Let’s go back to basics. What is highly sensitive? The basic premise in the words of Dr Elaine Aron, is this:
“Highly sensitive individuals are those born with a tendency to notice more in their environment and deeply reflect on everything before acting….”
This doesn’t mean that highly sensitive people have better eyesight or hearing for example; it is simply that the information coming in to the body is processed more thoroughly and deeply by the brain (and the spinal cord by means of reflexes) than in the case of non-highly sensitive people.
There’s even a scientific reasoning for the existence of this inborn trait. High sensitivity is found in most, if not all animal species and the ‘pause to check’ behaviour (reflecting on a situation before acting) counteracts the other 80% of the population who checks the situation briefly and then dives in and takes action. In essence, it’s a set of traits that ensure the survival of the species.
Being highly sensitive is not about being a cry baby, or taking things to heart more than others (labelled over sensitive in many cases), it’s about how physical, social and emotional stimuli are processed.
Your highly sensitive child may indeed cry more than other children in their class, because they feel things more deeply, read more into situations, can feel another child’s pain or embarrassment and is able more easily to place themselves into another child’s situation. In other words, highly sensitive people soak up the emotions of others and therefore take on the feelings of others. They process what is going on around them more deeply than others. Intensity of processing.
There’s a great example to illustrate how HSCs process information more intensely and in more depth than other children in the children’s story book Long Hat is a Hero:
“Everyone thinks a monster on TV is a bit scary. But you see exactly how sharp its teeth are and how big its claws are. You hear how it growls. And you think about what could happen.”
It’s why highly sensitive children (and adults) are prone to be more cautious, anxious or afraid of things than others – all possible scenarios go through their head before they make that first step.
Highly sensitive people are often incredibly observant. They notice when things have changed or moved, even subtle things like a new household cleaning product that smells different. They don’t just hear noise, but often ‘feel’ it too. They take in so much sensory data from the world around them that they become quickly overwhelmed. Their bucket is more quickly filled than in the non HSC population. This can result in a host of reactions from tears to an emotional outburst, to complete withdrawal. Volume of processing.
It’s why highly sensitive people, no matter what age they are, need downtime. They need to be alone, they need to step away from an environment that causes them to be overstimulated. Don’t take it personally if a highly sensitive person says they need space and time on their own – it’s a necessity for their emotional wellbeing, just as food and drink is for their physical wellbeing.
So that, in a nutshell, is what being highly sensitive is about. It’s not about crying easily or a lot, or getting upset because someone hurts their feelings. This is the basis on which to work if you are teaching or parenting HSCs, or caring for them. It’s also something to bear in mind if you work with or manage a highly sensitive person (HSP), or are in any kind of relationship with a HSP.