A ‘highly sensitive person’ (HSP) is someone who experiences heightened awareness and sensitivity to subtle changes in their environment and sensory stimuli. This often manifests as a higher reactivity to intense experiences, such as loud sirens or violent movies, and a need to withdraw in order to recover and recharge. HSPs are attuned and reactive to their surroundings, due to a “highly active and receptive central nervous system” (May et al. 2020). These traits are seen in 20-35% of the general population, so it is an experience that is shared by many. Due to the higher potential of becoming overwhelmed, HSPs often suffer more often from anxiety and depression. What does positive wellbeing mean for a Highly Sensitive Person?
According to Black & Kern (2020), highly sensitive people perceive wellbeing as coming from a balance of low-intensity positive emotions towards the self and others. This includes time spent engaging in positive social relationships alongside time spent in solitude. This study proposes activities like connecting with nature, meditation, and experiences that foster self-awareness and acceptance to boost wellbeing in HSPs. Interestingly, they make note that negative factors to wellbeing for this population include having a challenging time saying to others. It seems that highly sensitive people face difficulties in rejecting or turning people down, possibly because they are more highly attuned to the emotions of others. However, having strong boundaries and respect for your own autonomy could assist in promoting better wellbeing.
One study has found that there is a significant relationship between heightened sensory processing and resilience (Gulla & Golonka, 2021). People who are highly sensitive to sensory stimuli may also have an easier experience bouncing back and adjusting to difficulties and change. Because HSPs base their behavior on their carefully monitored environment, they are likely to lean towards an attitude of constant vigilance, and may have a difficult time relaxing. If you are prone to a state of constant heightened awareness here is an art therapy activity that you can try:
Draw two outlines of your body. If you need, you can find a pre-made outline online.
Take a few mindful breaths. When you think about what it feels like to be in a state of anxiety, where do you go to in your body? Draw what that experience feels like on the first body outline.
Now, think about what it feels like to be in a state of calm. What does that feel like in your body? Draw that experience in the second body outline.
Take a moment to look at both outline side by side. Consider, in your experience, what it takes for you to go from the calm state to the anxious state, and vice versa.
By using art materials to assist in the emotional and intellectual processing of heightened emotions, you can add depth to your understanding your lived experience.
Mental Health Counselor Intern
Black, B. A. & Kern, M. L. (2020). A qualitative exploration of individual differences in wellbeing for highly sensitive individuals. PALGRAVE COMMUNICATIONS, 6(1), pp. 11-. doi:10.1057/s41599-020-0482-8
Gulla B and Golonka K (2021) Exploring Protective Factors in Wellbeing: How Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Attention Awareness Interact With Resilience. Front. Psychol. 12:751679. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.751679
May, A. K., Norris, S. A., Richter, L. M., & Pitman, M. M. (2020). A psychometric evaluation of the highly sensitive person scale in ethnically and culturally heterogeneous south african samples. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-020-00988-7