Highly sensitive people

What are highly sensitive people? Research psychologist Dr Elaine Aron suggests that approximately 15-20% of humans (and for that matter, animals) have evolved to be markedly more responsive to their environment. These highly sensitive people (HSPs) have nervous systems and minds which permit more stimulation to enter without automatically and unconsciously shutting it out. They also cognitively process the stimulation that they receive in more detail than others do.

High sensitivity is part of the normal spectrum of human responsiveness. It comes bearing gifts of perceptiveness, intuition, conscientiousness and empathy for others… qualities which are of inestimable value to human society. However, there can be a down side when an individual is unaware of their temperament and continues to try and fit in with the other 80-85% of the population.

What do we mean by “stimulation?

Stimulation comes in on all sensory channels: sights, sounds, smells, vibrations, touch. HSP’s typically respond strongly and quickly reach their natural level of tolerance in loud, bright or chaotic environments. Managing this kind of overstimulation could be treated as a “technical problem” of reducing environmental intensity or leaving it when possible.
Five kinds of over-stimulation which can contribute to depression

(1) Chronic environmental overstimulation.

A sensitive child may not leave a busy classroom, a worker may not always have the luxury of leaving an intolerable workplace and a loving, sensitive mother cannot abandon her children when they are “over-stimulating ”

HSPs who are chronically over-stimulated and feel incapable of exercising control over their environment may be at higher risk for developing feelings of helplessness, hopelessness.

(2) Internal bodily stimulation

HSPs are closely tuned in to information and signals from their bodies. Internal sensations of hunger, thirst, over-heating, physical tiredness, insufficient rest; all can produce a strong reaction in an HSP. As a result, HSP’s sometimes become overly concerned about their health and experience anxiety and a sense of vulnerability .

(3) A rich and stimulating inner life.

Another set of stimuli arises in the form of fantasies, dreams and internal reflections. All those anxious, critical or magical thoughts float around in the background of our usual conscious thinking. Whilst interesting to an HSP they can become overwhelmed, feel a sense of fragility and inadequacy.

(4) Interpersonal over-stimulation

Other human beings are highly stimulating to be around! All human beings are constantly signalling their emotional states to one another through tone of voice, posture, gestures and eye contact. As a result an HSP are often unknowingly buffeted and captured by the emotional states of those around them. This includes the news. If an HSP is living closely with a depressed or mentally ill person or in a depressing environment, they may find it very difficult not to become depressed themselves.

(5) Chemically related depressive responses

Being very attuned to their bodies, HSP’s notice physical changes which can occur due to very low levels of environmental contaminants or very low doses of medications.

Some medications for cardiac disease, hypertension and cholesterol can sometimes cause depression symptoms because these medications affect the brain as well as the rest of the body. Oral contraceptives and hormone replacement medications also may affect mood. Anti-anxiety drugs, and mood stabilizers which are intended to reduce anxious tension also carry the risk of depression as a side effect.   Strong prescription acne medication is known to cause depression in some individuals.

A vicious circle…

Sensitivity to their own responses leads highly sensitive people to feelings of fragility which in turn convince the individual that they cannot change or influence their environment.   Anxious thoughts also contribute to the feeling of helpless, hopelessness that leads to depression.

Feeling empowered helps… Fortunately, studies have also suggested that sensitivity works both ways.   Sensitive individuals are also particularly able to enjoy pleasurable stimulation, and benefit powerfully from the love, support and interest of those around them.

Highly sensitive people often benefit quickly from psychotherapeutic support which helps them re-frame their experience towards an equally detailed but more positive and empowered perspective on themselves, their capabilities and their potential to control their environment effectively.

Unexplored and untreated depression in highly sensitive people robs us all of the benefits of their special gifts.


To read more about help for highly sensitive people click here.