Highly Sensitive People: Why Therapists Should Care About High Sensitivity
High sensitivity is a natural, non-pathological individual difference that is associated with a detailed cognitive processing style and usually, but not always, with an introverted temperament.
Social psychologist Elaine Aron (1995) suggests that 15-20% of the general population will have the innate temperamental difference that 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 can play an unsuspected role in the distress of many of our psychotherapy clients.
Because their sensitivity predisposes them to overstimulation and distress in demanding environments, Aron proposes that this trait may play a role in the difficulties of the 30-50% of the clinical population we see in our practices.
Common complaints refer to sensory sensitivities and emotional sensitivity.
Highly sensitive clients describe feeling intensely both positive and negative emotions and responding strongly to physical and emotional stimuli.
- Sensitive people are easily annoyed by sounds, smells, and chaotic situations.
- They have a highly detailed cognitive style and receive more stimuli from their environment by noticing subtle details and differences. As a result, they often feel overwhelmed by situations that do not concern others.
- They may have difficulty making decisions as they struggle to organize detailed perceptions and multiple imagined outcome scenarios.
- They may be introverts who appear to have “thin skin”, are easily hurt or offended, or are too afraid of offending others.
- They can be “picky” and have strong emotional reactions to things that don’t bother others.
- These differences influence the individual’s responses to their environment from birth.
Because HS predisposes an individual to have strong reactions to stressors, Aron proposes that, under certain circumstances, HS may create increased vulnerability to psychopathology.
When unrecognized and inappropriately managed by parents and teachers, HS can develop into a wide range of common psychopathologies…including social phobia, somatization and avoidant personality styles, and relationship difficulties.
Sensitive people also have an impact on others…
While sensitive people are often considerate, caring, and empathetic parents, partners, and friends, when they are stressed…or if they have never learned to cope effectively with their unique qualities, they can create stress and difficulties for the people around them. surround.
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 due to a lack of understanding of the trait in important others.
A therapist who is knowledgeable about HS can do much to help nonsensitive clients understand their relationships with HS family members, both past and present, and help them use this knowledge to interact more effectively and safely. nicely with HS people in your circle.
What a therapist needs to know
A knowledgeable therapist who wishes to work effectively with HS clients must be able to:
- Describe the characteristics of identification of high sensitivity,
- Discuss how Sensitivity affects child development and adult socialization,
- Distinguishing HS from psychological disorders such as PTSD sensitivity and personality disorders
In terms of practical skills, a therapist must be able to:
- Use Aron’s HSP scale to assess sensitivity formally or informally.
- 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.
Further reading suggestion:
For more detailed information for therapists on this topic, 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”
(Routledge Press, 2010)
In this book you will find the HSP Rating Scale, as well as suggestions for tailoring therapy for HSP, detailed information on the background research that supports the concept, and a helpful and informative section on differential diagnosis.