Sensory sensitivity manifests in unique ways in each highly sensitive person. If you recognize how it shows up in you, you can take better care of yourself.
In the first article of this four-part series about the highly sensitive trait, I explored deep processing. Deep processing is the “D” in “DOES,” the acronym created by Dr. Elaine Aron to describe the four key characteristics that all highly sensitive people have in common.
Next, I wrote about overarousal, and most recently, emotional intensity—the “O” and the “E” in “DOES.” That leaves the “S” in “DOES,” which stands for sensory sensitivity. Dr. Aron’s books contain extremely helpful insights and information about sensory sensitivity, and here I’ll convey some of that to you so you can better recognize sensory sensitivity in yourself
As always, I share Dr. Aron’s wisdom and research with all credit to her, along with profound gratitude. Without Dr. Aron, we wouldn’t even have a name for the HSP trait, which she first identified in the mid-1990s. Her books and publications are my primary source for information about high sensitivity, Here I’ve quoted extensively from Dr. Aron’s 2010 book, Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person* (“P&THSP” for short.)
Recognizing your sensory sensitivity
As you read the exploration below of sensory sensitivity, I suggest that you—
1—Pause often. Ask yourself, “Does this feel familiar? How does this particular aspect of sensitivity show up in my own life?” Note any examples that come up.
2—Take time to reflect. Ask yourself, “How do I manage this aspect of my HSP trait? Am I pleased with the way I handle it? Or is it a challenge for me?”
By examining your reactions in this way as you read, you will be engaging in a key task for HSPs: reframing your life in terms of your sensitive trait. In some areas, you will not need to reframe your experiences of sensory sensitivity. Unlike overarousal, which is consistently unpleasant, your sensory sensitivity may bring you deep pleasure and satisfaction. You may:
- Be exquisitely sensitive to beauty in art, music, literature, and nature
- Experience a deep affinity with nature, including plants, animals, and the earth itself
- Be subtly attuned to healing energies in yourself or in others
- Be keenly aware of subtle changes in others’ moods, expressions, and responses, contributing to your capacity for empathy
Your sensory sensitivity can synergize in a positive way with your emotional intensity. For example, my dad used to put his LP of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony on the record player then go into the living room and conduct his favorite parts, getting all choked up. Similarly, my partner is a soft touch at the movies.
The challenging side of sensory sensitivity
In this last example about my partner, you can see how sensory sensitivity can cut both ways. I happen to love that he cries in the movies sometimes. Western culture sees this differently, however, judging men for showing that kind of sensitivity.
Because we’ve all grown up with this judgement, HSPs need to recognize the ways in which we experience sensory sensitivity, so we can learn to handle those reactions with care and self- compassion.
There are many different sensitivities for which you may have learned to judge yourself as “too sensitive.” Some are related to your immediate environment, including—
- Changes of temperature
- Bright lights
- Loud noises or continuous ambient noise (as in an open office)
Some sensitivities are physical and tactile:
- Rough, scratchy fabrics or wool, tags in clothing, sand in your toes, clothing that binds
- Contact allergies and skin disorders
- Sensitivity to caffeine, alcohol, and prescription or recreational drugs
- A low pain threshold, which can manifest in “back and neck problems, migraines, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, unusual allergies, environmental sensitivities, or extreme premenstrual syndrome” ((P&THSP, p. 35)
- Sensitivity to hunger
And some sensitivities are relational or energetic:
- Sensitivity to subtle changes of facial expression, word choice, tone of voice, energy
- Sensitivity to scary movies, stories, or news
Sensory sensitivity manifests in three different patterns
As Dr. Aron explains,
Sometimes sensory sensitivity manifests as a low threshold, sometimes as the ability to distinguish subtleties, and sometimes as low tolerance of high levels of sensory input. Often all three are present. (P&THSP, p. 33)
Take a moment to read the above list again. First, consider which items feel familiar to you. Then consider which of Dr. Aron’s three patterns applies for each item. I, for example, have a very low threshold for smells. I may be bothered by a smell that no one around me even notices.
I also notice tiny subtleties in other people’s tone of voice and facial expressions. This is a good thing when I’m supporting a client. It helps me stay attuned to them, moment by moment. It’s not so good if I’m arguing with my partner. When I’m triggered, a scared part takes over my “subtlety detector.” At those moments, I may interpret his subtle exhalation as a nuclear event.
Corresponding to Dr. Aron’s third pattern of sensory sensitivity, I have a low tolerance for high levels of noise, like the shriek of an arriving New York subway train. Even as my musician’s brain is analyzing the interval at which the brakes are shrieking (I think there’s a tritone in there), I’m sticking my fingers in my ears trying to survive the volume level.
How do you manage your sensory sensitivity?
In earlier articles I’ve talked about ways you can manage your HSP sensory sensitivity, including these:
1—Appreciate the positive aspects of your sensory sensitivity. For example, some smells really bother me that don’t seem to bother other people. On the flip side, though, I experience great pleasure on my walks, taking in the subtle scents of flowers and the spicy smell of the woods. Sensory sensitivity also contributes in a positive way to the keen sense of empathy and the artistic sensibility shared by many HSPs.
