Highly Sensitive People: Why Therapists Should Care About High Sensitivity

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High Sensitivity is a naturally occurring and non-pathological individual difference which is associated with a detailed cognitive processing style and usually, but not always with introverted temperament.

Social psychologist Elaine Aron ‘s (1995) suggests that 15 to 20% of the general population will have the innate temperamental difference which she calls “High Sensitivity” (HS), or for research purposes, Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS).

30% to 50% of our therapy clients may be affected

High Sensitivity may play an unsuspected role in the distress of many of our psychotherapy clients.

Because their sensitivity predisposes them to over-stimulation and distress in demanding environments, Aron proposes that this trait may play a role in the difficulties of 30 to 50% of the clinical population that we see in our consulting rooms.

Common complaints pertain to sensory sensitivities and emotional sensitivity

Highly Sensitive clients describe feeling both positive and negative emotions intensely and responding strongly to physical and emotional stimuli.

  • Sensitive individuals are easily bothered by sounds, smells, and chaotic situations.
  • They have a very detailed cognitive style and take in more stimulation from their environment noticing details and fine differences. As a result they are often overwhelmed in situations which do not trouble others.
  • They may have difficulty in decision making as they struggle to organize detailed perceptions and multiple imagined outcome scenarios.
  • They may be introverts who seem to have a “thin skin,” who are easily hurt or offended or are overly afraid of offending others.
  • They may be “touchy” and have strong emotional reactions to things that do not upset others
  • These differences influence the individual’s responses to their environment from birth.

Because HS disposes an individual to have strong reactions to stressors, Aron proposes that under certain circumstances, HS may create an increased vulnerability to psychopathology.

When unrecognized and improperly managed by parents and teachers HS may play out into a whole range of common psycho-pathologies… including social phobia, somatization and avoidant personality styles and relationship difficulties.

Sensitive people have an impact on others as well…

While sensitive persons are often thoughtful, careful and empathic parents, partners and friends, when they are stressed… or if they have never learned how to cope with their unique qualities effectively, they may create tensions and difficulties for the people around them.

Many of our non-sensitive patients have had Highly Sensitive parents, children, partners or co-workers and have struggled… sometimes since childhood… with confusion and frustration and disturbed relationships because of a lack of understanding of the trait in significant others.

A therapist who is well-informed about HS can do a great deal to help their non-sensitive clients understand their relationships with HS family members, both in the past and in the present, and help them to use this knowledge to interact more effectively and pleasantly with HS persons in their circle.

What a therapist needs to know

A well informed therapist wishing to work effectively with HS clients should be able to:

  • Describe the identifying features of High Sensitivity,
  • Discuss how Sensitivity affects childhood development and adult socialization,
  • Distinguish HS from psychological disorders such as sensitivity due to PTSD and personality disorders

In terms of practical skills, a therapist should be able to:

  • Use Aron’s HSP Scale to formally or informally assess sensitivity.
  • Identify complicated and uncomplicated HS
  • Assess the therapeutic needs of Sensitive clients
  • Apply common psychotherapy techniques in the treatment of Highly Sensitive clients to promote adjustment and healing.

Suggestion for further reading:

For more detailed information for therapists on this subject, I highly recommend Dr Elaine Aron’s excellent book:

“Psychotherapy for the Highly Sensitive Person; Improving Outcomes for That Minority of People Who Are the Majority of Clients”

(Routledge Press, 2010)

In this book you will find the HSP assessment scale as well as suggestions for adapting therapy for HSP’s, detailed information about the research background supporting the concept, and an helpful and informative section on differential diagnosis.

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