One of the wonderful things about working (and playing) with fellow mental health professionals is that I’m constantly learning. Recently, I was introduced to the Highly Sensitive People theory (or “HSP,” or “sensory processing sensitivity”).
Have you ever heard of Elaine Aron? I think you’re highly sensitive. It might help explain some things for you.
After a bit of research (take the test here)… I
was surprised to find found I was, indeed, highly sensitive.
Who is an HSP?
The Highly Sensitive Person theory was developed by researcher Dr. Elaine Aron. Aron is highly sensitive herself, and has spent the past 25 years studying the trait in others:
- Who is a Highly Sensitive Person?
- What is “high sensitivity?”
- What purpose does it serve?
She wrote a book based on her findings, aptly titled The Highly Sensitive Person (read about my affinity for self-help books here). To be “highly sensitive” is to be particularly dialed-in. HSPs tend to observe and reflect with more intentionality than others. HSPs process experiences quietly, intensely, and deliberately (in order to make sense of their neon environments, pulsing and whipping around them).
Essentially, highly sensitive people are more, well… sensitive to a range of stimuli (like loud noises, violence, or other people’s emotions). This can make them feel irritated, uncomfortable, or sentimental more often. Aron describes HSPs as persons acutely responsive to their environment. She distilled her data into four identifying traits in her 2012 author’s note:
1. DEPTH OF PROCESSING
The tendency to base future actions on past experiences.
Paying attention is exhausting!
3. EMPHASIS ON EMOTIONAL REACTIONS, OR EMPATHY
Which encourages HSPs to learn through observation…
4. SENSITIVE TO SUBTLETIES
…and notice things others miss.
If I’m being honest, the artist in me finds this theory fascinating and quite romantic…
What is high sensitivity?
Highly sensitive individuals are not invariably introverted, anxious, or prone to melancholia. However, some HSPs do identify as introverted, excessively anxious, or struggle with depression.
(All apples are fruits but not all fruits are apples.)
High sensitivity differs from Autism, ADHD, and anxiety disorders in that high sensitivity does not impact functioning. Although, again, folks with these diagnoses may exhibit HSP behaviors.
High sensitivity is not a diagnosis, flaw, or “something to be fixed.” In fact, high sensitivity isn’t inherently negative at all. HSPs express their HSP-ness in a number of varied and diverse ways, from jumpiness… to a sensitivity to caffeine… to spending extra time admiring paintings in a museum.
HSP and Addiction
As far as I know, Aron hasn’t researched this area. What I can deduce, both from my understanding of high sensitivity (as a newly indoctrinated HSP) and addiction (as an addiction counselor), is high sensitivity and addiction may bolster one another. I imagine the highly sensitive addict may use substances to:
- Self-medicate due to sensory, cognitive, or existential exhaustion
- “Check out” after an outpouring of emotion, empathy, or stimulation
- Dull or escape their sensitivities
- Combat a non-assertive nature/Connect with others
Further, the highly sensitive addict may experience:
- Shame, embarrassment, or confusion re: their HSP-ness. They may struggle to communicate how they feel and behave (Lest we forget the importance of nonverbal treatment modalities. Learn more about my art therapy practice here).
- The lure of intoxication, made more enticing by the HSP’s tendency to view their surroundings with greater insight and intensity
- Perceived judgement as young people and adults
- Perceived responsibility to take on or carry the needs of others
I’m not in the business of excusing bad behavior, high sensitivity or otherwise. To say, “I had an unstable childhood, that’s why I can’t hold down a job…” or “I’ve endured violent relationships, that’s why I react to others in anger…” makes me wonder, how are you overcoming that behavior?
As a therapist, I believe there’s a difference between excusing bad behavior and taking into account those life experiences that have shaped our understanding of the world (mouthful). When we are self-aware, we can work towards change. When we anticipate our reactions, we can plan for the future. I don’t believe “I’m a highly sensitive person” is an excuse for drinking alcoholically. But I do believe this information can help us understand our motives, reactions, and decision-making.
The Highly Sensitive Addict
Further, unhealthy behaviors often have origins in coping behaviors. A means for survival. I can’t say this loud enough… I did sexual assault work before coming to Sanford House, and the message was the same:
You did what you needed to survive a trauma, a relationship, an environment. And you did survive, it’s beautiful. You’re here. Your mind and body fought to survive violence, fear, loss…
And now that you’ve survived, we need to focus on surviving better. Old coping served its purpose. Let’s develop new coping that supports your wellness and wholeness.
You survived, so let’s make sure you keep surviving. Addiction served a purpose: substances… self-harm… starving ourselves of food or meaning or connection numbed us. Helped us escape. Filled the void. Now it’s time to acknowledge their purpose, let them go, and move forward.
The Highly Sensitive Addict encounters challenges and beauty unseen by others. High sensitivity may have helped this individual dull, avoid, or feel deeply… and high sensitivity may create new discomforts, tensions, and anxieties in early recovery. But the Highly Sensitive Addict is in a better position to recognize the impact of her behavior when she understand how she ticks.