The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) Make up to 50% of Our Clients By Julie Bjelland, LMFT
The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) Make up to 50% of Our Clients
By Julie Bjelland, LMFT
About 50% of clients in therapy have an innate sensitivity trait that has become known as, The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), also known as sensory processing sensitivity (HSPs). HSPs make up about 15-20% of our population and often present with high anxiety and overwhelm. I recommend therapists screen clients presenting with anxiety for this trait and there is a test that you can offer your clients developed by Elaine Aron, a psychologist who revealed this trait in her research.
HSPs experience the world with heightened emotional and sensory overload. Non-HSPs might have about 3 tubes of information going into their brain, whereas the HSP may have 100s! Imagine multiplying your senses and emotions and living with those senses extremely heightened every day? The world is louder and more chaotic for HSPs. One of the biggest symptoms I’ve seen in most of the HSPs I work with is a feeling of being overwhelmed and over stimulated, which often leads to symptoms of anxiety.
Years ago, I learned about the trait in my own desire to understand my sensitivities. Through my research in neuroscience and psychology and my work specializing with HSPs in my practice, and in my online HSP course that developed, I began noticing common themes amongst most HSPs and started identifying the core issues most HSPs struggle with. Here’s a list you may find helpful in identifying your HSP clients:
Common HSP Traits
• High expectation of self
• Stronger feelings of self-blame, guilt and shame
• Often bypass own needs to please others first
• High compassion for others, but less for selves
• Decisions hard, but often makes well thought out ones.
• Strong insight, consciousness and very conscientiousness
• May seem to not be able to handle as much stress, criticism and crowded environments. Stronger emotional reactions, often anxiety symptoms present, low self esteem because of negative labels
• More moved to tears for both positive and negative stimulus, more reactive to emotions of others
• More affected by violent TV, injustice, and other difficult events
• Notice small changes in a room or in others, that most might not
• More affected by bright lights (like window behind therapist), sounds like ticking clocks and dripping water, subtle smells (air freshener or food smell in office), and uncomfortable material on couch. Consider your office environment.
• Change is harder-often need more time to process upcoming change
• Stronger startle response, more sensitive to pain, caffeine, reactive immune system
• Their increased empathy and compassion often leads to self sacrifice
• Can feel abnormal, “crazy”, weird, and different: Impact on how culture and family perceives sensitivity. Labeled as wrong: “Don’t be so sensitive”. Our society values extroversion and sensitive is labeled negative.
• Greater insight into self and others, quick to understand and interpret
• More burnout in nervous system-Feeling overwhelmed (affecting sleep, health, relationships, jobs)
What methods work well for HSPs?
• Validate their real and strong emotions and work on their “perfectionist scaling system”
• Help them reframe and develop coping skills (Help them know they aren’t crazy or abnormal)
• Support them to recognize areas of overstimulation-physiological cues and teach self soothing
• Teach them how to get out of and/or bypass overly activated amygdala (flight/fight/freeze response)
• Teach them that self-care is an essential need for balance. Sleep, unstructured down time, and balance are essential (mindfulness, meditation, yoga, nature)
• Build self esteem, teach compassion and self-acceptance
• Educate them about healthy boundaries, saying no, voicing needs
• Prep more for changes needed in their life and therapeutic change issues- (gone on vacation, etc.)
• Discuss trait this with doctors (lower doses of meds, more side effects), dentists (more sensitive to pain)
• Empower them to make accommodations at work, friends, and family. Pay attention to work sensory overload (lighting, location of desk, work from home options, avoid commute hours, take breaks), school (test taking, being observed in training or performing a task) friends/family-avoid crowds, take down time
Always point out the positives of the trait with your clients
• More intuitive, compassionate, empathic
• Know how to make people feel comfortable and safe
• Good listeners
• See many angles, good problem solvers, prep well, generate good ideas
• Notice subtleties, can read people well, in tune with others
• HSPs react more to positive emotions too
• Can often anticipate ways to achieve success even more so they can savor a good outcome more and figure out better how to make it happen.
• If parent is more positive and nurturing, highly sensitive children have better grades, do better socially, self-regulated better, have stronger moral behavior, and more feel more loved and secure.
• Conscientious clients: on time, pay on time, insightful, depth work
• Romantic relationships: Bored more easily, need depth of conversation and connection. Need more down time. (Discuss in couples work)
• Parenting: feel more chaotic (work on noise and overwhelm), but more creative parenting styles
• Work place: performance higher rated, more stress felt (help with solutions)
Share Elaine Aron’s Research with your HSPs helps with acceptance:
• HSP Genetics: The gene that determines the movement of serotonin in the brain is called serotonin transporter gene and it has 3 variations. —short-short, short-long, and long-long
• HSPs carry one of the short variations, lower levels of serotonin (people who are depressed usually carry one of the short ones) but it usually only leads to depression if person had a stressful life or difficult childhood.
• HSPs show more brain activation in the insula (cerebral cortex), which reads physiological state of the body
• Greater awareness of emotions, body position, and outer events=greater consciousness
• More active brain mirror neuron system in HSPs where same neurons fire in the same way as person we are observing: Creating increased empathy
• HSPs have more active complex processing of sensory information:
· Greater awareness of nonverbal cues, i.e.
• HSP brain wave more often in theta state:
· More intuitive, sensitive to light, sound
As new research emerges, we see that there are definite differences in the HSP brain, which account for the way HSPs experience the world in a different way. These differences can be positives if we know how to manage the often-overwhelmed HSP nervous system.
I have seen vast differences in the way an HSP feels once they learn how to navigate their heightened emotional and sensory experiences. Highly sensitive people have a more activated amygdala and limbic system, which cause that familiar fight, flight, or freeze response. Once an HSP is in an activated limbic system the cognitive and rational part of the brain starts to go to sleep, therefore causing the overwhelmed emotional and sensory reactions.
Most HSPs report feeling out of control emotionally and are often depleted due to emotional and sensory input overload. Fortunately, there are particular ways we can actually learn to get out of our limbic system and even bypass it when needed. Life feels so much better when we are not activating our emotional brain all the time!
When HSPs are given the right tools, they experience dramatic improvement, after training them to navigate their limbic system. HSPs are a needed group in our society and with the right tools can live balanced and centered, and access their gifts and super strengths!
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~Julie Bjelland is a psychotherapist, global HSP consultant, and leader in the field of high sensitivity and has helped thousands of highly sensitive people around the world. As an HSP herself, Julie understands what it is like to live with high sensitivity and strong emotions. Julie teaches an online course for HSPs and is the author of several books. www.juliebjelland.com.