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The Sensation-Emotion Highway in Highly Sensitive Persons

Maybe you remember hearing it on the playground. “Stop being a baby.” Or after crying at work. “You need to learn how to not be so sensitive.” Undoubtedly, you’ve seen the debates in opinion columns. “Was everyone this sensitive before the internet?” 

There is no shortage of cultural messaging that equates sensitivity with weakness. But it turns out, all humans are sensitive in that we all experience the world around us through our senses: touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste. The information these senses provide about our environment and our bodies leads us to have feelings. Perhaps that’s where the word “feeling” comes from – we feel the sensations in our bodies that are connected to our emotional states. In the English language, we have many idioms that demonstrate the connection between sensations and emotions. At different points throughout life we may experience butterflies in our stomach, a knee-jerk reaction, a broken heart, or the need to get something off our chest. These phrases aren’t an accident. Our nervous system connects our body and brain through a network of nerve cells that reach all the way to our fingertips and toes, like a series of roads conveying information back and forth. Sensations, emotions, emotions, sensations.

For some of us, these roads are lightning quick, or rumble with reverberations as information travels up and down them. In fact, for about 20% of the population, the five senses are more highly tuned than average, and the feelings they connect to can be more intense. In her book The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You (1997), Dr. Elaine Aron explains that for the fifth of the population whose nervous systems are more sensitive, the experience of the environment can be overstimulating. Loud noises may startle them. Harsh smells may be intolerable. A slight change in the temperature may cause a strong reaction in their bodies.

And because sensations are so closely tied to feelings, “Highly Sensitive Persons,” or HSPs, may also have more intense internal experiences, such as vivid imaginations, heightened emotional reactions, being deeply affected by others’ emotions, and having difficulty “turning off” their brains. These traits can be both a gift and a challenge. According to Aron, HSPs “tend to be enormously aware of the suffering of others,” allowing them to have great empathy, and a capacity for deep and fulfilling relationships. However, the intensity of HSPs’ feelings can lead to exhaustion and burnout if their nervous systems are continuously overwhelmed without the chance to recharge.

The first step in coping with a highly sensitive nervous system is to recognize that it’s a real thing! When we feel bombarded by sensations (which may happen as often as every day for an HSP), our nervous systems tend to react by discharging some emotion. Emotional release can look like crying, shaking, blushing, or needing to move around a bit. This is the point at which it is easy to criticize ourselves, or we may find ourselves being judged by others. (Remember those taunts of “Grow a thicker skin!”?)

Once we recognize our nervous systems’ sensitivity, we can start to develop compassion for ourselves when we feel overstimulated or overwhelmed with emotions. Try this self-compassion mantra: “It’s okay to feel what I’m feeling. Everyone has intense feelings sometimes. I can be kind to myself in this moment.”

If you’re interested in further exploring ways to cope with being highly sensitive, you can request an appointment on our Get Started page!

-Jill Hokanson

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