Feelings, Feelings and more Feelings: Three top-tips for HSPs!

pexels-photo-207983One of the most tangible things about being Highly Sensitive, and that is the most visible to others,  is the extent to which you FEEL everything.  Whether that be the prickly seat or the sumptuous velvet cushion you are sitting on; the throbbing in your ears from the whining siren in the distance or the glorious surround-sound of the dawn chorus mixed with the trickle of the stream; the discomfort from that label in the back of your t-shirt or the fabulous feeling of the soft-down duvet you are snuggled into; the glare from the array of lights on the hight street at night or the spectacular sunset on the horizon; or the tears – of overwhelm, or of joy.

On the plus side it is what makes HSPs able to see the world in true dolby surround sound and technicolour, with smellivision, and true emotional engagement.  It is what underpins their deep empathy for others and the living world, and is what allows them to appreciate art, beauty, the written word, a kind deed, to a level that is not experienced by others.  It is also this intensity of ‘feeling’ that tends to be noticed by others, most particularly when it is response to overwhelm or discomfort.


The sensory ‘feelings’ of discomfort and ‘too much’ are generally easier to identify by us and for others to identify with.   But when it comes to emotions this can be much more tricky.  I have had a week this week full of ‘feelings’ (of the emotional kind) and it has highlighted one of the big challenges that feelings present for the HSP, which is that often the feelings we feel, are not even our own.

The ‘E’ in DOES stands for Empathy and Emotional Reactivity: HSPs are hard wired to connect with how other people are feeling, and they do so more reflexively and more intensely than others.  They deep processing of ‘information’ includes the processing of emotions.

This is great in terms of our capacity to provide that empathic response to others, and it is a natural skill, which makes HSPs very intuitive, some would say possessing a ‘6th sense’.  It’s what makes many HSPs great at and attracted to roles in life requiring emotional support or providing counsel.

However, it comes at a price, which is that it adds to our bucket of spaghetti.

If, as an HSP, we are conscious that we are adding to our bucket with all this emotional stuff , perhaps simply because we are aware of our innate sensitivity and we are actively engaging in empathy, or because we are recognising that our bucket is getting full,  we can make provision for emptying our bucket. And whilst this may not always be possible, exactly when we need it, we know there is an end in sight!

BUT, things are not always that obvious or straightforward, because as HSPs we are often empaths, which means that we can ‘absorb’ the emotional energy of others, without necessarily realising that we have done so.  If you have found your mood suddenly changing, without being able to wholly pinpoint why, it could well be that you have reflexively, subconsciouslty, picked up on what someone else is feeling, and taken it on as your own feeling.  This happened to me this week and contributed to the many ‘feelings’ I was contending with.  Something happened to my son at school this week which was very unjust and insensitive and unreasonable.  I had a very emotional response: a mix of upset, anger, rage, affrontery, humilation, victimisation, sadness, injustice, lack of voice, disappointment, shock, confusion – amongst many other things.

I knew, because I have learnt, that some of those feelings were emotions that were actually my son’s and in order for me to appropriately deal with and respond to the situation, I first of all needed to distill the facts, from my feelings, from his feelings.  Until I could do this, I couldn’t fully understand my feelings on what had happened, I couldn’t determine the proportionate response, and nor could I adequately support my son’s needs.  I needed to be able to empathise, whilst also trying to take a step back to be able to manage my own emotions  As it happens, I still feel most of those things, but I am able to recognise which are ‘my’ reactions, and which are the feelings that are actually my son’s and which are what I am seeking to address with the school.

Top-Tip No. 1 – Learn to identify what’s yours!

Practicing that sifting of what is my ‘stuff’ and what belongs to others is one of the things that has really helped me in being able to understand and manage my emotions as a HSP, and to support my son as a HSC.  There is no magic wand to gaining that understanding, it is essentially a case of actively reflecting on what you are feeling and what is happening, and digging deep to get to the root of what is you, and practice is how you do that as you begin to learn to trust your instincts.   There is one trick though, if you find yourself in a situation where your mood inexplicably changes, and I find this at home when my husband may be grouchy, short-tempered and intolereant after a stressful day at work, and I find myself responding in the same way, even though I had been fine before:  I have now learnt to move away to give me physical distance from him and his emotions, and this usually gives me the space to recognise that the rising levels of anxiety I am feeling, are his, not mine and I can try to push them away from me so that my behaviour reflects how I’m feeling, not how he’s feeling.  You can do a similar thing if it happens at work; leave the room and pop to the loo for 5 minutes – if your mood rapidly reverts to what it was before, chances are you had picked up on someone else’s. (Sometimes too it can be a geat thing, if you are picking up on someone’s joy and excitement about something, hang onto that feeling!!).

Top-Tip No. 2 – Choose your Battles

The time spent dealing with all of those emotions was draining, distracting and actually left me unable to focus on much else for a couple of days: and this also lead me to reflect on the  difficulty HSPs can have with ‘letting things go’.

