Being Highly Sensitive

Being Highly Sensitive

This concept of “highly sensitive” was coined by the psychotherapist Elaine Aron ( She describes a highly sensitive person as “a distinct personality trait that affects as many as one out of every five people. According to Dr. Aron’s definition, the highly sensitive person (HSP) has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.

What I love about finding this description is that it has given me an understanding of why the world has felt so intense and at times, overwhelming, for me. According to Dr. Aron’s research, only about 15-20% of the population has this more attuned nervous system. In fact, she mentioned that this trait exists in about 15-20% of mammals – mice cats dogs horses, monkeys and humans—which explains my highly sensitive dog.

One of the the things I find so interesting about this existence it that it can present as temperament in a few different ways. In our brains, we have two systems that determine how we approach the world to determine if a situation is dangerous or rewarding. Highly sensitive people (HSP) have a stronger Pause-to-Check system (Behavior Inhibition) than the average person.

The other side of this is our Behavior Activation system that moves us forward toward good things. This is our sensation seeking system. People have different levels of both systems—in simple terms they are the brakes and accelerators that move us toward or away from experiences. If a HSP has a strong activation system and a strong pause-to-check system, then it can be challenging because both the accelerator and the brakes are being pushed at the same time.

In my book Between, Ila and Eve both have traits of highly sensitive people, but they each seek different levels of stimulation they seek. You may see the differences in highly sensitive people you know. It may explain a lot about about you and how you interact with the world. This trait is a gift and a strength. First and foremost, we need to see it this way.