The highly sensitive brain
Have you ever felt misunderstood? Do the most brilliant ideas pop up in your mind, but the moment you mention them all you receive is a blank stare? Followed by a “don’t be so complicated”? Do your expressed emotions incite a sigh, rolling eyes or disapproval from others? Perhaps you’ve contemplated how others can react so different than you. Or concluded that there must be something wrong inside your head.
Let me tell you that your highly sensitive brain indeed does work differently. This might however not be such a bad thing, because your HSP brain has many advantages.
The way we process information
It all comes down to the way highly sensitive people process information; which is more thoroughly than others. Our brain handles information in three stages; perceiving, processing and responding. And through all of these three stages the highly sensitive brain operates in a different way. As you can see in the following illustration.
Figure: The highly sensitive brain – Esther Bergsma – Hoogsensitief.NL
Highly sensitive people notice every single detail. It seems that HSP are more aware of these subtleties than the average person (see step 1). They notice sounds, smells and tastes that are usually not perceived by others. Although the intensity in which they experience these may differ from person to person. But because their nervous system is more sensitive, everything is felt more intensely.
Besides physical stimuli, also emotional and social subtleties are noticed as well as details they pick up from their environment. This sensitivity to emotional stimuli makes highly sensitive people more responsive to the emotions and needs of others. They are empathetic by nature and at times not only notice emotions from others, but feel them physically as well.
This ‘perceiving subtle information’ explains why situations can be very overwhelming. But it also explains some qualities you might recognize.
Skill nr. 1: HSP notice and/or enjoy subtle smells, colors and sounds deeply.
Skill nr. 2: HSP are attuned to other people’s needs
These qualities can make you perform well in area’s other people mess up in. Or perhaps you have not realized yet these are your skills. I do hope this blog will raise your self-awareness.
Being highly sensitive doesn’t just mean you notice more, you process all that information more thoroughly as well. This is a key element in being highly sensitive.
Every single detail a highly sensitive person notices is processed thoroughly; it’s because they use more parts of their brain at the same time. They have this so called ‘pause to check system’, which helps them see all details and connect these to the bigger picture (see step 2 in the picture). At the same time they contemplate how they feel and think about every situation. The name ‘pause to check’ was first used by Elaine Aron. She noticed this tendency for HSP to process things deeply before reacting.
Skill nr.3: You don’t get caught up in hazardous situations easily.
Skill nr.4: When adapt with attuning to your mind and body, your intuitive skills are spot on (step 3)
Optimal Option Ambition
Through research we’ve learned more about the HSP brain and the many brain areas that are active. Incorporating information with all the opportunities and risks involved is a skill that comes naturally for HSP (step 4). They are also very much aware of their surroundings; of other peoples needs, maintaining a harmonious atmosphere in a group and always thinking of what’s best of the group (step 5). All these together I call the ‘optimal-option-ambition’. It is searching for the best option given the situation but with a great social awareness. It’s hardly ever ‘what’s best for me?’, but always “What’s best for the group I’m in?”.
All these contemplations (conscious or not) are used to come up with possible actions (step 6). Which appear to be more creative. I’m not surprised: when you notice so much and make so many connections, you have more ‘material’ to be creative.
The skills that are connected to these aspects of high sensitivity are:
Skill nr.5: well-balanced decision making skills
Skill nr.6: self-other processing; you can read the social context
Skill nr.7: strong sense of responsibility
Skill nr.8: creative thinking
It usually takes a while for a highly sensitive person to respond (step 7). After reading about your highly sensitive brain and the many processes going on inside your head, it makes sense that responding to a question or taking a decision will take more time for you. And not only time, it also takes a lot of energy. It’s why HSP find themselves feeling more stressed than others. This higher amount of stress you’ll notice by feeling overwhelmed. This impacts the way you respond to others; by being cranky, emotional or distant. When your brain is overwhelmed, there’s not much left to control your behavior.
You might also recognize that your experience of life is more intense; positive as well as negative emotions are felt deeply. Perhaps you have disliked that part of you, but emotions are an important guideline to our actions. So you could use it as an advantage as well.
Skill nr. 9: You experience things intense, which will make your life more vibrant
Reflecting on ourselves, our thoughts and behavior, is strongly present in any HSP (arrow 8). Although a positive trait, it can lead to worrying too much or self criticism. Which can also affect our stress levels. When you are able to stop your critical internal voice in time, it’s a powerful quality.
Skill nr. 10: strong self reflecting skills, which makes it easier for you to learn and develop new skills
So you see, a lot goes on inside your HSP brain; figuratively and literally. Using more brain areas and processing everything deeply is worthwhile, but can be exhausting as well.
Do you consider your highly sensitive trait an asset or a pitfall? That is something for every highly sensitive person to decide. But being aware how your brain works (different than others) and all the skills that come along with it, can help you make the best of it.
Drs. Esther Bergsma (1972) is author, scientific researcher and expert on High Sensitivity. She conducted an international research to gain awareness on the trait of High Sensitivity both amongst 5500 HSP and coworkers and managers. She wrote several books on High Sensitivity; “The Brain of the Highly Sensitive Person” is available in English, Order it here. She also likes to share her insights in talks, podcasts and interviews.