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Natalie Clauss

The phenomenon of high sensitivity

In recent years, the topic of high sensitivity has become more and more widespread. There are many opinions and evaluations about the strengths and weaknesses of a pronounced sensitivity. But what exactly is high sensitivity and how does it affect the everyday life of highly sensitive people?

Highly sensitive snapshot

Lisa finally wanted to meet up with her good friends again. Lately, her professional life and her family had taken up quite a bit of her energy. That's why Lisa was looking forward to a relaxed evening with dinner and wine, where she wouldn't have to worry about key figures for the next business report or her children's schoolwork.

On the way to her friend Clara's house, many people crowded onto the streetcar. Countless voices and smells impacted Lisa. Children's screams, phone calls and loud laughter mixed with strong perfumes and stuffy air. That numbing ringing spread in Lisa's ears again and she felt a sinking feeling in her stomach. The swaying of the train added to the dizziness.

Aufnahme einer über eine Brücke fahrenden Straßenbahn.

At Clara's front door, she noticed the neck tension constantly flaring up after such overwrought situations. But she was glad to see her friend again and tried to shake off the situation. When the door opened, however, the tension suddenly became stronger. Clara greeted her with a smile, but behind it there was a clear tension and aggression. Lisa asked if everything was all right. Clara nodded eagerly, but her facial expressions betrayed something else.

The other girlfriends were already sitting on the beautiful terrace with a wine glass in their hands. As soon as Lisa was seated, they all started talking excitedly. She felt pressed into her chair by the babble of voices and couldn't follow. When music was turned on behind Lisa, the ringing returned to her ears.

Clara sat down next to her and joined in the buzz of conversation. Lisa could literally feel Clara's suppressed tension spreading over her. Her erratic gestures and overloud words seemed to take over the whole table.

Aufnahme von vier Frauen mit einem Getränk in der Hand.

Lisa saw the only salvation as a quick retreat. She locked herself in the bathroom and tried to calm down. As she did so, the old self-doubts crept up inside her. Once again, she couldn't enjoy an evening that was supposed to be a relaxation from her stressful everyday life. What was wrong with her?

What does high sensitivity mean?

What Lisa experiences and feels, many people would describe with an overload or overstimulation, perhaps triggered by too much work or exhaustion.

Which brings us to the core of typical symptoms of high sensitivity. With the big difference that highly sensitive people often experience this overstimulation in quite normal everyday life - in situations that do not represent any effort for normally sensitive people or are even considered relaxed and easy-going.

How is it that some people perceive everyday situations so violently?

The reason is that they have a significantly increased sensitivity in the perception and processing of impressions. From the sensory channels to the brain, more and also more subtle stimuli are received, which are then processed more intensively.

You can think of it like filters, which react more finely to signals and are also more permeable.

These findings come mainly from research conducted in the English-speaking world, where this phenomenon is referred to as "sensory processing sensitivity" or "SPS" for short. After her field research on SPS in the 1990s, the psychologist Elaine N. Aron published a comprehensive book in which she coined the term "high sensitivity".

She referred to people who exhibited these traits as "highly sensitive persons" (HSP). Due to the enormous popularity of her standard work, the terms high sensitivity, highly sensitive person and HSP have become established in the world.

Research on high sensitivity suggests that about one-fifth of the population exhibits highly sensitive traits. Most classify high sensitivity as a predisposed trait, such as being left-handed, clearly distinguishing it from definitions as a disorder or even a disease. Since high sensitivity has only been studied for a few decades, it is not considered to be sufficiently scientifically researched. Many findings are based on field research and self-experience.

Recognizing high sensitivity

Aron discovered different expressions of high sensitivity, such as which sensory channels are affected and to what degree. Some highly sensitive people (HSP) experience sounds very intensely, others rather touches or smells. It is not uncommon for two or more senses to be affected simultaneously.

In contrast to normal-sensitive perceptions, there is a constant heightened perception and processing of stimuli, usually independent of the context. A feeling of overstimulation in very stressful situations is familiar to many people. But HSP also perceive these stimuli with above-average intensity in calm and relaxed moments.

With highly sensitive hearing, for example, even quiet sounds are perceived very finely. Sounds and voices have a downright haptic effect. Loud noises such as sirens or shouts are sometimes experienced as physical pain.

If the sense of smell is affected, spicy notes, for example, are perceived in great detail. Even distant scents are registered. Artificial odors in particular, such as deodorants or scented candles, can be experienced as extremely disturbing.

Such intensive impressions can also have an effect via other sensory channels, such as the sense of taste, touch or sight, and can even lead to overstimulation and exhaustion.

Aufnahme eines Mannes mit den Händen vor dem Gesicht, der erschöpft wirkt.

If you want to test yourself whether you have highly sensitive traits, the questionnaire of Zart Besaitet offers a comprehensive test. Together with the test result you will also receive an informative assessment. Meanwhile, some doctors, therapists and coaches have also specialized in the topic of high sensitivity and can offer valuable support.

