What Difference Does It Make if I’m a Highly Sensitive Person or Not?

This is usually the first question I get when I suspect someone may be a highly sensitive person (HSP) and I ask if they’ve ever heard of the trait. Or, “I don’t know that I meet the criteria for an HSP though I resonate with some of the characteristics – but so what? Why is a doctor even bringing this up in a visit when we’re talking about physical health?”

There are so many reasons why I think it’s helpful to explore sensory processing sensitivity, the scientific term for the highly sensitive trait. But before I go in to that, let’s talk about what about a person makes me think to suggest looking into the HSP trait.

Highly Sensitive Traits

While the traits of a highly sensitive person can vary widely among individual HSPs, there are common characteristics that I see during my visits with patients. As a naturopathic doctor, I look at a person’s health holistically, and how mind, body and spirit are connected.

On the physical realm, I regularly see a lot of sensitivity to the environment, ranging from lots of food reactions or strong reactions to one or a few types of foods, allergies, reactions to chemicals and/or EMFs, or strong reactions to mold. I see a lot of digestive issues, hormone imbalance, sensitive skin and chronic muscle tension or pain. Oftentimes, I see HSP patients experience side effects to medications – most usually pharmaceuticals, but even herbal and homeopathic medicines. Because the HSP trait is genetic and present since birth, many people notice these types of reactions occurring ever since childhood. However, some patients don’t notice these types of reactions until they’re older, because the body sometimes develop symptoms only after our “total load” of exposures reaches a certain amount, like a bucket filling up and overflowing.

On the mental, emotional and lifestyle realm, I frequently hear from my HSP patients that they feel overwhelmed easily; experience anxiety and/or depression; they don’t function well when they’re busy, stressed or under pressure; feel hurt easily with criticism; experience difficulty with boundaries and saying no; and either feeling emotions deeply or not allowing themselves to feel because it can be so intense. I also hear a lot of self-criticism, self-judgement and shame. These patients often want a lot of alone or quiet time (though this can vary as this is often a trait of introverts, and there are extroverted HSPs). They’ve often been told at some point in their life that they’re “too sensitive” or “dramatic,” and often feel different from everyone else unless they happen to come across another of the 20% of the population who’s highly sensitive.

OK but really, so what?

It doesn’t matter to me if after resonating with the HSP traits that you start telling everyone you’re a highly sensitive person or not. I normally don’t like labels and fitting into boxes, so I support staying away from that. I’ve taken on the label for myself because one of my main passions to help HSPs feel empowered in their health physically, mentally and emotionally, and taking on the label feels like it adds validity to the trait. It also feels like it’s reclaiming a phrase that is commonly used as criticism.

Understanding all the pieces that make us who we are, as well as acknowledging that there’s nothing wrong with being highly sensitive, can be vital to a full sense of confidence and self-esteem. Sharing this information with friends and family can help them understand us better to deepen connection and support. Learning about the traits that apply to you can help you shift towards a more balanced, ideal life. I’ve had several patients realize their jobs weren’t a good fit after learning about the HSP traits (often because the work environment was too chaotic or stressful), and this helped them find another job that best suited their personality. Several other patients found themselves drained from spending a lot of time with friends they loved but didn’t want to hurt by saying no to getting together. They realized they’d rather spend quality time with their friends when they were rested and calm, and through that, they learned how to regularly practice self-care so they could see their friends as often as possible in this balanced state.

From a doctor’s perspective, this information helps me tailor a treatment plan even more directly to you. Though most patients come to me already wanting the natural route, I’m even more likely to recommend holistic therapies to HSPs and often start at lower than “normal” doses until I know how they as an HSP react. Some HSPs respond strongly only to pharmaceuticals and respond well to any dose of natural therapies, while others do best at lower doses of any type of treatment. Because this sensitivity trait revolves around a nervous system that is wired differently, this helps me know to recommend nervous system balancing treatments, whether it’s lifestyle adjustments, herbs, homeopathy, breathing or vagus nerve exercises, which I see as key to optimal health for HSPs.

Because of the powerful mind-body connection, imbalances in the mind can affect the body and vice versa. For example, our gut health can have a big impact on our mental health. When I see an HSP struggling with constipation, bloating or other digestive issues, along with anxiety and depression, I make sure we heal the gut and support the mental/emotional aspect. Constipation and bloating often resolve when patients start to let go of past hurts and traumas, and anxiety and depression lighten when the gut is happy. I also know to look for some of the trouble areas I regularly see with HSPs, such as self-esteem, boundaries, stored trauma, stress and overwhelm. I can help them explore these often scary and challenging pieces or help them find additional resources.

Don’t feel you fit the HSP characteristics?

Nothing is 100% definitive about the criteria for being a highly sensitive person, but most people know if the information resonates with them. Even if you don’t feel you meet the criteria, this information may help you learn something about yourself. It’s worth the 5 minutes it takes to complete the sensitivity scale quiz. For example, the quiz may help you realize how much you notice other people’s moods, which can help you discover how to talk to your partner about why you’re so affected when they’re in a bad mood. Or maybe you realize you busy schedule is keeping you drained, so you’re motivated to add in more rest and other self-care.

Since true optimal health is best reached on all planes – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual – I believe putting this information together with the other aspects of what makes you unique is the fastest course to healing.

Curious if you may be a highly sensitive person? Click here for links to two sensitivity scales!

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