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Being Easily Overwhelmed:The Highly Sensitive Person

Fiona Owen

Counsellor and Psychotherapist
Perth, Western Australia

Do you often have a sense of being overwhelmed by events going on around you? This may mean that you are one of the 20% of the population who are highly sensitive. In her book "The Highly Sensitive Person" (1996) Dr Elaine Aron identified this group of people as being different to the rest of the population and in so doing has enabled such people to begin the process of better understanding how they can best support themselves. Since this book was brought out there have been many people who have developed Dr Aron's concepts and contributed to further help in the understanding of this group of people.

Whether you are a highly sensitive person or you are in relationship with one, understanding how such people differ from the majority of the population is important in order to understand how to relate better to yourself and others. Often highly sensitive people are assumed to be introverts and shy. However that is not necessarily the case and so often other people are confused when the apparent introvert does not behave according to type. If a person is highly sensitive but has grown up in an environment where that is not understood, often a protective layer is developed to enable them to better cope with the difficulties of being sensitive and to try and fit in. Understanding the differences between being sensitive but appearing not to be is important for everyone involved so that the best relationships can be developed.

If you are aware that some of the following situations apply to you or someone you love, you or they may well be one of the 20% as identified by Dr Aron.

In defining the Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Aron provides examples of characteristic behaviours, and these are reflected in the questions she typically asks patients or interview subjects:

Are you easily overwhelmed by such things as bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens nearby?
Do you get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time?
Do you make a point of avoiding violent movies and TV shows?
Do you need to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or some other place where you can have privacy and relief from the situation?
Do you make it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations?
Do you notice or enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art?
Do you have a complex inner life?
When you were a child, did your parents or teachers see you as sensitive or shy?

Psychotherapy can help to enable individuals to work out how to make the most of their way of being in the world and not to regularly have to hide and cover up who they truly are. For example, limiting social contact before you become overwhelmed will mean you are more able to reconnect quickly as you will not need as much time for your physiological symptoms to return to stasis. In order to be able to do this, a clear understanding of the capacity to tolerate whatever stimuli creates the distress is important. When this is available an ability to better self support can ensure prevention of heightening anxiety to unmanageable levels. This is useful for couples as well as individuals. For you cannot be in a healthy relationship with another unless you have a healthy relationship with your self and understand yourself.

I work to heighten people's awareness of learnt behaviours they have developed to protect themselves and then to figure out if the behaviour is still working well for them. Often highly sensitive people have wanted to fit in so much that they go along with things they actually really don't enjoy just to try and feel "normal" and in so doing feel more and more isolated and alone.

If you would like any more information on coping with being a highly sensitive person in an insensitive world or would like to make an appointment to explore this, please contact Fiona Owen. 0409995411 or email

Fiona Owen
M Soc Sc (Counselling), B Sc Psychology, Grad. Dip. Ed.
Perth, Western Australia 0409 995 411

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