As an HSP ‘letting it go’ can be really hard, and it is something that we need to learn to get better at.  I have found that whilst essentially it amounts to the same thing, ‘Choose your battles’ is somehow easier for me to relate to (perhaps because letting-go implies severing any connection with something, whereas choosing your battles doesn’t necessarily mean you have ‘forgotten’ about it or are ‘ignoring’ it, it just means you are choosing not to use up your valuable energy in dealing with something: a thought to explore another time…).

I take much more time these days to choose my battles, and to allow some things to ‘go’ because I can’t spend valuable energy on everything that I feel intensely about, because that truly would be everything .  I have realised that life really is too short, and my bucket just isn’t big enough!

In this case, having sifted and considered the situation, this is one of those battles that I need to fight: it is important for my son, it is about something that is a true injustice and not something that deserves to be ‘let go’ without further discussion or a different resolution.

So I give myself permission to vent and rant about this, and to acknowledge and accept that until I have worked through this issue, I may not be so well able to take on other things; whether that be a different emotional issue, or focusing on the market research I’m doing at the moment for my business, or developing the business content – I can’t do it all, there’s too much spaghetti in there and I need to dish some up first!

Top Tip No.3 – Give Yourself Permission to Feel it Your Way

This is another thing I have got better at and I recommend you try it!  Give yourself permission to lean into someting that is really upsetting or grating on you, that really matters to you: allow yourself to go deep, unapologetically, to truly feel just how angry and irritated you are about it, and to grant yourself the space to work it through, and to fight for the outcome you feel is right.   Not only will this give you strength to channel your sensitivity into getting a more positive result in the end, it will actually in the long run enable you to let other things go, because you will know that when it really matters you then have the reserves and the energy to give something your full attention, and to set the boundaries to your integrity.

Can you relate?  I’d love to hear your experiences.



The First Rule of Acceptance: Ragù for HSP Spaghetti

Photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

It started with The “Thought of the Day”…

Last week, in the early hours of the morning, my head full of spaghetti was cooking up a veritable ragù: a myriad of things were churning through my brain, coating all the spaghetti in there, when a supremely clear thought popped into my head that piqued my curiosity.

It was “I don’t want to be defined by my HSP-ness”.

In truth I can’t recall the exact catalyst of the thought. But I do recall the strength of feeling that went with it, and that it was essentially a product of various frustrations: the feelings of overwhelm from the festive season;  difficulty sleeping because of noise and cold;  emotional overwhelm from absorbing general family stress; the mad tangle of spaghetti that was jostling for attention in my brain, related to the mass of ideas I have for what my working life is going to look like this year.  And I think I just wanted to a) have a day when I could switch it all off, and b) feel that I was more than just this mess of spaghetti, emotions and sensitivity.

I have been reflecting on this ever since, wondering what prompted that thought to surface and pondering the implicit message that seemed to be indicating that I was, on some level, resisting my innate temperament, despite all this talk of acknowledging and accepting your trait being key to everything!

(Incidentally, I have also been laughing at the irony of being HSP and being kept awake by thoughts about being HSP (how very HSP!)).

For me it is an interesting thought to reflect upon, because being HS is absolutely core to who I am.  It is instrumental in shaping how my environment affects me (due to my heightened sensory and emotional responsiveness and alertness), and how I relate to the world (I’m a deep thinker, I reflect and question).  So, as a product of these, I am very aware that some of my most innate needs are absolutely and unequivocally determined by my HSP nature.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

However, I am not ‘only’ an HSP.  I am also an introvert.  I have certain life experiences and interests.  I enjoy things that many people who are not HSP also enjoy, and I share values with both HSP and non HSP alike, and so on and so forth.   And I want these aspects of who I am to share equal space with my HSP-ness, because I am a product of ALL of these things, not just one (albeit a significant one). They all influence the way my HSP-ness shows up in my life just as my HSP-ness shapes these other aspects. I am a complicated product of the interplay between all of these things, and many more besides.

I feel that sometimes, because being an HSP means that we are so much more affected by our environments than non-HSPs, and that in the modern Western World this is often in a negative way, the other things that make us who we are are forgotten, by both others and by ourselves. It can also mean that when we start to ’embrace’ our HS nature, we can place so much emphasis on this, that we lose sight of the fact that we are more than this (and that sometimes our behaviour is not a product of our HSP-ness alone,  but of something else, or a combination of things!).  It’s a bit like the fact that I am a woman.  It significantly shapes my experience of the world, and makes me fundamentally very different from a man.  But it doesn’t mean that I don’t share things in common with men, and nor does it mean that I the same as all other women.  Nor does it mean that where I live, or the colour of my skin, or my education or anything else doesn’t also matter.