2—Take steps to mitigate challenging aspects of your sensory sensitivity. For example, my partner and I live in a very quiet house, because we are both sensitive to noise and quickly become overwhelmed by it. When I lived in a noisier apartment, I did my best to cope, but to get real relief, I had to change my external circumstances. Fortunately, I was able to do that.
3—Meditate to increase your equanimity in the face of changing conditions. If you experience anxiety generally, your anxious parts can perseverate on your sensory sensitivities, causing you to spiral down into state in which every tiny thing bothers you. When you meditate, you directly counteract these anxious impulses.
In particular, many HSPs wonder if our keen sensitivity to physical sensations—another manifestation of sensory sensitivity— makes us hypochondriacs. That label holds a lot of judgment, and is usually not accurate. We are simply more aware of our bodies than the majority of people.
To manage this heightened awareness, you need to cultivate self-acceptance and presence with your bodily experiences and sensations. This way you sense what is happening from your whole self, rather than from a part. You don’t want a part handling your sensory sensitivity, because with its limited perspective, it is prone to unnecessarily freaking out.
Healing shame about your sensory sensitivity
The above strategies come with a condition, however. They will only work if you are actively addressing any shame you carry about your sensory sensitivity. This kind of shame may be so much a part of your “mental wallpaper” that you don’t even consciously notice it, even though it affects you greatly.
The problem is, unaddressed shame will prevent you from advocating for your own needs around your sensory sensitivity. And you need to be able to advocate for yourself, because no matter how many mitigating actions you take or how much equanimity you develop, there will be times when you need something different from the people around you.
As HSPs, we hate being criticized. We can find it (almost) unbearably painful when others are dismissive, disapproving, incredulous, or contemptuous of our needs. On the other hand, we prioritize harmony with others, which can make it harder for us to speak up. Given these tendencies, it is essential for us to learn how to advocate for ourselves in ways that are both firm and kind.
As a first step, remind yourself that the other person’s reaction is not a statement about your worth and value as a person is an expression. Rather, it is an expression of his/her/their needs. Only when you understand this and truly believe it will you be able to set boundaries in a kind way:
I’m hearing you aren’t hungry right now and don’t want to stop to eat. And, I get that you can’t imagine how I could be hungry. Still, I need to eat. Would you prefer to sit with me while I have a snack, or keep hiking and I’ll catch up with you later?
Gaining control by giving up control
In the above example, you aren’t trying to control the other person. Nor are you backing down on an essential need—in this case, food. Setting this kind of boundary takes practice. It did for me, anyway. I once developed a blister the size of a half dollar on my heel while snowshoeing because I told myself I shouldn’t stop to check on it. My partner didn’t want to stop because a zillion people passed us every time we did, and I didn’t have the clarity or conviction about my needs to argue.
I learned a big lesson that day. The pain I experienced was physical: I couldn’t wear shoes for nearly a week. But it was also psychological. I was pissed. I felt that particularly potent flavor of anger and resentment you feel when you’ve failed to take care of yourself around someone else.
HSPs can be models of consideration and kindness. But we can also harbor simmering resentment—and we inevitably will, if we don’t take care of our sensitive needs. Take time to identify your most pressing sensory sensitivities, then take steps to take care for yourself as needed. You may get pushback from people around you, but the end result—a happier you—will be better for everyone.
Image: ©2022 Emily Agnew
*Aron, Elaine (2010): Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person, New York: Routledge. Page references are from the paperback edition.
Appreciating the positive aspects of my sensory sensitivity. I just recently started drawing bird calls. Yes, bird calls. I have some background knowledge of music. I took piano lessons as a child. I did not enjoy them at all. The lessons were so so, but the recitals were awful. Now I know why when I reframe this experience as an HSP child.
However, I have always known I have a very good ear for quality music.
So, this past week as I listened to the different bird calls both around my yard and in the forest, I started to draw the calls according to how my ear hears them. For example, the easiest to draw was the crow. Seven caws in a row….seven straight lines on an angle moving upwards…their tone seems to be ascending. I’m just starting this, but excited to research about it.
One thing I’d like to share is the problem I am having with my sensory gages. I know when I am physically tired, I know when I am socially tired, but I am having extreme difficulty realizing when I am mentally, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically tired. This all ties in with all our sensory processing experiences and overarousal and overwhelm. I know the tolerance levels are different for everyone, but if there is a minimum gage that HSP people can follow…please share. Thank you
Suzanne, I don’t know of any universal gauge for these subtler kinds of fatigue…but you know them when you feel them, right? You can create your own subjective scale by thinking of time when you felt very relaxed, refreshed, alert, and rested. Make that a “10”, then ask yourself what number you are right now. This can be surprisingly precise, and gives you a tool to notice which choices help and which don’t help–even if the changes are subtle.