A few years ago I was in a relationship with a gal that was in school getting her Masters Degree in counseling to become a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT).
Both she and I loved psychology.
We had many deep conversations about this subject (among many others).
One day she mentioned the topic of the highly sensitive person (HSP).
I hadn’t heard of this before, so I asked her to elaborate on it.
She proceeded to tell me that she was an HSP and then went on to describe some of the common traits.
Common HSP traits she mentioned are:
- Being easily overwhelmed by sensory stimuli such as loud noises, crowded places, and bright lights.
- Feeling a strong need for downtime during and/or after busy, hectic days.
- Being deeply moved by nature, beauty, art, music, and the like.
- Deep intuition and creativity and a rich inner world of thoughts and feelings.
“Holy smokes!” I said. “This is me!”
She told me there was an online test I should take to find out if indeed I was an HSP. I checked off all 27 of the 27 boxes on the Official HSP Test, meaning I was… without a shred of a doubt… an HSP.
This test was created by Dr. Elaine Aron. She and her husband, Dr. Arthur Aron, are the psychologists that coined the term “HSP” in the mid-1990’s.
Table of Contents
Dr. Elaine Aron has written several books on the HSP trait, and she’s considered the world’s leading authority on this topic. I recently watched a documentary on the Gaia Channel on Amazon Prime called Sensitive – The Untold Story.
The documentary was very informative and enjoyable to watch.
If you don’t have the Gaia Channel on Amazon Prime you can rent or purchase the documentary here.
Here is the trailer on YouTube:
The documentary gave me a much deeper understanding of highly sensitive people, and thus a better understanding of myself… as I have this trait.
Here are some statistics from the film:
- One in five people, 1.4 billion, are highly sensitive
- The trait of high sensitivity is found in:
- Equal numbers of men and women
- Extroverts (30%) as well as introverts (70%)
- Over 100 other species besides humans
What is a Highly Sensitive Person?
Dr. Elaine Aron began researching high sensitivity in 1991 and continues to do research on it now. The scientific term for high sensitivity is Sensory-Processing Sensitivity (SPS).
SPS is a temperamental or personality trait involving an increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social, and emotional stimuli.
A human with a particularly high measure of SPS is considered to be a highly sensitive person (HSP).
This is not a disorder but rather an innate biological trait, and it can lead to both negative and positive experiences.
Here is some helpful info from Dr. Elaine Aron’s website that describes the highly sensitive person:
- Your trait is normal. It is found in 15 to 20% of the population–too many to be a disorder, but not enough to be well understood by the majority of those around you.
- It is innate. In fact, biologists have found it in over 100 species (and probably there are many more) from fruit flies, birds, and fish to dogs, cats, horses, and primates. This trait reflects a certain type of survival strategy, being observant before acting. The brains of highly sensitive persons (HSPs) actually work a little differently than others’.
- You are more aware than others of subtleties. This is mainly because your brain processes information and reflects on it more deeply. So even if you wear glasses, for example, you see more than others by noticing more.
- You are also more easily overwhelmed. If you notice everything, you are naturally going to be overstimulated when things are too intense, complex, chaotic, or novel for a long time.
- This trait is not a new discovery, but it has been misunderstood. Because HSPs prefer to look before entering new situations, they are often called “shy.” But shyness is learned, not innate. In fact, 30% of HSPs are extroverts, although the trait is often mislabeled as introversion. It has also been called inhibitedness, fearfulness, or neuroticism. Some HSPs behave in these ways, but it is not innate to do so and not the basic trait.
- Sensitivity is valued differently in different cultures. In cultures where it is not valued, HSPs tend to have low self-esteem. They are told “don’t be so sensitive” so that they feel abnormal.
How HSPs Could be More Prone to Opiate Addiction
Since highly sensitive people have an overactive CNS and can get overstimulated easily, my belief is that we can be more prone to opiate addiction, alcohol addiction, benzodiazepine addiction, and addiction to other drugs that calm down the overactive CNS.
This was certainly true in my case.
In my early 20’s I was one of the biggest drug dealers in my town and I was busy “hooking people up” all day every day.
I didn’t have any alone time, and my home-based (illegal) business was very stressful.
To cope with the constant anxiety and fear of getting busted (which eventually happened when the DEA raided my home) and the constant interaction with people at my house buying drugs, I turned to alcohol for relief.
This was much healthier than drinking a bottle of whiskey and a 12-pack of beer every day, but I abused the Valium and would run out of pills around 10 days into my 30-day prescription.
So I would take Valium for about 10 days a month then drink alcohol heavily for the remainder of each month.
A few years after this ended, I became addicted to opiates.
And my opiate addiction lasted for a few years before I was finally able to quit for good.
In my now close to seven years of recovery, I still have the high sensitivity trait (as it never goes away) but nowadays I don’t abuse drugs to cope with my overactive nervous system.
Instead, I use the following healthy coping tools:
Over the past 6+ years, I’ve worked with and corresponded with thousands of people that were addicted to opioids.
And what I’ve realized is that a very high percentage of these individuals also have the HSP trait.
Nearly 100% of my clients when I was a counselor at an Opiate Treatment Program (OTP) and as an Opiate Recovery Coach have complained of either generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), panic disorder (PD), or a combination of these.
It’s obvious that people with overactive central nervous systems often turn to CNS depressing drugs to help them cope.
Unfortunately, while these drugs can offer relief in the short-term, the regular use of these drugs actually make things worse in the long-term.
And when a person tries to come off these drugs after being dependent on them, their CNS excitation gets worse than ever before.
This often leads to relapse, as the person just can’t cope with life well when they are so easily overstimulated and prone to constant negative thoughts and emotions.
The HSP Coping Tools Blueprint
If you’re an HSP, please know that there are just as many pros to having this trait as there are cons. You have a very unique way of processing life, and you can use this as a gift to enrich your life and be happy and fulfilled.
However, to achieve this type of life balance you’ll need to make some lifestyle adjustments.
Here is a list of things you can do to reduce stress and increase well-being as an HSP:
- Increase downtime and alone time.
- Make exercise a regular part of your life.
- Reduce your sympathetic nervous system (SNS, “fight or flight”) activity and enhance activation of your parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS, “rest and digest”) by using the following methods:
- Qigong and Taichi
- Nature Walks
- Diaphragmatic Breathing
- Reduce or eliminate time spent watching the news, scary movies, and action movies.
- Journal on a regular basis in a quiet place where you’re alone.
- Spend less time on Social Media.
- Get enough sleep on a regular basis.
- Learn how to eat healthily for your unique biochemistry.
- Have at least one or more outlets for your creative side (such as music, art, writing, etc.).
- Hang out with loved ones that understand and appreciate your high sensitivity trait.
- Develop a strong sense of purpose in life if you don’t already have one.
HSPs are around us everywhere. In my immediate family alone I have the HSP trait, as do my daughter, sister, and mother.
I can also tell that my Green Cheek Conure (a type of parrot) named Papaya is an HSP as well.
Along with about 20% of humans having this trait, the same is true for animals.
Individuals that have high sensitivity can be prone to opiate addiction and addiction to other substances that calm down their overactive central nervous systems.
Fortunately, by making some strategic lifestyle adjustments HSPs can reduce stress and become less overwhelmed.
And by using healthy and adaptive coping tools, we can avoid turning to opioids or other drugs to cope with life.