As highly sensitive people know, there are advantages to our trait, such as a deeper response to others and the world, and increased creativity – but there can also be emotional and mental health challenges.
Therapist Susan Meindl discusses this in her article here, which is followed by related comments by Elaine Aron, and resources.
Highly Sensitive People: Why Therapists Should Care About High Sensitivity
By Susan Meindl
High Sensitivity is a naturally occurring and non-pathological individual difference which is associated with a detailed cognitive processing style and usually, but not always with introverted temperament.
Social psychologist Elaine Aron suggests that 15 to 20% of the general population will have the innate temperamental difference which she calls “High Sensitivity” (HS), or for research purposes, Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS).
30% to 50% of our therapy clients may be affected
High Sensitivity may play an unsuspected role in the distress of many of our psychotherapy clients.
Because their sensitivity predisposes them to over-stimulation and distress in demanding environments, Aron proposes that this trait may play a role in the difficulties of 30 to 50% of the clinical population that we see in our consulting rooms.
Common complaints pertain to sensory sensitivities and emotional sensitivity
Highly Sensitive clients describe feeling both positive and negative emotions intensely and responding strongly to physical and emotional stimuli.
Sensitive individuals are easily bothered by sounds, smells, and chaotic situations.
They have a very detailed cognitive style and take in more stimulation from their environment noticing details and fine differences. As a result they are often overwhelmed in situations which do not trouble others.
They may have difficulty in decision making as they struggle to organize detailed perceptions and multiple imagined outcome scenarios.
They may be introverts who seem to have a “thin skin,” who are easily hurt or offended or are overly afraid of offending others.
They may be “touchy” and have strong emotional reactions to things that do not upset others
These differences influence the individual’s responses to their environment from birth.
Because HS disposes an individual to have strong reactions to stressors, Aron proposes that under certain circumstances, HS may create an increased vulnerability to psychopathology.
When unrecognized and improperly managed by parents and teachers HS may play out into a whole range of common psycho-pathologies… including social phobia, somatization and avoidant personality styles and relationship difficulties.
Sensitive people have an impact on others as well…
While sensitive persons are often thoughtful, careful and empathic parents, partners and friends, when they are stressed… or if they have never learned how to cope with their unique qualities effectively, they may create tensions and difficulties for the people around them.
Many of our non-sensitive patients have had Highly Sensitive parents, children, partners or co-workers and have struggled… sometimes since childhood… with confusion and frustration and disturbed relationships because of a lack of understanding of the trait in significant others.
A therapist who is well-informed about HS can do a great deal to help their non-sensitive clients understand their relationships with HS family members, both in the past and in the present, and help them to use this knowledge to interact more effectively and pleasantly with HS persons in their circle.
What a therapist needs to know
A well informed therapist wishing to work effectively with HS clients should be able to:
Describe the identifying features of High Sensitivity,
Discuss how Sensitivity affects childhood development and adult socialization,
Distinguish HS from psychological disorders such as sensitivity due to PTSD and personality disorders
In terms of practical skills, a therapist should be able to:
Use Aron’s HSP Scale to formally or informally assess sensitivity.
Identify complicated and uncomplicated HS
Assess the therapeutic needs of Sensitive clients
Apply common psychotherapy techniques in the treatment of Highly Sensitive clients to promote adjustment and healing.
Suggestion for further reading:
For more detailed information for therapists on this subject, I highly recommend Dr Elaine Aron’s excellent book:
“Psychotherapy for the Highly Sensitive Person; Improving Outcomes for That Minority of People Who Are the Majority of Clients” [see link below].
In this book you will find the HSP assessment scale as well as suggestions for adapting therapy for HSP’s, detailed information about the research background supporting the concept, and an helpful and informative section on differential diagnosis.
Susan Meindl, MA, is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Montreal Canada. She has a special interest in the psychological challenges of introverted and Highly Sensitive (HSP) clients and uses a psychodynamic approach to psychotherapy.
Contact Susan at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Related articles by Susan Meindl:
Highly Sensitive People and Depression
Stimulation comes in on all sensory channels: sights, sounds, smells, vibrations, touch. HSP’s typically respond strongly and quickly reach their natural level of tolerance in loud, bright or chaotic environments. Managing this kind of overstimulation could be treated as a “technical problem” of reducing environmental intensity or leaving it when possible. Five kinds of over-stimulation can contribute to depression.