We can also be drawn into a feeling that in discovering our HSP nature, and how it explains ‘that feeling we have always had of not quite being the same as the vast majority of people around us’, we should be rejoicing and relishing all the wonderful things that this means (the depth of joy we can experience, the appreciation have for beauty, nature and the sheer wonder of our world,  the creativity and ‘different’, deep thinking we bring that shed insightful and often important light on the world, our capacity for empathy).  And all these things are true, and they are vital to acknowledge and share.   But….discovering that you are HSP with all the wondrous things it means, is not all sweetness and roses.  It can be really challenging, and there are times, (those times when I am feeling so overwhelmed,  so laden with the emotions of others, the troubles of the world, the disrupted sleep…) when I do look with envy upon those who do not experience life with such intensity.

Because it IS exhausting…


…And yes, there are times when I DO NOT LIKE being HSP (there, I said it!).

Does this mean I don’t accept my Highly Sensitive Nature?  I don’t think so.

To Accept is not the same as To Like

The first and most important lesson I have learnt about acceptance is that acceptance of something does not mean having to like everything about it.  It  simply means that we are being honest with ourselves about it;  we see and own the truth of it, the good and the bad bits. Whether we ‘like’ it, or not.

Yet I often feel that talk about ’embracing’ life as an HSP life comes with an expectation that we must learn to love our entire HSP nature – all of it.  I love some of it, most of the time. Sometimes I find it frustrating. There are times when I am so exhausted by it that I wish I could switch it off.  And I think it is important that we are ‘allowed’ to be honest about that – otherwise we are not truly accepting what it means.

We are not Hermits

It is also important to remember that we have to operate in the wider world, which may mean that we can’t take the hours of down-time and solitude that we feel we really need to recuperate from a busy trip; instead we have to find a way to make it work in 10 minutes!  Or, we can become so caught up with own need for space, reflection, ‘nourishment’ that we overlook the fact that we are inadvertently restricting the ability of those around us to take the time and nourishment they need.  In short, it can make us a little selfish.  And whilst a little selfishness can be a good/necessary thing, sometimes, (especially if we are heading for a full-on bucket overload), we just need to be truthful with ourselves about just how much ‘me’ time we actually need to be able to function effectively, versus what we might ideally like to be at our ‘absolute best’.

So, what I have realised is that my desire not to be defined by my HSP-ness is not a rejection of my core nature, nor is it me denying my true nature.  It is actually about me wanting to put my HSP-ness into context. To say, YES, I am HSP and this means that I am more easily overwhelmed, and that as a consequence I will actively seek to manage my environment, where I can, to minimise its negative impact .  BUT it is not ALL I am.  And it is not the be-all and end-all of everything.  I can recognise that it will not always be possible for me to have my ‘ideal’ space or time, that sometimes I may need to just accept that it’s someone else’s turn and today I drew the short straw.  But I’ll cope (with the caveat that you can’t do this too often, or the overwhelm will become permanent, and then it will be a problem.  This is especially true if you are a Highly Sensitive parent, with a Highly Sensitive Child.).

The Nub of HSP Acceptance

For me, then, accepting what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person is not the same as always having to like being HSP.  It is facing with truth and honesty what it means to exist authentically in the real world as a ‘human antenna’, as ‘the canary in the coal mine’ or the ‘rose in the vinyard’, “warts and all”.

For sure, there are some wonderful things about being HSP, and we should absolutely embrace those things, and shout about them from the rooftops so everyone knows it’s not all bad! (more about the great and the good another time).   And these things are easy to accept.

But we also have to accept the things about being HSP that are more difficult to like.  The discomfort, the hurt feelings, the irritability and grumpiness, the feeling of being misunderstood, of being seen as ‘too’ sensitive, ‘too’ intense, of thinking too much, of never being able to switch off, of having a head full of spaghetti!

The First Rule of Acceptance

First and foremost, accepting your HSP-ness is about facing wholeheartedly your truth of what it means to be HSP in the world.  It is about accepting that overwhelm will be as inevitable to your being as your deep thinking, and that you will always have a head full of thoughts, feelings, reflections and imaginings; that you will always find scratchy labels (or seams in socks, or the smell of beetroot, or the noise of an electric toothbrush, whatever your ‘thing’ is) irritating to your very core.

Your job in accepting your HSP-ness is not to deny these things, or to seek to find ways of changing your nature so you don’t experience them – because that’s  not possible.

Your job is to learn to understand what it means for you, and how to more comfortably live with your sensitivity so that you are positively thriving, not just surviving.  It is to find ways of preventing, avoiding and minimising those things that cause you discomfort or overwhelm, learning to recognise when overwhelm is looming and what strategies work for you to cope and empty your bucket when you do face the inevitable overwhelm (and it is inevitable!).  It is about recognising that you must have the grace to ‘give-way’ to others needs, sometimes, for their benefit, even though it may not be the ‘right’ thing for you in that moment: to accept ‘good enough’ not ‘perfect’ conditions.  It is about leaning into the depth, joy, creativity and connection with others too.

This is where the hard work of understanding what this actually means for you begins.  That’s complicated and is contemplation for another day!

