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What IS High Sensitivity?


Hey, Highly Sensitive Person!


I'm giving you the nuts and bolts explanation of what high sensitivity actually is.


We'll start out with a brief explanation and some numbers because specifics do make it easier to remember things. Then we'll talk about the DOES acronym that describes highly sensitive qualities.


First things first, being a highly sensitive person means that your mind and your body

are more sensitive to the world around you. That's it. Simple as that.


High sensitivity is a trait, not a condition. It's not something you can have diagnosed. And most importantly, having high sensitivity is simply a different way of experiencing the world. If you identify with a lot of the things that I'm talking about in this podcast, then you are probably a highly sensitive person. It's something that you can determine for yourself.


And it doesn't mean that anything is wrong with you. It's just another way for you to process the way that you see the world so that you can live a better life.


About 20 % of the population has this trait. I did a quick Google search, which turned up the current world population at 7 .888 billion people as of January, 2024. So if 20 % of that 7 .888 billion is highly sensitive, that means that there are a little less than 1 .6 billion highly sensitive people on the planet. Isn't that bonkers?


That's a lot of highly sensitive people.


So if you feel like you're alone, there are more of us out there than you think there are. They've even found that high sensitivity is present in a number of species besides humans. So your pet, such as your dog or your cat, might be highly sensitive too.


We have two cats, Mal and Penny, and one of them is definitely highly sensitive. She's very particular about how she likes things done and if she gets too stimulated and there's too much going on, she is out of there.


It is equally as likely for men and women to have the trait, so it's totally 50 -50, and about 70 % of HSPs are introverted while 30 % are extroverted. So if you think that being sensitive means anything in particular, you might have to check your expectations. 30 % love being around people and get energized by that.


Dr. Elaine Aaron is the psychologist who named the trait in the early mid, no, late 1990s. And she was working with patients and noticing certain patterns and similarities, including in her own life when she was working with a therapist. She has written a number of books and she's kind of the godmother of high sensitivity.


There are a number of great resources out there and I am really excited to be a contributor to the conversation so that hopefully more people can learn about this trait and about themselves.


There's also a subsection of highly sensitive people called high sensation seekers, which is something I'll talk about in another episode.


Now that we've gotten some of the stats out of the way, let's talk about the acronym that Dr. Aaron coined to describe common highly sensitive person qualities. And that acronym is DOES.


D O E S. DOES stands for depth of processing. O stands for over stimulation. E stands for emotionality or as I like to think about it, empathy too. And S stands for sensitivity to subtleties.


Let's start with the first one. D is for depth of processing. That means that your internal world is probably very vibrant and very dynamic.


While other people are taking in maybe a stream of information throughout the day, you're taking in a river of information and that's just something that happens to you. It's not something you can turn off or that you need to change. It's just a way that you process information. So when I go into a room, I like to describe the sensation I have of being a highly sensitive person because it often illustrates for people what this feels like.


Where an average person, a neurotypical person, would walk into a room and maybe look at the color of the walls or the artwork. Maybe there's some music playing and they're looking for somewhere to sit down. That's all the information that they are gathering in and that's all the information that they need, which is great. If you're a highly sensitive person, you're probably taking in the color, the artwork, the number of people, the amount of noise, the temperature, the light quality. Is it warm? Is it cool?

Do you like how it feels? Is there a flicker going on? Is there a weird humming noise? Or is there a weird pulsing noise? Because those things we pick up on where other people don't. Other people can more easily habituate or just kind of gloss over those things. Highly sensitive people pick them up. So we take in way more information, both from the world around us, and we're processing a lot more information in our heads as well.


So that's an example of what it's like to walk into a room as a highly sensitive person, but to live in our heads as a highly sensitive person, that is a whole other ball game too. I like to read stories.


That's one of my main ways of decompressing and recharging and feeling connected to the world and improving my empathy skills. And when you think about a story, a highly sensitive person has a lot of details.


There's probably a lot of world building and a bunch of lore that they're dealing with. They're taking in information about other people's emotions in addition to theirs. They're thinking about information that they've gathered. They're looking for more information so they can dig deeper and compare and contrast things. There's a lot going on in our heads and it can look very detailed and very vibrant, which can also lead us to our next trait too. More about depth of processing includes the fact that we like to dig deep.


So this means that a lot of highly sensitive people don't really like small talk. It means that we would much rather connect with someone on a deeper level. And I had a friend who said that highly sensitive people don't get the bends. Now, I am not a fan of the ocean. I like to see it from the beach. That's great. I don't know what's down there. So I have never been scuba diving or snorkeling. But apparently when you scuba dive or even if you're climbing into higher altitudes,

there's such a thing called the bends, where your body doesn't necessarily adjust to the pressure of super low altitudes or super high altitudes as easily.


