to say:
“Highly sensitive people absorb the energy around them like a sponge. Working with that energy in a positive and constructive way is the foundation for their life journey. Where many people form identities primarily from factors like gender, race, religion, and social or occupational roles, HSPs identify first with their energy-oriented nature and the natural world. You could say that energy is their home.“*
Particularly this statement hit home in a electrifying way: it describes a process that I am constantly engaged in: tuning in. I do that in my work as a Yoga teacher and as a coach naturally, but that is also how I ”enter“ any given situation. It feels that my inner energetic radar is always on….
Another important realization that emerged from this new awareness was my assumption that most people in my professional field come with that innate ability to click into an energy field. This assumption made me less skillful as a teacher in training yoga teachers: the trainees, some of whom most likely were highly sensitive people (I am pretty sure that there is an abundance of them in the Yoga teacher circles) felt validated and appreciated when I encouraged them to use the “energetic circuit” to make choices in their teaching cues and sequences and immediately understood this approach. The non HSP’s who came in with an equally important, yet very different skill set instead often felt “left out” and insecure on where to “source“ their guidance.
I am personally very grateful to Dr. Aron that she discovered, articulated and refined her understanding of the “high sensitive“ trait and paved the way for others to continue this path.
There are many areas that can benefit from these studies from healthcare to education to design. I am wondering among other things whether people that suffer from chronic fatigue and from fibromyalgia may be highly sensitive people who are constantly trying to conform to a culture baseline of activity and engagement and in their effort to “keep up”, deplete themselves to such a degree that they develop a chronic condition. Definitely worth much more research.
As I continue to delve into this subject matter and continue to refine stress management programs for HSPs, together with my colleagues at MaLa, I hope to contribute to alleviate some of the challenges that the HSP face given their particular way to belong to the world.
If you wonder if you are an HSP you can find the test and many other resources at
*Hill, Maria (2015-12-07). The Emerging Sensitive: A Guide for Finding Your Place in the World (Kindle Locations 131-137). BookBaby. Kindle Edition.