In the meantime, what do think about acceptance?  Have you accepted your HSP nature, and what does that mean for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The No.1 Lesson I have learnt about being a Highly Sensitive Parent (that I wish I’d known 10 years ago!)


Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

When I became a parent I didn’t know about the trait of High Sensitivity. I certainly didn’t know that I was a Highly Sensitive Person. But I wish that I had known because it would have changed my experience as a parent.  It would have explained and validated all those ‘gut feelings’ I had about things, and why I seemed to find being a mum so much more difficult than all the other new mum’s around me.

During the first 6 months after my child (who is a HSC) was born, my Health Visitor was convinced I was suffering from Post Natal Depression, because I was so ‘flat’.  I knew I wasn’t depressed, I just felt permanently and utterly exhausted, both physically (mainly from lack of sleep), and so very much emotionally.  The first year or two for me is a haze of complete exhaustion and total overwhelm – emotionally, physically and mentally. This only got worse when I went back to work to a job that was in itself emotionally and psychologically demanding.  I was in a constant state of feeling that I was running on empty and felt totally burnt-out.   Consequently I was irritable to be around, and I felt I had nothing left in my tank when I got home from work for my family, or to give to my job.

Photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash

I gradually came to realise that lack of ‘down time’ together with the constant worry and guilt about whether I was getting it ‘right’ as a parent and the perpetual blaming of myself for the fact that I just seemed to be finding it so much more difficult than other people (and therefore that there must be something wrong with me!), were the main issues. But I still couldn’t understand why this was. Then, 5 years on,  I read Elaine Aron’s Highly Sensitive Child book, which lead to me reading her book The Highly Sensitive Person, and everything suddenly made sense.  From there-on, things got a little easier, because I understood myself better.

It has still taken me some time, though, to really get to the root of what it was I really needed all those years ago, and what I continue to need.

By far the biggest lesson I have learned is Self Acceptance.

Accepting that I am Highly Sensitive means that I can not only understand and appreciate how parenting is likely to lead to over-stimulation, intense feelings & emotions (and, resulting from all of this, irritability and short-temper more often than I’d like to admit), but also it enables me to openly recognise and acknowledge where these feelings and emotions come from. It gives me permission to stop blaming myself for how I’m feeling.  It also enables me to put in place appropriate prevention and coping strategies.  Moreover, I can now see the great advantages my sensitivity has to my parenting.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

It’s still a work in progress, and there is some way to go, but having this Self-Acceptance gave me the courage (with the support of my husband who thankfully ‘gets it’) to leave a job in a career that just wasn’t working for me when I had the additional demands of a young child, and which meant it no longer worked for us as a family.  This has not been without is sacrifices, but I believe it has created a path that will lead to a better ending.  Self-Acceptance has given me more confidence to set realistic boundaries for myself, saying ‘No’ more often to ‘non-essential’ demands on my time, and to say ‘Yes’ more often to things that re-charge and replenish me.  It allows me to feel OK about seeking total silence sometimes (many people find it odd that I rarely put the radio or music on in the car) and it has prompted me to be more open to asking for help, because I know I need to, even though it doesn’t come naturally.

I am also just beginning to appreciate that my High Sensitivity is what allows me, among other things,  to connect deeply with my HSC; to be able to recognise when things are not ‘right’, when others may miss the signs; to share imaginary worlds through books; to have deep conversations and to instil in my HSC the wonder and importance of nature as I share my love and appreciation of its beauty and fragility.

As I continue on my journey of discovery I’d love to hear your stories too, so please get in touch!


The Highly Sensitive Brain Part 2: It’s Normal! (or There’s nothing wrong with having a head full of spaghetti!)

austin-chan-275638The fact of some people being more highly sensitive than others is not a modern feature of humans, it has always been thus, but it is only in recent years that the idea of there being an underlying temperament trait to explain this has been revisited.

It is principally through the work of Dr.Elain Aron (who drew on the work of Karl Jung), that we now have a much clearer understanding of High Sensitivity as an innate temperament difference. Her seminal work, along with advances in neuroscience and greater collaboration with other disciplines, who independently have come to similar conclusions, have led to the following key findings:

