Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Understanding Highly Sensitive People

Sometimes they are called wimps, shy, nerds, neurotics, and at other times, like in the ancient past, they were known as intuitives, sages, and wise people.

Who are these interesting people?

They are the 20 per cent of the population that psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron Ph.D. calls Highly Sensitive People (HSP). Dr. Aron, a self-described Highly Sensitive Person, has written several books that explain the sensitivity phenomenon and offer helpful tips for living a healthy life, fully, and happily as a sensitive person. She has helped many to understand that:

* Sensitive people are more aware of the subtleties in other people, places and things in their environment and therefore observe, reflect upon and experience more than non-sensitive people.

* Sensitivity is related to a survival strategy that inspires humans and other creatures to observe and assess situations before they proceed into them.

* The brains of sensitive beings are more active and work differently than non-sensitives.

* Different cultures value or devalue sensitivity in different ways. Low self-esteem issues are common among sensitive people because of this.

* Sensitivity is still misunderstood and was once thought to be a disorder to be treated.

With 20 per cent of the population being sensitive you probably know at least one sensitive or maybe even live with one. Perhaps it is time to consider these people in a new light and value them for the gifts that they bring into our lives. Highly Sensitive People tend to be very intelligent, conscientious and pay attention to the smallest details, so they make great employees. Because they are intuitive to other people's needs they make great counselors, massage therapists, coaches and tutors. Their observance of details and nuances in their environment make them ideal visual artists and musicians, and if you want someone to guide you with money management, choose an HSP because they are usually three steps ahead of the stock market and your personal needs.

Living with acute sensitivity can be a gift as it leads to great personal awareness, compassion for others and the development of skills that can assist others. The challenges of living with your sensory skills constantly registering information can be devastating if one does not realize that they are sensitive. Before developing awareness and management skills for their sensitivity, many HSP work extra hard at trying to be "normal".

They will accompany their family or friends into settings that they find uncomfortable (loud, cluttered, crowded, over stimulating), and endure a horrible experience, to avoid loneliness or just to be like the others. Many HSP try to keep the pace of non-sensitive people and end up experiencing burn out. Because they experience so much more sensory experience, HSP need more sleep and down time than other people.

It is almost like they live three days condensed into a single day. Mental health days are a priority for HSP. Unfortunately many adults are unaware that they are HSP, and they try to live their lives like the other 80 per cent and begin self-medicating with alcohol or drugs just to get through a day.

My theory is that most people with serious addiction issues are HSP and they use their drug of choice to muffle their sensory reception.

As children, many HSP are labeled as shy, fussy, inhibited, fearful, or challenged in some way. If we could change places with that child for a few minutes we would realize that they are indeed wise, thoughtful, creative, intuitive and quite caring for others. Unfortunately these children are easily overwhelmed, especially in a school setting where noise, visual stimulation, and topic shuffling are normal (a Feng Shui nightmare if you ask me!), and they sometimes express their discomfort through uncooperative behaviour.

Instead of implementing behaviour management techniques that are designed for the other 80 per cent of the population perhaps the offering of a quieter space, the ability to leave the classroom for sensory breaks and adopting better understanding of their experience by teachers and caregivers could be considered. Instead of sending your child to their room as punishment, suggest that they go to their special space for some relaxing or creative time.

When you empower a Highly Sensitive Child to learn how to care for themselves at an early age, you are giving them a gift of self respect and self acceptance that may remain with them throughout their life. This can help them to create healthy and fulfilling lives as adults and avoid a life of suffering like many unaware HSP.

Some schools, such as those with a Waldorf or Montessori approach, create quieter, more reflective environments (better Feng Shui) for children to experience, and this is sometimes a better fit for a sensitive child.

So how do you know if you, your child or other family member is a HSP?

Just type "highly sensitive person" or "highly sensitive child" into a search engine and begin your research.

Fortunately sensitivity is becoming more understood and accepted so you will find a myriad of resources to assist you. There are online questionnaires, helpful ideas and suggestions and references to several books written on the subject, as well as opportunities to communicate with other HSP through social networking sites. The time to embrace and value sensitivity is here now.

Sally Joyce, OCT B.E.S., B.Ed.
Wellness & Empowerment Practitioner
149 St. Clair Street
Chatham, Ontario
N7L 3J4
(519) 360-9276

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