What Is Sensory Processing Sensitivity

Dr. Oppenheimer recently returned from a retreat and workshop focused on understanding and working with Sensory Processing Sensitivity, or as it is used more colloquially, Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).

Not to be confused with a sensory processing disorder, individuals who identify as HSPs experience four characteristics that form a common trait within personality and temperament.  A brief checklist is available for both self and parent report (for a child).  The four characteristics are:

  • D: Depth of Processing – processing information more deeply, and often relating experiences to personal events.  Sometimes this may include processing information seemingly slower than others, as an HSP considers more than surface information when processing.
  • O: Overstimulation – A person who identifies as HSP will often feel overstimulated or overwhelmed by particular sensory experiences, or social experiences.  They may feel more easily overwhelmed by tasks and expectations.
  • E: Emotional Responsiveness and Empathy – Processing deeply often correlates with processing information emotionally, as well.  HSPs are often deeply empathic, and may have heightened emotional response, to both positive and negative stimulation
  • S: Awareness of Subtle Stimuli – An HSP will notice subtle shifts in sensory environment, such as subtle temperature changes or smells. They will also notice changes – and studies have been done where an HSP will more quickly recognize the difference in two seemingly identical photographs.

As with all personality traits and temperaments, there are positives and negatives, strengths and potential pitfalls.  An HSP is a minority, a trait found in approximately 15-20% of the population.  Some HSPs are extroverts, while the majority (about 70%) identify as introverts.  Being understood and supported is a piece of supporting an HSP, but also teaching them about self-care and self-compassion, as HSPs are often quite hard on themselves.

Interestingly, HSPs are found equally in all genders.  This temperament and trait is observed in over 100 species – from fruit flies and fish to primates.  It is also important to differentiate between HSP temperament and ADHD, ASD, and other social or processing differences – though a disorder can of course co-exist with a trait or temperament.  A proper evaluation is important to working with and understanding the full extent of overlap or personality characteristics.  To learn more about HSP, or other temperament differences, contact us! We can help!

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