Identifying high sensitivity in children

Children may not be able to verbally express when they are highly sensitive through one or more sensory channels. Therefore, it is important for parents to consciously observe how their child reacts to certain impressions and stimuli.

What can be typical reaction patterns of highly sensitive children?

If your child often complains about ill-fitting or scratchy clothing or is constantly itching where labels or fabrics touch the skin, then a highly sensitive sense of touch and sensation may be the reason. A strong sensitivity to touch or weather conditions can also be an expression of high sensitivity.

Aufnahme eines sitzendenden Kindes, welches einen Teddybär in den Armen hält.

If the child often covers his ears or runs away from more intense sources of noise, the auditory sense may be highly sensitive. If the child rejects many foods, for example salted or generally spicy dishes, and reacts quickly with nausea, then this could be due to the sensitive sense of taste or smell.

But more general behaviors can also indicate a highly sensitive disposition, such as if your child frequently seeks retreat, wants to sleep a lot, or is very empathic with other children or moods.

Aufnahme zweier Kinder sitzend auf einem Steg am Stand, den Kopf auf die Hand gestützt.

With all signs, you should always look at the whole picture: Does the behavior only appear in a short phase because some stress factors or problems are just coming together, or do you recognize a common thread in the behavior that also runs through completely normal and relaxed situations?

Challenges and strengths of high sensitivity

Like every predisposition and trait, high sensitivity combines some problematic aspects and potential strengths. These assessments are in the eye of the beholder and also depend on what you consider positive or negative traits. What typical characteristics can highly sensitive people develop?

Due to the finer reception of stimuli and more intensive processing in the brain, many impressions have a much longer lasting effect in highly sensitive people. The interaction of stimuli on the various sensory channels can also shape several traits. This can lead to a very empathic and profound understanding of the environment.

Highly sensitive people can usually empathize very well with other people and understand them at their core. Turned inward, they also experience a rich world of feelings, ideas and inspirations. This not infrequently results in a creative and intuitive strength that is pursued with great dedication and attention to detail. HSP are therefore often considered very careful, conscientious, reliable and loyal. These potentials and abilities are usually seen as very valuable and desirable.

Aufnahme einer Hand mit einer schwebenden Glühbirne darüber.

However, with this also comes some challenges, because with so much subtlety and empathy, overwork and exhaustion can also quickly arise. Highly sensitive people therefore often have to struggle with fatigue, overstimulation and overload, while normal sensitive people can go on for a long time. Due to the intensive processing of impressions, HSPs more often get entangled in extended ruminations about past situations and not infrequently vehemently quarrel with all decisions.

Deep empathy is also accompanied by very pronounced needs for harmony and justice. This can be enormously stressful for highly sensitive people, especially in professional competitive situations or in private conflicts.

Dealing well with high sensitivity

Even though the highly sensitive challenges can feel quite problematic in everyday life for HSP, there are some helpful steps in dealing with them. If you identify highly sensitive traits in yourself, you can address these steps to make your everyday life easier and more carefree.

For the first step, you can use the current research findings that you have already learned about: High sensitivity is not a disorder that you need to fix, but a predisposition that you are allowed to accept. Your traits are neither good nor bad when viewed objectively. It depends on how you deal with them and integrate them into your everyday life. Through this acceptance you can accept the difficulties and enjoy the beautiful sides, such as intense conversations or deep sensual perceptions like listening to music.

By accepting your high sensitivity you build yourself an access to your wonderful high sensitive potentials. In order to fully exploit them, you can build a mindful approach to yourself and your powers. To do this, listen to yourself more often during the day: How am I feeling right now? What do I need? What do I want to change? What can I do for myself now?

Aufnahme einer Frau mit geschlossenen Augen, welche eine Hand auf ihr Brust hält.

If you are a little practiced in this, you will feel much faster when you are tired or overstimulated. Then you can adjust your actions and decisions in the next step. Maybe you give yourself more breaks or longer rest periods. Or you can directly address what is currently bothering you. By doing so, you can slowly but surely build a sound self-care.

A highly sensitive outlook

Especially for highly sensitive people, honest self-knowledge coupled with good self-care leads to significantly more relaxation and serenity. This leaves you with a lot of energy to actively shape your life in a self-determined way. This allows you to keep developing your highly sensitive abilities such as empathy, intuition or creativity, while not overstraining your senses and brain and allowing yourself your downtime. You will be amazed at what this will make possible for you.

Aufnahme vom Körper aus gesehen liegend in Richtung Füße mit Blick aufs Wasser.

The key is to take small steps and be gentle with yourself. If you discover difficult hurdles on your way, you can always seek support. This can be good friends, your partner or your family. If you wish to have a helpful methodical support, you can use the HSP-Coaching, which is especially designed for highly sensitive issues. With this, you can address your personal challenges to unleash your highly sensitive potential.

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