  •  It’s now widely accepted that 15-20% of the normal population have this innate trait. Whilst a minority, this proportion is considered to be too great to constitute a ‘disorder’ – It’s Normal
  • Recent advances in neuroscience are enabling us to see that the brains of all HSPs have in common a depth of processing that is different from other brains. It is deeper and more involved, and also more connected to the emotional centres of the brain. This is why HS brains notice more subtlety (including of the senses), and why they tend to appear more ‘emotional’ in response to things. It’s Normal 
  •  Similar proportions of HS -vs- non-HS have been found in well in excess of 100 other animal species, leading scientists to conclude that it’s simply one of two fundamental strategies ensuring successful survival of the species.  Having a HS brain makes you much quicker to respond to prospective danger (and the vast majority of HSPs will report a very strong ‘startle’ reflex in response to sudden movement or sudden loud noises: this is one of the earliest signs in a baby that you may have a HSC on your hands!).  The other typical strategy is that of ‘don’t stop and think, just do it’.  Having a HS brain – It’s Normal
  • For years having a HS disposition was considered a vulnerability, and therefore treated as a ‘problem’ but we now know that whilst it can be a vulnerability, it can also be a huge advantage. It all depends on the quality of a person’s environment during childhood [look out for Orchid & Dandelion post coming soon].  But, whatever the outcomes, It’s Normal.
  • It’s Normal – BUT as only 20% of the population are HS, it is different from the ‘norm’. Our culture idealises the ‘go-getting, just do it’ strategy, as the best strategy, rather than one of two equally necessary strategies.  As a consequence, because HS is different from the ‘norm’ it is not treated as normal, (negative) value judgements are made about being HSP and the natural qualities of HSPs are undervalued.
  • It’s Normal, but it often doesn’t feel like it. The modern world is busy, loud, bright, troubled, and this often leads to HSPs feeling overwhelmed. When we’re overwhelmed, we are not at our best (in fact no-one is, it’s just we are in that place more often!) and this further fuels the misconceptions about HSPs.

It is for these last reasons that the first step to accepting your HS nature, is to acknowledge, accept to yourself and truly believe that it is normal.  Once you have done that, you can start to work with your nature, and you can start to understand how to live successfully in the modern world, drawing on the particular strengths that your trait gives you, and managing better those aspects that can make life more challenging.

To begin to see the both sides of the HSP trait, here are some key features beginning with The Bad Spaghetti.  Some of the more challenging aspects include:

Photo by Ben Neale on Unsplash
  • A high need for lots of time ‘out’ to recharge our batteries, or as I like to say, to ’empty our buckets’.  We are often heard to say that we need ‘a little lie down’ , or some peace and quiet, or to express that we just need some time alone, and this is all about just reducing down the stimulation for a while in order to get some space back in our busy brains (perhaps especially true of Introvert HSPs).
  • Linked to the above is a greater need for sleep.  Many HSPs report needing a lot of sleep, and when you consider the way the role of sleep, it’s not hard to understand why.  One of the reasons we sleep is to give our brain time to make sense of all the things that have been happening, and to embed memory.  With so much spaghetti in the HS brain, and with the detailed way in which the HS brain processes  information, there’s more to sift through, and sleep is the one time when you are taking in much lower levels of stimulation, so it’s perfect time for emptying that bucket.  So to me it figures that we need more sleep.  I believe lack of sleep is one reason why many HSPs I know report that they find it much more difficult to recall  events and places they have been in the same ready way as non-HS people (coupled with the fact that we may simply remember different things).
  • A deep sensitivity to Pain.  Both physical and emotional.  Think of the little HSC who has a tiny scratch but has reacted as though their leg has been chopped off!
  • Sensitivity to scratchy fabrics, labels and seams.  This makes many clothes extremely uncomfortable, bordering on irritating for many HSPs.  I for one have to cut ALL the labels out of my clothes, because they literally drive me mad; my son cannot stand seams in socks; and I know of at least one HSP who cannot bear any kind of rumple or lump on her bed sheets (a true Princess and the Pea).
  • Sensitivity to medication and stimulants: caffeine and alcohol tend to affect HSPs more, and likewise, like me, they often report needing minimal doses of medication.
  • Sensitivity to environmental conditions: HSPs are often more affected by extremes of temperature, bright lighting, loud and visually stimulating places, and this is most obviously seen in the very strong, sometimes extreme, startle reflex experienced by HSPs, as mentioned above.  This explains the high reactivity and dislike, bordering on fear, of many HS children to the sound of hand dryers in public toilets.
  • Sensitivity to foods and other allergens: It’s common for HSPs to be more intolerant of or allergic to certain foods, to have allergies like hay-fever and eczema, and to have sensitive skin and eyes.
  • Needing time to adjust: because we process so deeply, it can take us a little more time than others to get used to change and to feel comfortable in a new environment.  Others can misconstrue this as being fearful or cautious.
  • Feeling deeply: HSPs are very quick to take on the emotions of those around them.  It’s a core reason why they tend to be very empathic, but it can quickly drain them and can trigger tears quite readily. It also means that they tend to find it more difficult to watch violent, aggressive or emotionally very negative films, or to read books that are very graphic in this regard.  The news often presents real difficulty for HSPs.   This depth of feeling also has a plus side though (see blow).

There are numerous other ways in which the world can feel challenging to HSPs, but it’s not all doom and gloom.  For most of these things we can do something about to mitigate the effects, once we understand how it affects us (and in the coming weeks I’ll be exploring how I have learnt to do just that).  There are some real highlights to being HSP too, both for us ourselves, and for those around us too.

Now for the GOOD stuff!


