The highly sensitive person trait

Current theories suggest that between 15-20% of the population is genetically predisposed to be highly sensitive to various stimuli, also known as sensory processing sensitivity . In short, this means that those of us with that genetic trait are more affected by things that don’t bother other people.

The hypothesis is that this is a species survival mechanism (it’s a trait that’s been identified in over 100 species), with a subset of the population more attuned to threats against the group. So a percentage of people have to absorb and process more information about their environments than the rest of the population. This includes anything that could represent a potential harm to the community: sounds, sights, smells, and even the emotions of others.

We’re hardwired with this trait, so this part isn’t something we can retrain our nervous systems out of. Though to be clear, it’s kind of an amazing trait, if you think about those of us who have it as being the “chosen ones” to identify threats and be the first defense to ensure the survival of our species. The problem is that, not only do we live in a culture that expects everyone to be tough and not let anything get to us, but we’re also living in a world that seems to strive for sensory overload.

Since the majority of the population isn’t bothered by the things that trigger us, we’re expected to get over triggers faster than is realistically possible. What someone else might call a normal day could be more than the highly sensitive person can process. Because we’re expected to get over things faster and more easily than we actually can, we may not have the time or give ourselves the time to process things fully.

So emotions naturally get trapped within us, and we’re more prone to suffering from the constant onslaught of “little t” traumas . My understanding is that “little t” traumas are a problem for all people because any emotion that we don’t process stays with us and festers, but highly sensitive people are more likely to experience day-to-day events and interactions as traumatic because we just can’t process everything quickly enough.

When my therapist first suggested I was a highly sensitive person, I was certain she was wrong. I’ve spent my whole life being emotionally tough. I could handle whatever life threw my way. I was never a victim. I never let people see me sweat. I never cried and was proud of not being a crier.

Highly sensitive people also tend to be more risk averse, which I am definitely not. I’ve spent my whole life moving to new places, I’m not afraid of change, I’ve lost track of all the jobs I’ve had, I’ve switched careers multiple times, and more than once I’ve quit jobs I didn’t like without having a backup plan. I have little fear of public speaking, and I tend to go for more extreme sports like rock climbing and skiing the hardest slopes on a mountain.

It turns out that, first, wow was I in denial and phenomenal at repressing my emotions. When I started getting into all of this work and tackling my fear of emotions, I discovered that I’m a big ol’ softy who wants to cry about everything! (Although actually allowing myself to cry as much as I want to is something I’m still working on.) And more generally, I do just tend to feel things a lot more strongly than I ever realized.

Second, there’s a subset of highly sensitive people who are also sensation seekers. This is estimated to be about 30% of highly sensitive people. So we may not seem as highly sensitive because we’re not as risk averse, but we’re still feeling things strongly and triggered by stimuli more easily. Moreover, I’ve read in a couple of places that we’re more prone chronic illness because we have a raging internal conflict as half of us wants to stay safe at home by the fire while the other half craves life on the wild side.

I mention this here because it was critical for me to understand my highly sensitive nature in order to accept what I needed for recovery. I had to understand this was a genetic trait and not something I could overcome, in order to give myself the time and compassion I needed to process previous events that I didn’t think should have been as upsetting for me as they were. I also needed to recognize that I can’t go back to living the way I did before. I have to give myself more time and space to process events and emotions.

I also want to stress the importance for everyone to allow themselves to feel all they need to feel about “little t” traumas. Too often, we’re told to just get over something or to move on. But regardless of whether you classify as highly sensitive or not, if you don’t allow yourself to feel as much as you need to feel about an event, anything you repress will stay with you and cause problems later on.

There are no rules for how long you need to process an emotion. You need to keep feeling things until they pass. And when they pass, you’ll know and it won’t be an issue anymore. At least that’s been the case for me. But just because someone else gets through something traumatic faster than you—or maybe they don’t even register it as traumatic at all—doesn’t mean there aren’t still feelings that you need to process.

[Side note: “Big T” traumas are life- and bodily-threatening events like surviving war, being physically attacked, rape, child abuse, domestic violence, etc. That is *not* what I’m talking about here. Based on things I’ve read, all of the techniques described here and on my resources page can help with “Big T” trauma, but if you’ve dealt with “Big T” trauma, I recommend getting therapy with a somatic trauma specialist if at all possible.]