ADD, Stress and Overstimulation – Living Too Close to Edge
More and more adult clients arrive at psychologist’s offices suffering from stress and an inability to concentrate that makes them worry that they may have ADD. Often they are just overstimulated and overwhelmed. Stress is what we experience when the world moves too fast, when there is too much to do and too little time to do it. We feel stressed when the emotional world around us is strained or endangered. Through emotional contagion we feel stressed when others around us are stressed.
In the book The Power of Sensitivity: Success Stories of Highly Sensitive People Thriving in a Non-sensitive World by Ted Zeff, Elaine Aron (Foreword), Susan Meindl comments on:
The benefits of a Non-HSP learning about the Trait of Sensitivity
I have also had to think about sensitivity as a factor in understanding my gifted, creative, ADD, and Aspergers clients, as well as my clients with somatic symptoms.
I have learned from my insightful and articulate HSP clients that every one of us (HSP or non-HSP) behaves like an HSP in the areas where we have been profoundly wounded, by responding with intense emotional and physical reactions.
In other words, I have found that understanding sensitivity and sensory processing becomes relevant to almost all my clients.
Finally, by understanding the physical and social manifestations of sensitivity, I have become more aware of my own experiences of feeling “overwhelmed,” and consequently I have made more space in my life to honor my needs for downtime and solitude in ways that have been very sustaining.
By understanding the trait of sensitivity, my psychology practice has been profoundly altered and my life changed forever. Thank you, Dr Aron! — Susan Meindl
[The image is from article: Creativity and Asperger’s.]
Dr. Ted Zeff comments:
“I wish there were more counselors and therapists like Susan Meindl, who spend time learning about the trait of high sensitivity and how to work with HSP clients.
“This story illustrates the importance for non-HSPs to learn about the trait of high sensitivity, since it will help them understand and better relate to 20 percent of the population, which will likely include some of their family, friends, and coworkers.
“In addition, many of the methods that HSPs use to calm down their nervous system would be useful for non-HSPs as well.”
[Also see post: Ted Zeff on strategies for nurturing our sensitive self.]
Engaging in therapy can be a powerful form of self-care for anyone, perhaps especially gifted or highly sensitive people who experience such intense emotions.
This image is from the article “How to Sit with Painful Emotions” by Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. – “Feeling painful emotions, not surprisingly, can be painful. This is why so many of us don’t do it. Instead, we ignore our emotions, or dismiss them.”
See more quotes and link to the article on the page: Emotional Health Resources: Programs, books, articles and sites to improve your emotional wellbeing.
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Elaine Aron notes “I have written about how to select a therapist in The Highly Sensitive Person, The Highly Sensitive Person’s Workbook, and on this blog [How to Find a Good Therapist].
“For you, however, an issue deserving special attention is how to discuss your sensitivity with therapists. This is important when choosing a therapist, and especially so if you are already seeing someone you like but are not sure how to bring it up.
“Actually, your therapy may not involve long discussions of high sensitivity–you already know about it. But whether your therapist is highly sensitive (nice but not necessary) or not, being informed about it allows him or her to keep it in mind, bring it up when it seems appropriate, and adapt the work to better fit your trait.”
– From her newsletter article “Discussing Your Trait with Therapists”
Also see these books and DVD by Aron:
Image at top from article: Integrating Spirituality into Psychotherapy.
Middle image about documentary movie from article: Elaine Aron on the trait of high sensitivity.
One of my resource pages: Counselors – Therapists – Coaches.
More articles etc:
Arousing the Sleeping Giant: Giftedness in Adult Psychotherapy, by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen, PhD.
Therapy Would Kill My Creativity By Douglas Eby – “I want to keep my sufferings. They are part of me and my art.” Painter Edvard Munch // “I had the feeling therapy was good for my writing very early on.” Filmmaker Agnes Jaoui.
Psychologist Cheryl Arutt writes:
“Creating art has always been a way to channel emotional intensity…If you are an artist, you are your instrument. The greater access you maintain to yourself, the richer and broader your array of creative tools.”
From her article Affect Regulation and the Creative Artist.
Hear audio interview with her:
Psychologist Cheryl Arutt on Creative Artist Issues.
Emotional Health Resources
Meditation programs, biofeedback devices, stress relief products
YouTube / Mental Health – Emotional Health videos
Facebook / Emotional Health and Creativity videos
Anxiety Relief Solutions site