  • Feeling Deeply: HSPs experience their strongest emotional responses to things that give them joy!  The beauty in nature or a piece of Art; a kind word; spending time with the people they love; being in ‘flow’ doing something they love.  Tears from an HSP are as likely from joy and beauty as they are from negative emotions.  They are able to appreciate life in it’s full technicolour and surround-sound glory.
  • Empathy: The HSPs natural capacity for empathising with others and tapping into anothers’ mood makes them great to be around and it can help them to make great connections with others (as long as they are not in overwhelm, then the empathy quickly goes!!).  It lends them to making great doctors and nurses, advisers, guiders and counsellors, and leaders, and parents.
  • Problem Solving and Creativity: the way the HS brain works means that HSPs are drawing together connections in a way that other’s don’t, that is very creative and meaning-making and which, together with the deep reflective thinking that HSPs naturally embrace, results in novel solutions to problems, unique perspectives and insights, and great creativity &  innovation.  HSPs are commonly found in the writing, music and creative arts communities, combining this creativity with their appreciation of beauty.
  • Deep Connections : HSPs build deep connections with others and consequently make for very loyal and committed friends and romantic partners.
  • Love for Nature.   Research is now providing hard evidence of what we HSPs instinctively know, which is that as humans we are wired for connection with nature.  I know I relish time in nature, and really notice if I haven’t been outside for a while.  It also makes us care a lot about our planet, and we need more HS voices to be heard to make sure our concerns are acted on.
  • Thoughtful. HSPs think, deeply, a lot.  The consideration and reflection that we give to things means that we rarely take unnecessary risks or make bad decisions.  We are great sounding boards for others to explore thoughts ideas. And we have a great capacity for being incisive, getting to the ‘nub’ of the issue (or to put it another way, cutting through the crap!).  Whilst many HSPs are quiet, you know that when we do say something, it tends to be worth listening to.

So, having a head full of spaghetti is actually a brilliant thing, and I’ll repeat one last time, it’s perfectly normal!

Take some time to reflect on that, embrace those tears (and always carry a packet of tissues!).  See you next time!

The Highly Sensitive Brain – Part 1: Having a HS Brain really is ‘A Thing’…(or Having a Head full of Spaghetti is REAL)

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

In my previous post I shared my first and second HSP ‘aha’ moments, which were #1 when I stumbled across information about the Highly Sensitive Child (HSC) and #2 when I then discovered the information about the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).  My overriding feelings were relief, validation and excitement,  accompanied by the thought, on repeat “OMG, that’s amazing! It’s ‘A Thing!!’”. 

From my experience, this is a pretty standard reaction when someone makes the same discovery, and this description of it as ‘A Thing’ seems to be an HSP short-hand for all those BIG emotions we feel that seem excessive to everyone else and the head full of spaghetti feeling ALL THE TIME that no one else seems to experience or even to understand (How often have you had someone say to you “You think too much!” – as if thinking were a bad thing?).

For anyone reading this who may not be sure, and who may be trying to work out whether they are HSP or not,  here’s part 1 of the introduction, here’s what that ‘thing’ is…

 The Highly Sensitive Brain – In a Nutshell

Some people just seem to be more finely and keenly attuned to and more ‘sensitive’ (both physically and emotionally) to their environments.  They also think about and feel things very deeply. And they cry easily, about anything!

It was the psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron who, in the 1990s, first used the term ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ (HSP) to describe people who share these common characteristics.  It’s now widely accepted that these characteristics are a core part of an innate temperament trait, which Dr. Aron called Sensory Processing Sensitivity (not to be confused with Sensory Processing Disorder).

Some Basic Facts

  • Being HS is something you either are, or you are not.
  • Like me, 70% of HSPs are also introverted, which means that 30% are extrovert.
  • The trait is found in 15-20% of the population. It’s found across all cultures, in equal numbers of males & females, young & old. It’s normal, a bit like being left-handed.
  • The trait is not unique to humans.  Similar distinctions are found across the animal kingdom in the same 20% HS 80% non-HS proportions.
  • Neuroscience has now confirmed that the brains of HSPs are wired differently from those without the trait characteristics.  HS brains process information more deeply, connecting current information with past knowledge and experience, and with the emotional centres of the brain, in a way that non-HS brains don’t.
Photo by Fabian Burghardt on Unsplash

In evolutionary terms the consensus is that High Sensitivity is one of two survival strategies that together ensure species survival.  The highly attuned nervous system of the HS animal enables it to notice more quickly when something has changed in the environment, and to spot something new – a tactic useful in identifying danger, and also in spotting opportunities more quickly.

So it’s a really important trait – which in the modern world allows us to see insights into difficult issues and problems that others may miss.  It is undoubtedly a high energy strategy though, and perhaps 20% is the maximum any system can adequately support before it becomes a disadvantage.

