Psychotherapy for Highly Sensitive & Empathic Clients
A highly sensitive person (HSP) is someone who is thought to have increased or deeper central nervous system (CNS) sensitivity to multiple stimuli, whether this be physical, emotional, environmental, or social. The term was coined by psychologist Elaine Aron in the mid-1990s, with interest in the concept growing ever since. According to Aron’s theory, HSPs are a prevalent subgroup of the population who display increased emotional sensitivity and stronger reactivity to external and internal stimuli compared to the rest of the population.
They tend to notice more subtle stimuli in their environment and are more easily aroused by this, in addition, they also respond to a lower threshold of stimuli. HSPs may, for instance, be more sensitive to pain, hunger, light, and noises. They are also defined as having a complex and deeper inner life. In literature, HSP is often referred to as sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), which is not to be confused with a sensory processing disorder, a condition that affects how the brain processes sensory information.
HSP is not a diagnosable condition, instead, it is believed to be a personality trait that involves increased responsiveness to both positive and negative influences. HSPs are thought to have both strengths and challenges. They may be able to pick up on small environmental changes and provide responsive care to others, which can prove useful. However, they may also find that they can get easily overwhelmed by environmental stimuli and get easily upset, which may prove distressing to the individual.
Empaths take the experience of the highly sensitive person much further: They can sense subtle energy (called Shakti or Prana in Eastern traditions) and actually absorb it from other people and different environments into their own bodies. Highly sensitive people don’t typically do that. This capacity allows empaths to experience the energy around them, including emotions and physical sensations, in extremely deep ways. And so they energetically internalize the feelings and pain of others—and often have trouble distinguishing someone else’s discomfort from their own.
Being a highly sensitive person and an empath are not mutually exclusive: One can be both, and many highly sensitive people are also empaths. If you think about this distinction in terms of an empathic spectrum, empaths are on the far end; highly sensitive people are a little further in; people with strong empathy who are not HSPs or empaths are in the middle; and narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths who have “empath-deficient disorders” are at the far opposite end.
Why Therapy ??
When your nervous system is wired for increased sensitivity, it’s as if the volume’s been turned up to eleven. Whether its emotions, sounds, or smells, a sensitive nervous system can perceive any stimulus as disorienting, overwhelming, or stressful. For sensitive people and empaths, one struggle is that this experience can be difficult for others on the outside to understand. By learning how to become aware of your internal experiences and gaining tools to create boundaries and manage overwhelm, you can learn to both be healthy and connect meaningfully to the world around you.