When you come back to the surface or when you come back to ground level, your body has an adjustment period and it can get sick. In a metaphorical sense, this friend was saying highly sensitive people don't get the bends because we can go deep really fast and then we can come up and it doesn't bother us at all.


We can seamlessly move between more surface level, maybe news or or hearing from other people about what's going on in their lives, and we can go deep really fast to find out what's going on with them. What do they care about? What are their values? What's getting in the way of them getting what they want? And how are they really feeling on a deeper level? We also tend to cast a wider net.


So highly sensitive people, because we're processing so many things, we are really good at taking information from different areas and putting it together to create something new for us and for others. That sums up depth of processing.


And as I mentioned earlier, the only trait in this acronym that could be construed as negative most of the time is overstimulation. And that comes from that river versus stream analogy that I was talking about. When we take in so much information from the world around us,

and we're processing so much information in our thoughts on a regular basis, that means that we go through our energy faster, our batteries drain faster, and we need a lot more rest and recovery time because we use more energy on a daily basis than other people do. When you have that much information coming in, you also have a lot more information coming out too. We're processing more, and so the amount of energy that we put into things tends to be at a very high level as well.

That makes us very susceptible to burnout, to getting stressed, to feeling overwhelmed and over exhausted. I guess that's an oxymoron. Just being exhausted is enough. You don't have to be over exhausted. If you are, please go to a hospital. However, if you're overstimulated, it could be because of external forces and because of our thoughts too. So that's something that's a little bit special about high sensitivity. It can come from our own internal mindset and the thoughts that we are habitually

practicing and getting our reps in about, or it could be stress from the outside world and just taking in too many sensory input pieces of information. And that's over stimulation. E, which stands for emotionality, or as I like to think about it, empathy, is the next quality. Highly sensitive people have more mirror neurons in their brains.

Mirror neurons are the things in your brains that pick up on body language and tonal cues and all the extra little details, especially in people's facial expressions, that tell you how they're feeling on a deeper level than just their words. Highly sensitive people literally have more of those than other people. So it's easier for us to pick up those subtleties and to see when someone might be upset, even when they say they're totally fine, and then hopefully to be able to identify what that is.

Now, a lot of us are really good at telling when someone is feeling a certain way. Like, I can tell someone's upset or I can tell that someone's not necessarily telling me the whole truth or the whole story. But that doesn't necessarily mean that we always know accurately what exactly it is that the other person is thinking or feeling. So one of the things you want to make sure as you're going from surviving with high sensitivity to managing and even thriving with it,

is to check in with the other person and not make assumptions and have expectations about what you think you're perceiving. Always confirm with them to make sure, I'm getting the sense that you're feeling this way. Does that feel right for you? Since you have more mirror neurons and you're picking up all that extra information from nonverbal cues, it tends to make us a lot more thoughtful, a lot more compassionate, and a lot more kind. When this is dysfunctional, highly sensitive people tend to want to...

smooth things over for others. We want to make sure that everybody around us is feeling good because it can be so disruptive for us if we have poor boundaries for other people to be upset or angry or sad. So oftentimes we can go out of our way to use that compassion and that kindness and that thoughtfulness to try to smooth over everybody's feelings and help everybody feel better. It's actually okay for others to feel exactly how they're feeling and you can continue to feel however you were feeling inside.

I'm going to have some other episodes and tools about this because there's a technique that I love that I can't wait to share with you. So you'll have to tune in for more episodes to find out. And we also have that need for strong internal boundaries. We need to make sure that because we sense emotions and we feel so deeply and we have a lot of empathy for other people that we're not just picking up all this stray energy from all over the place. I have a sense that highly sensitive people sometimes

have a greater intuition than the average person, or maybe even a little bit of clairvoyance, which means sometimes I've heard highly sensitive people say they walk through crowds and they're picking up all this extra stuff from other people. Having your own sense of internal boundaries helps you create a little bit of a shield or a barrier so you're not picking up other people's stray emotions or their stray feelings or even their stray energy and taking it with you throughout the day. I like to be super practical.

