If you aren’t familiar with the term “Highly Sensitive Person” or “HSP” it refers to about 15-20% of the population who possess a unique sensory processing trait which allows them to pick up more on subtleties in the environment, resulting in deeper processing and often being easily overwhelmed with stimuli. Most people exist on a spectrum of sensitivity, with about 1 in 5 HSPs who are considered High Sensation Seeking. Learn more about HSPs here.
Whether you are a massage therapist, energy worker, psychiatrist, or herbalist, I guarantee that you have patients who are Highly Sensitive People (HSPs).
They may be aware of their trait and embracing it, aware of their trait and fighting it, or not aware of this trait at all.
Given Highly Sensitive People only make up about 15-20% of the population, why should you care about them? And why do they matter to your practice?
1) HSPs Are Probably Already Your Clients
If you are thinking to yourself, “I don’t have any HSP clients, this doesn’t apply to me,” think again! Dr. Elaine Aron (the official HSP guru) believes that, in psychotherapy, HSPs are the 20% of the population that make up 80% of your client base. I would argue this type of disproportionality applies beyond the mental health world and to any practice which provides a helping or healing service.
If 80% of your patients were children or of a certain ethnic background, would you ignore this factor in the care you provide?
2) They Are Your Most Loyal Clients
When HSPs are receiving good treatment, in a setting where they feel valued and cared for, they will become your most loyal and dedicated clients. You’ll may see them make progress fairly quickly and continue to see you even after the original issue has been treated.
One reason for this phenomenon is that HSPs learn to view self-care not as a luxury, but as something inherently necessary for them to manage a delicate nervous system in a stimulating world. Thus, seeking outside support from helping professionals is a lifelong investment, not something that only occurs when they are in crisis or their needs are acute, although this may be how they initially come to you. Even after their original issue has been managed, you can expect them to continue to support your business, either by continuing to see you for maintenance sessions, bringing their family and friends to you, or by sending clients your way who are also Highly Sensitive People.
3) They Are Your Most “Complex” Clients
When I use the term “complex”, I refer to some clients with multiple concerns who appear to not make much progress despite long term or intensive support. They may also be the clients who see you frequently due to complex and challenging health issues. They are the client where you find yourself continually hitting dead ends or that feeling you are ‘missing something’.
When treating HSPs, one must take into account how HSPs are impacted by differential susceptibility and vantage sensitivity. Simply put, these phenomena mean HSPs may have more long term negative effects than non-HSPs from adverse experiences or environments, but they thrive more than non-HSPs in enriching environments or relationships. Thus, HSPs who experience difficult childhoods are more likely to have anxiety and depression than non-HSPs. They may even be mistakenly diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.
The key is not to use the HSP trait as the reason for all your client’s ailments, but to understand their susceptibility and take into consideration the delicate interaction between this trait, their environment, and whatever issues they are facing.
Thus, when you take high sensitivity into account with your most ‘complex’ clients, you may need to reexamine your client’s experiences or stressors that may seem ‘minor’ to you or the client, but can actually have significant impact on an HSP’s psyche and physical health. From there you may uncover some of the blocks to the client’s recovery and healing.
4) Awareness of a Client’s Sensitivity Can Improve Treatment Outcomes.
If you are not savvy about the HSP trait, you and your client may become increasingly frustrated with lack of ‘progress’, because you may be continually focusing on trying to change your client’s temperament or not taking the role of their finely-turned nervous system into account.
You will never find a cocktail of medication that will prevent them processing deeply or being highly sensitive. You will never be able to ‘treat’ an HSP until they are no longer moved by others suffering, but they can learn boundaries. An HSP will never become ‘cured’ from picking up on subtle stimuli in their surroundings, but they can learn skills to manage overwhelm.
In conceptualizing the issues our clients face, we are taught that one measure of the ‘problem’ is asking how distressing the issue is to the client. If you are not able to educate and explore the possibility of your client’s sensitivity, you may continue to set your client up to be unreasonably distressed by something that is an inherent part of them.
HSPs are definitely susceptible to mental health and physical ailments that require specific treatment, but helping professionals must take into account an HSP’s basic temperament. It is possible for HSPs to learn skills so they do not become highly disregulated or overwhelmed but it is unlikely that their will lose their propensity for emotional intensity and deep processing of the world.
5) Talking About the HSP Trait May Improve Your Relationship With Your Client
Often HSPs are relieved to understand that their trait is not something pathologically wrong with them. If your client is already aware of their sensitivity, even if they don’t have a name for it, they may be overjoyed to know their helping professional is aware of this. Opening up the dialogue will invite a deep and meaningful conversation that can allow the client to feel valued and seen. This can result in your client feeling more motivated to engage in treatment and also deepen the healing relationship between you.
Keep in mind, it may be initially difficult for clients to hear about the HSP trait because chances are, their sensitivity has been something frowned up or unwelcomed their whole life. Thus, be mindful of when to bring it up. You can consider their sensitivity without naming it or without ever using the term “Highly Sensitive Person”. Consider using terms like: sensory processing sensitivity, finely tuned nervous system, or easily overwhelmed or overstimulated. The best approach is to use the client’s own language.
Now what? Simply start with learning about this trait. Dr. Elaine Aron’s website is the best place to start. This article also talks more in depth about working with HSPs. Feel free to reach out to me, explore my website, blog, or my book shelf with HSP-specific information and resources. Making yourself aware and open to this trait is the first step to making your practice HSP-friendly, which will only benefit your practice.