HSPs and Empaths – Pros and Cons of Being Sensitive

Dr. Chotka going within

I walked into the post office recently early one Saturday morning to mail a package. The empty station’s radio was playing commercials; a loud, bright and annoying jingle. The female postal clerk finished helping her customer and left to take the package to the back.

Commercial #2 comes on, just as loud, even more annoying. I realize I am able to avoid commercials these days, either by switching a station or muting. When the 3rd commercial comes on, I’ve had it. I walk up to the boombox, ready to . . . OK, not go postal, but at least turn the volume down. But I can’t find the volume button. Back in line, the postal clerk returns; it’s my turn. I mention the noisy commercials, and the clerk nods and laughs. No big deal to her. I conduct my business with my finger in my left ear, the one nearest the radio. . .


“Sensory processing sensitivity” first appeared in 1997 as a new human trait. Later termed Highly Sensitive Person or HSP, it applied to 15-20% of humans born with a more sensitive nervous system. Shyness, introversion, inhibition, and low social interest had been studied before, but author Elaine Aron maintained that the HSP was different. They were not always timid, some were extroverts, some were male. Cultural views had impact too. In cultures like Japan where this is valued, “sensitive” and “shy” children were more popular, but in Canada, those traits were not the popular ones.

Further proof came from the animal kingdom, where this same 15-20% of HSP creatures were found. And that’s lucky it turns out – the caution of HSP animals probably helped the species survive!


So what’s an HSP? This is the type of human who was born with a more sensitive nervous system. An HSP is more aware of subtle factors in their surroundings. If that’s you, you will notice and even change the lighting and music volume when entering a room. Or, you might wish to adjust radio volume at the post office! HSP is similar to today’s term “empath”, coined by Judith Orloff and others.

Here is a list of some common HSP traits, and in parentheses, (how these translate to real life.)

  • HSPs process things more deeply (longer time for decision making)
  • Easily overstimulated by lights, noise, smells, crowds (tire more easily, need quiet time)
  • More empathy and reactive emotions (feel more impact from positive and negative events)
  • Sense more subtleties (advanced ability to read people, and sense and intuit moods etc.)

If you are an HSP, you’ll need to learn how to use this trait to lead your best life. Information and practices help. Otherwise, you can struggle a lot with HSP overwhelm and shut down. Author and HSP expert Julie Bjelland likens this overwhelm to a supercomputer that freezes up. HSP challenges include:

  • Anxiety, overwhelm, over the top emotions
  • Fatigue
  • Ruminating, stuckness
  • Difficulties with crowds
  • High expectations of self and others

I’ll have more on this fascinating area, to help you make the most of life, whether you or someone you love might be an HSP.

In the next article we’ll cover how you can best navigate the world if you’re an HSP. For now, here are some resources to learn if this is relevant for you. Even if you don’t have HSP qualities, some of your loved ones or work colleagues may.



Books for more info:
The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, Elaine N. Aron

Highly Sensitive People in an Insensitive World: How to Create a Happy Life
, Ilse Sand

Brain Training for the Highly Sensitive Person: Techniques to Reduce Anxiety and Overwhelming Emotions
, Julie Bjelland – this book is also an eight week program.

The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, Judith Orloff

ASK me a question, tell me an HSP story:
You can always hit reply to speak to me – don’t be shy. OK, then again… you might be sensitive, so take all the time you need, lol. Truly – I respond personally to all emails. And I’m thinking that an “HSP Chronicles” series could be enlightening, and hopefully, humorous… So share your story; I’d love to hear it.

Take an online test – are you or your kids HSPs?, original HSP author E. Aron’s website.

Take an assessment to see if you have Empath tendencies:

Get a consult – Would you like to minimize overwhelm that stops your progress, and let go of past regrets? Have tools to stop ruminating and keep a less stressful perspective, so  you can stay on track with what matters?

Contact me at 303.501.7402 to schedule a complimentary consult and to find out whether therapy or coaching will fit best for you.

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