The 4 Keys of an HSP : In terms of humans, Dr. Aron has identified four components of the trait, which must all be evident to some degree for someone to be considered as having the trait (rather than simply having sensitivities). They are reflected in the acronym DOES:-

  Depth of Processing

O   Overstimulation & Overwhelm

  Emotional Reactivity & Empathy

  Sensitive to Subtlety and Sensory Sensitivity

Depth of Processing: HSP brains process everything very deeply, all the time.  This is the nub of the trait.  This could be information about what they are feeling, experiencing, thinking, remembering, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting – anything.  It means that we are highly reflective and thoughtful, and this can be seen in our decision making (sometimes painfully slow to those around us),  in how we approach problem solving (often very insightfully and creatively), in how we respond to others, especially our empathy, and in the meaning we create and attach to most things in our lives.

It’s this intense and deep processing of everything that causes the spaghetti in the head feeling and which makes the way we experience the world so very different from the way in which everyone else does.

It’s also what’s behind the other three ‘keys’ of emotional reactivity,  sensory sensitivity and propensity for overwhelm common to all HSPs.  It is these aspects of being HSP that others are most likely to notice in us.

Over-stimulation and Overwhelm: Because our brains are taking in and processing so much information so much of the time, our  brain ‘bucket’ gets full more quickly than other people’s and we find ourselves with that all too familiar feeling of ‘too much’ .  The hustle, bustle, noise, bright lights and general pace of modern life compounds the issue for us.  We feel a much greater need than others to withdraw and to ’empty’ our buckets, especially if we are also introverted.  We can also become quite irritable and snappy when we are feeling overwhelmed, because we literally cannot take any more stimulation, and if we can’t withdraw, we sometimes lash out!

Emotional Reactivity and Empathy:  Our HS brains naturally draw on our emotional centres to help us make sense of things, and this allows us to more readily create meaning from a situation, to apply relevant context and to see amazing insights.  It also enables us to be more quickly attuned to the emotions of others, and HSPs are generally very quick to pick up on what others’ are feeling and to show natural empathy.  This is one of the great gifts of the HS brain, but it can also be problematic because, strange as it may sound, it can sometimes be difficult for HSPs (especially HSCs) to fathom whether what they are feeling is ‘theirs’ or someone else’s emotions, and this contributes to overwhelm too.  I have a future post planned on this specific subject, so watch this space!

Sensory Sensitivity and Subtlety: The HS brain notices a lot more than the non-HS brain. Fact. This is not because we have a better sense of smell, or better hearing or eye-sight etc. it is simply that we filter out a lot less than other people, we pay attention to the detail.  And because we also process what we notice more deeply, we see the small things that others miss.  This might be something that has changed in our environment, where someone has moved a piece of furniture slightly, or it might be a slight change in the mood of a room, but the first person to notice, is most likely an HSP.

This means that we tend to be more quickly affected by sensory over-load, whether that be bright lights, strong smells, uncomfortable fabrics (discomfort from scratchy fabrics and seams are commonplace amongs HSPs!), lumpy seats or beds (think the Princess and the Pea!) and so on.  We are also more reactive to stimulants like caffeine and alcohol, are more sensitive to medication, and sadly can be more prone to allergies like hay-fever and immune system illnesses like ME.

Elaine Aron’s website has more information about DOES and the trait, including a short questionnaire to help you determine whether you are HS or not.  Take the Test.

Photo by Rosemary Armao on Unsplash

In a nut-shell though, having an HS brain simply means that you have a heightened, highly attuned, highly sensitive nervous system, which enables you to notice subtleties more readily than others, and to make sense of those things more readily.   This capacity for noticing the subtlety, and understanding the implications, has lead to HSPs being described as ‘human antennae’, the proverbial ‘Canary in the Coal mine’, and also the ‘rose in the vineyard’ – providing an early warning signal for when things are not right, and also for being able to interpret that information in a meaningful way.

There are very real challenges to being an HSP in the modern world, but huge benefits too, both for the HSP and for society as a whole.  These are things that I will delve into in the coming weeks, as understanding all of this is where the journey happens.

But in the meantime, look out for Part-2 of the beginners guide, which highlights the first key lesson that all HSPs must learn if they are to accept who they are, and that is that ‘It’s Normal’.




My First, Second and Third HSP ‘A-Ha!’ Moments (and yes there have been many)

ballet shoesOne of my earliest memories is of the day I went with my mum to visit a local dance school to have a look at what was on offer, so I could decide whether I wanted to do Ballet or Tap-dance.   While decision-making can be a slow process for us HSPs (and I have numerous memories of the impatience of other people as I struggled to choose which sandwich or ice cream I wanted, or which colour pen I should use), this time the decision was instant.  I loved the elegance, gracefulness and quiet calm of Ballet, but was taken aback and totally overwhelmed by the onslaught of noise that hit my senses when we opened the door to the Tap class.  It sounded to me like the contents of the biggest cutlery draw was being hurled down from the sky, and I just wanted to hide – it was all “Too Much”.