I can also be a little bit woo -woo too, so it's definitely going to creep into these episodes that I like to think about things in a very scientific way, but there's also a little bit of magic and mystery that I like to lean into too. I believe that this is true for some highly sensitive people, even if I don't experience it for myself. That's emotionality and empathy. And the last one, S, is sensitivity to subtleties. This means that highly sensitive people

live their lives in the details and the nuance. It can be very easy for everyone to think very black and white about things and it's right or wrong, yes and yes or no, good and bad, but highly sensitive people really excel at seeing all those gray areas in between and how lots of different factors are playing into things. It means that our five senses are heightened. You are probably more susceptible to temperature changes.

you're probably more susceptible to disruptive lights or distracting lights. For instance, whenever I walk into a room with a TV on, even if the sound is off, I can't help but look at it because my mind is constantly saying, is that something I need to worry about? Is that something I need to worry about? What's going on? Ooh, that looks interesting. My mind is really curious about the movement that's going on, even if it's in my peripheral vision. So that's very common for highly sensitive people to have a greater sense of what's...

in the environment around us that we can see with our eyes. The majority of people are visual learners, and I like to think of it with highly sensitive people, almost like full screen versus wide screen, where the average person is seeing full screen and they're very focused on what's in front of them. A highly sensitive person is constantly seeing in wide screen, and we're always picking up this extra information and all these extra cues. It's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just something to keep in mind throughout your day. And there are definitely ways that you can use that information to your benefit.

so that you're preparing yourself and you can take care of maybe temperature changes or light changes. I always leave the house with sunglasses even when it's cloudy outside. And I know that might seem a little bit like overkill to you, but for me, it makes sense because even when it's cloudy, there's still this diffused light that hits my eyes and it feels very bright to me. And I find myself squinting, which causes headaches. This is just an example of what this might be like for a highly sensitive person.

highly sensitive people tend to be very aware of other people in their spaces too. So even though my partner and I often work on different sides of the house when he's home working, I can still sense that he's there. There's still a presence or an awareness that I have in the back of my mind that makes me act a little bit differently sometimes because I think, oh, can he hear me doing a client session? So I stuff some towels under the door to do some sound muffling or can...

Can he hear me laughing or teaching a class? Something like that. Being aware of other people around you and then taking the opportunity to use that to change your environment and make it more friendly and more comfortable for you so that you can lower your nervous system, calm it down, and make sure that you're going through your day without having high alert on all the time. That's going to be really beneficial for you. So in addition to sounds and

senses that you see visually as well as even temperature, which you feel highly sensitive people tend to be a lot more sensitive, of course, to smell and to taste. We might pick up on smells that other people don't notice, or we might notice slight subtleties. And again, I know this might sound absolutely crazy to you. Maybe not, maybe this is true for you too, but I can usually tell the difference, for instance, between...

Hot water that's been boiled on the stove, for instance, versus hot water that's been microwaved. It just has a different taste for me. If you've ever been vegetarian, which I was for seven years, then you know there's a huge difference between drinking cow's milk before you become vegetarian and drinking it afterwards. I sense kind of a metallic taste from drinking cow's milk now that I've had that experience and it just doesn't work well for me anymore. That might not be the case for you, but there might be other things in your life that are coming up like that.

So your five senses are heightened. And going back to that woo -woo part, I think maybe highly sensitive people might be more susceptible or more open to having something more like a sixth sense, a little bit more clairvoyance, a little bit more intuition or a clear audio. You might just have kind of a sense of things that you can't always put your finger on, but you know that it's there, even if it's just energy. And lastly, in regards to sensitivity to subtleties,


We tend to prefer mild and comfortable things, non -abrasive. This doesn't mean that we don't challenge ourselves. It doesn't mean that we're not willing to be uncomfortable because we are. It just means that we notice scratchy, abrasive textures more. We notice if our shoes don't fit right or if we have something on our skin that doesn't belong there and we're like, oh, get this off my face. It's just a normal part of the trait.

we prefer things a little bit more comfortable for us, however that looks. Just to recap now, about 20 % of the population of humans and almost 150 other species has high sensitivity. It's 50 -50 men and women, whether you're going to have high sensitivity, and about 70 % of highly sensitive people are introverted and about 30 % are extroverted.

Dr. Elaine Aaron is a psychologist who named the trait in 1997 because as she says, she didn't discover it. It was already there. She just put a name to it and created a framework around it so that people like us, 25 years later, can learn from it and use it to make our lives better. The acronym that she uses to describe the qualities of a highly sensitive person is DOES. D for depth of processing, O for overstimulation, E...

for emotionality and empathy, and S for sensitivity to subtleties. That's it for today, and I hope you got a good sense of what high sensitivity is from this episode. In the next episode, I wanna talk about what high sensitivity is not. There are a lot of misconceptions that I can't wait to talk about, and I hope you get a lot from that episode as well. See you soon.


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