Hazards of Misdiagnosis for the Highly Sensitive Person

As a psychotherapist that specializes in the trait of high sensitivity,  I have had numerous clients come to me having been diagnosed by other medical or mental health professionals as having a disorder they do not actually have, which often results in being prescribed unnecessary medications that compound the problem and can cause major side effects for a sensitive system.  

While some disorders may benefit from medication, it is important to note that having the trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity, commonly referred to as the highly sensitive person (HSP), is NOT a disorder.  Some common misdiagnosis can be Bipolar, ADHD/ADD, Borderline Personality Disorder, Depression, Anxiety, etc.  While it is possible for an HSP to also have one or more of these disorders,  I am seeing a large number of HSPs who have been given one of these diagnoses but do not actually have the disorder. 

When misdiagnosed with one of the disorders above it is common to be prescribed medication.  It is difficult to see so many HSPs suffering needlessly on medications they don't need that are causing them harm. HSPs in general often suffer from greater side effects of all types of medications so awareness and education are crucial.  

If you are an HSP prescribed a medication, I recommend educating your prescribing doctor about your trait before beginning the medication.  You want to work with a doctor who is open to learning about you and your trait so that they can best treat you.  This trait has been scientifically proven and does exist, and if you have a medical or mental health professional tell you it does not exist I recommend changing to someone who is willing to listen to you and your needs.  There are specific brain differences in an HSP and these can be crucial to understanding why you might be experiencing what you are experiencing.

Facts to Share with Your Medical and Mental Health Professionals: 

  • Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) is a trait that evolved as a survival strategy and is found in up to 20% of the population, in over 100 species, equal in genders. 70% of HSPs are introverted, 30% extroverted.

  • SPS is also commonly referred to as the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).

  • The trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity is NOT a disorder. While the name is simialar, Sensory Processing Sensitivity is NOT the same thing as Sensory Processing Disorder.

  • According to Dr. Elaine Aron’s research of the trait, all HSPs have the following characteristics, referred to as DOES: D=Depth of Processing; O=Overstimulation; E=Emotionally responsive; S=Sensitivity to the subtle.

  • HSPs have an overly activated Amygdala, which can result in an over-activated fight/flight/freeze response. This activation often releases adrenaline and cortisol and can create symptoms such as a racing heart, difficulty concentrating, having a hard time accessing memory and facts, feeling "out of control", a quick shift of mood, and often extreme emotional reactions. This over-activation is commonly the culprit to higher stress levels and many symptoms of anxiety and even depression. With the right therapeutic tools though, we can reduce this over-activation without medications.

  • For anxiety, for example, I have seen clients feel better quickly with accurate psycho-education of the trait and when taught particular brain-training techniques that are incredibly effective without the problem of side effects common in medications. If you want to learn more about the brain differences in SPS, you can visit my website for highly sensitive people.

If You Do Need Medication:

  • Your body may often experience medication differently than up to 80% of the population.

  • Educate your medical team about your trait and if you tend to be sensitive to medications discuss ways of lowering the starting dose. I often recommend having a medications dose be the lowest they offer and then ask if cutting the initial dose in half is an option.

  • If your doctor wants you to increase a dose of medication, ask that the build-up be much slower so you can give your sensitive system a chance to get used to the medication. For example, if they want to increase your dose in one week, you may ask them about increasing it in 2 or 3 weeks. And if they want to increase the amount of the dosage, you may request that you increase it by less to give your body a chance to adjust and see what might work best for you. Often sensitive systems need less.

  • If you are weaning off a medication you may need to wean off much more slowly than up to 80% of the population. For example, if they want you to cut your dose by half within a week, you may ask to cut just ¼ of it at a time with 2-3 weeks and so on.

  • These are just examples, and all of this needs to be discussed and approved by your doctor.

Because of the sensitivity of our system it can be helpful to also do research about holistic and natural alternatives as well. I highly recommend HSPs do your research about your trait and learn to advocate for your needs.  When you educate and advocate you also help all the HSPs who come after you.  Each mental health and medical professional that you educate spreads awareness of the trait and helps other HSPs.  

You know your body the best as an HSP. Listen to its needs and work only with professionals that are willing to listen and get to know your sensitive system's needs. 

I encourage you to share this post with other HSPs and with your mental health and medical professionals. 

Julie Bjelland, LMFT is an HSP psychotherapist and author of Brain Training for the Highly Sensitive Person, Techniques to Reduce Anxiety and Overwhelming Emotions. Julie specializes in the trait of high sensitivity and works globally to educate, spread awareness, and help HSPs reduce the challenges and increase the positives. Julie works directly with HSPs and also consults with mental health and medical professionals with a mission to spread education, awareness and positive change for highly sensitive people.   Learn more about the trait of the highly sensitive on Julie’s website with resources for the highly sensitive: www.juliebjelland.com