Too Much and Not Enough

This experience is one of so many that reflect a general trend in my life for seeking a gentle, quiet path.  Instinctively I’ve always wanted to keep stimulation to a level that was ‘comfortable’,  shying away from and shutting out things that felt ‘too much’.

But this  often leave me feeling like I didn’t quite belong to the world everyone else did: I felt at-odds with my friends in a way I couldn’t explain and at times that I was perceived as a ‘party pooper’ and a bit serious and even ‘boring because I was so intense and ‘needy”.  I felt that my family found my sensitivity ‘too much’ too – the exasperation at how much hard work it can be to deal with the big emotions was apparent, the rolled eyes when I got upset about something ‘trivial’ and the disappointment I sensed sometimes that I wasn’t more talkative and ‘go getting’.   As I got older my awareness of how different I felt grew.  At school I was drawn to more solitary pursuits rather than team games, I found being around people all day quite draining, and although I would join in with the social life of being a teenager and a young adult, I frequently just didn’t ‘get it’ in the way that most of my friends did, I didn’t seem to crave it in the same way.  And people found me intense, because I could talk for hours about the meaning of life, lying awake staring at the stars into the early hours of the morning.

Once I left home, became a student, and then started work, I found a similar pattern of being around people and the constant ‘demand’ for socialising, and living in a shared house, leaving me feeling exhausted – and I used to just push through it, ignoring the cries from my mind and body to slow down.  My teenage and young adult years were a period of burning the candle at both ends.  Of working hard, and playing hard.  To keep up with everyone else I was throwing myself into institutional life, shared living, frequent socialising – and it took its’ toll.  It was constant effort and resulted in glandular fever, repeated tonsillitis, colds and flu and of feeling permanently exhausted.

I felt that everything was ‘Too Much’ and that I was ‘Not Enough’.

This pattern is a familiar one for me, and despite being an educated psychologist with an interest in personality, and experiencing near total burn-out a number of years previously, it wasn’t until I become that I came across Elaine Aron’s work, and the trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity.

Being a parent as an HSP is tricky.  It’s even trickier when you also have children who are HSP – so much so that I will devote a specific post to the topic.  But it was this that ultimately lead to my first A-HA moment.

My First AHA moment

light bulbAfter months and years of sleepless nights (and days), a baby that was colicky and extremely alert (ALL the time), a toddler that was fussy about seams in socks, who was immensely stubborn, acutely ‘shy’ and also very demanding of physical contact – in ways that the children of my friends were just not – I googled these things after a particularly exhausting and desperate day.

I don’t remember if it was the top result, but it was certainly in the top 3 – up popped “HSPerson.com” and The Highly Sensitive Child.  As I read, the world became a different place.  Anyone who has been through this will totally understand when I say that the following is what went through my mind:

  • instant resonance and recognition
  • relief that it was a real  ‘thing’
  • excitement that it was not just a ‘thing’ but that it was normal 
  • Affirmation – of your gut instincts that knew there was nothing ‘wrong’ with your child, even when people were hinting that maybe they were autistic (because of the ‘difficult’ behaviour)
  • hope – that there was a way of moving forward

The switch had been flicked and the light-bulb pinged on.  This was my first A-ha moment.   It was very quickly followed by my second.

My Second ‘Aha’ Moment

light bulb

In the moments after I had gone through the HSC questionnaire, my busy-brain was doing its’ thing, and nudging me to take a look at the HSP questionnaire – because the realisation was dawning that whilst what I had just read was a game-changer for my understanding of my son, it could just as easily have been referring to me.  And sure enough, I ticked all but 2 of the boxes on the HSP questionnaire.  At this point my neurons were firing all over the place and I was gabbling away to my husband, getting him to do it too.  And yes, my husband is also HSP (more material for another post!!)!!  This was my second AHA moment.

But it was my third A-ha moment that has probably been the most important.

My Third AHA moment

light bulbWhen you discover the HS trait as an HSP it is a game-changer.  It explains everything, it normalises everything, and almost overnight in your mind you switch from being an outsider, a misfit, a oddity who is somehow ‘wrong’ to someone who is part of a ‘club’ of people, who all experience very similar things.  And as with any group who have felt marginalised, to have a ‘tribe’ and to have feelings of belonging is huge.  It creates a euphoric feeling.

BUT – what I realised over the coming weeks, months and years is that finding out that you are HSP, whilst it is incredible, amazing, life-changing,  is only the beginning of a journey.  Because once you realise you are HSP after a life of not knowing it, you have to learn to understand what that really means to you, and how you need to change your perspectives about yourself and how you live your life.  However self-aware you may have thought you were, you will need to engage in deeper and more reflective practice to really get to grips with what it means to live and to thrive in the modern world with this trait – especially if you are also an introvert.

My first true epiphany occurred about 3 years ago, some 5 years after my first aha moment, and it is only now that I really feel that I truly understand what it means for me (and I’m still learning).

When was your moment of clarity? I’d love you to comment.