Spirit Matters: Sensory Processing Sensitivity not an imaginary joke

Note: This piece originally published on April 30, 2016. Its content is as meaningful today, as it was then – if not more meaningful. I have made a few minor updates.

“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” — Joseph Campbell

Last year, psychologist Elaine Aron’s documentary “Sensitive: The Untold Story” was released. It is a work I anticipated for a long time, for I am — in Aron’s jargon — a “highly sensitive person.” Clinically, this quality is referred to as Sensory Processing Sensitivity.

A highly sensitive person processes stimuli more deeply than the general population. Sometimes the impact on my nervous system is like fireworks exploding nonstop. Aron’s website, hsperson.com, summarizes the quality with a few bullet points:

· Easily overwhelmed by such things as bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics or sirens nearby.

· Gets rattled when there is lot to do in a short amount of time.

· Avoids violent movies and TV shows.

· Needs to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or some other place to have privacy and relief from the situation.

· Prioritizes arranging life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations.

· Notices or enjoys delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds or works of art.

· Has a rich and complex inner life.

· Was seen as sensitive or shy as a child by parents or teachers.

Out of 30 questions measuring sensitivity on a quiz on Aron’s website, I deeply resonated with 27.

Although I always felt different growing up, it was only after I read Aron’s first book, “The Highly Sensitive Person” in my 20s that I felt like someone finally “got” me. I remember turning the pages and saying to myself “Yes! Yes! Yes!” as I hungrily sought out more explanation of something our culture pretty much rejects. If you’re not always “on” or ready to take part in loud activities, after all, there surely must be something wrong with you, right?


While I have embraced this quality about myself — it bears as many gifts as it does challenges — being a “highly sensitive person” also leaves one open to being highly misunderstood, especially since the quality often manifests itself differently and to different degrees in each person.

While I grew up in a family of eight — aptly described by my cousin as “The Zavada Zoo” — I often fought to find acceptance in a culture of chaos for something I couldn’t even articulate.

Now that I have some parameters to understand myself, I engage in self-care as an adult and do what I can to reduce or manage the overstimulation I sometimes encounter out in the world. By doing so, I am not trying to keep other people from enjoying themselves, but, rather, trying to reduce the impact on my senses.

Aron says 15 to 20 percent of the population possess the highly sensitive quality, and that it is equally present in the animal kingdom. It is likely you know one or more beings that possess high sensitivity, or Sensory Processing Sensitivity. If any of this resonates with you, I encourage you to check out the quiz at Aron’s website. She offers a separate quiz to help determine the level of a child’s sensitivity.

Since Aron’s initial book was published, the research in this field has exploded. There are now many avenues for deeper understanding and support from others that share the quality. One website I find particularly helpful is juliebjelland.com. Bjelland is a psychotherapist, who also possesses Sensory Processing Sensitivity. She offers a number of modes for those with high sensitivity for personal growth and community support.

In addition, there are a number of groups on social media for community interaction and support. If you are one of the fraction of the population that possesses this quality that can be challenging, but when embraced and managed offers deep, broad and abundant gifts, I, for one, get it.

I see you.

And I like what I see.

· SPIRIT MATTERS is a weekly column that examines spirituality. Contact Jerrilyn Zavada at jzblue33@yahoo.com to share how you engage your spirit in your life and community.