High Sensitivity, Highly Sensitive People, Sensory Processing
People who are highly sensitive tend to feel things more intensely than the typical population. Some people affectionately call them Super Sensors. Highly sensitive people often have unique needs, linked to their intensity, passion, and complexity, and a high degree of sensitivity can impact a person physically, emotionally and spiritually. Some highly sensitive people have difficulty with sensory processing (see below). The term overexcitabilities is often used to describe traits of highly sensitive people.
We Really Get High Sensitivity
We have worked with many highly sensitive children and adults, and many of our clinicians have experienced high sensitivity, overexcitabilities and Sensory Processing Disorder/Dysfunction (SPD) in our own communities or families—so we really understand the challenges and how to facilitate change effectively. We can also support families with their occupational therapy (OT) or other treatment.
Counseling Helps With Emotional Intensity, Social Challenges and Behavioral Issues
High Sensitivity and Sensory Processing Disorder/Dysfunction (SPD) can both cause challenges in one or more areas of functioning, like sitting on a school bus, catching a ball, or eating at a restaurant.
Other problems that can stem from SPD include irritability, clumsiness, behavioral problems, excessive worry or anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, academic problems, and social problems.
Occupational therapy has been shown to be effective, helping HSP and SPD individuals cope, learn and grow. Counseling or psychotherapy are especially valuable for supporting the emotional intensity, social challenges, and behavioral issues that often accompany high sensitivity and/or SPD.
You are not alone.
Experiencing Stimuli More Intensely: Overexcitabilities
It was Polish psychologist, Kazimierz Dabrowski, who coined the term Overexcitabilities (OEs). He determined five different sensory experience types. In 1979, M.M. Piechowski described Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities as:
- Psychomotor – A person with psychomotor excitability has an excessive surplus of energy—including rapid speech, pressure for action, impulsive actions, nervous habits and tics, competitiveness, and sleeplessness.
- Sensual – A person with a sensual excitability is very impacted by sensory and aesthetic pleasure, including heightened a sensory awareness for sights, smells, tastes, textures, sounds, and an intense appreciation of beauty, music, and nature. This person might also be sensitive to foods and pollutants, and have an intense dislike of certain clothing.
- Intellectual – A person with an intellectual overexcitability deeply loves learning and problem solving. This person is strongly curious, is able to concentrate for long periods of time, and is very theoretical and analytical. This is a deep thinker, who questions, is introspective, and very concerned with personal and social morals and values.
- Imaginational – An imaginational person has a wonderfully vivid imagination. This person is creative, inventive, and has a rich and active fantasy life, with a superb visual memory. Also, this person has elaborate dreams, is a day dreamer, a lover of poetry, music and drama, and fears the unknown, can mix truth and fantasy, and has great sense of humor.
- Emotional – A person with an emotional overexcitability has an intensity of feeling that is complex, can be extreme, has a strong empathy with others, and can be highly sensitivity in relationships. A person with this overexcitability can have a strong memory for feelings, have difficulty adjusting to change, have fears and anxieties, or experience inhibition, timidity, shyness, self-judgment, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, or a heightened awareness of injustice and hypocrisy.
(Adopted from: Piechowski, M.M. (1979). Development Potential. In N. Conangelo & R.T. Zaffrann (Eds.), New voices in counseling the gifted (pp. 25-27). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.)
Sensory Processing and Integration
Sensory processing, or as it is sometimes called, sensory integration (SI), describes how your brain receives messages from your nervous system, and how information is transferred from your senses to your brain, which then tells you how to move or respond. Most things you do involve sensory processing in some way, whether you are sipping a glass of milk, hiking a tall hill, or typing, your brain must process and integrate sensory input. This is often called sensory integration. Sensory processing issues are fairly common in children, but adults are often impacted as well. High sensitivity and sensory processing issues are also commonly seen in the gifted population and those with asynchronous development.
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)
Sensory Processing Disorder (sometimes called Sensory Processing Dysfunction, Sensory Integration Disorder, or simply SPD), occurs when the sensory signals received by the brain do not get organized and integrated appropriately, which causes misinterpretation of sensory input. That is why people with SPD perceive things differently than typically sensing people.
Highly sensitive people might have only one area of sensitivity (for example, one type of overexcitability), or they might have any number of them, including them all.
Over or Under Responses To Stimuli
If you have sensory processing differences, the messages your brain receives might seem too much (too loud, too rough, too painful, too intense, etc.) or not enough (too quiet, too still, too light, too soft, etc.).
As mentioned above, some types of SPD include sensory under-response. This could mean needing to touch things very firmly to notice that they are there, even to the point of bruising or needing music to be very loud.
Sensory processing, or as it is sometimes called, sensory integration (SI), describes how your brain receives messages from your nervous system, and how information is transferred from your senses to your brain, which then tells you how to move or respond.
Most things you do involve sensory processing in some way, whether you are sipping a glass of milk, hiking a tall hill, or typing, your brain must process and integrate sensory input. This is often called sensory integration. Sensory processing issues are fairly common in children, but adults are often impacted as well.
High sensitivity and sensory processing issues are also commonly seen in neurodivergent populations, and those with asynchronous development.
SPD Can Be Painful or Highly Challenging
That could look like having an overwhelmingly painful experience while a vacuum cleaner runs, feeling overwhelmed or in pain if there are too many children talking in a cafeteria, or a need for the music volume to be set very low. It could also mean removing all of the tags from clothing, or wearing either no socks or seamless socks, and being sensitive food texture, or strong scents.
Counseling can help with understanding, reducing and managing the challenges associated with sensory intensities.
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