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

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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.
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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.

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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’.