Are you a High Sensory Person?

Oct 10, 2022

Do you experience high levels of anxiety and overwhelm? Do busy social occasions cause you to feel stressed and uncomfortable? Perhaps you drink before you even leave the house?  Maybe you use alcohol to cope with difficult emotions, drinking alone where no one can see you? 

Have you ever wondered why others seem to cope so well while you deal with an incessant internal struggle, trying to manage the stresses of daily life? Then maybe you are an HSP.



Of course, addiction can strike no matter who you are, your background, socio-economic status, level of education or intellect.  However, during my time as an HSP and alcohol-free lifestyle coach I began to notice a number of character traits and behaviors that kept presenting in my clients, ones that I also recognised in myself.  

As a High Sensory Person (HSP) I was very aware of and attuned to these common complaints.  High anxiety in social situations, constant feelings of overwhelm, overstimulation and easy burn-out. Many clients complained of extreme exhaustion in high-pressure working environments, problems with loud or multiple sound outputs, chronic overthinking and analyzing, and a heightened sensitivity to other people’s emotions.  Many were often told things like ‘toughen up’ or that they were ‘too sensitive".

It was also interesting that a large percentage of these people would say “I’m an all-or-nothing kind of person” something I had said of myself for years.

I decided to do some research and this BLOG shares my findings. Perhaps you are an HSP?  If you are, congratulations, because whilst this trait can be very challenging to live with, it is also a rare gift with huge potential if you know how to embrace it and manage it well.

What is an HSP?

The concept of Highly Sensitive People was researched by Dr Elain Aron in the early 90’s.  Since then, the term has evolved into High Sensory Person.

Aron determined in her research that High Sensory People make up 20% of the population and found that HSP traits are present in over 100 species, including dogs (no surprise there).

The four main traits of HSPs, as defined by Aron include;

  • Depth of Processing - Simply put, we think about things more deeply, we search for meaning everywhere, in relationships, jobs and life in general.  It can mean we struggle with the superficial and small talk.
  • Overstimulation – We can be easily overstimulated and overwhelmed by the pace and noise of modern living, often needing regular time out alone.
  • Emotional Responsiveness – We can have heightened reactions and responses to our own emotions and those of others. At the top end of the HSP scale is the HSP Empath, someone who deeply feels and is affected by the emotions of those around them
  • Sensing of the Subtle – HSPs have a greater awareness of subtleties in their environment, from facial expressions to how a room is set up. They are constantly scanning for danger.

Brain scans in HPS’s also show that the amygdala (the fight, flight, freeze control centre) is larger and more active than that of a non HSPs. This means we experience a higher stress response to any threat we perceive.  It has been suggested that we have survived as long as we have due to our ability to sense and react to danger more acutely than others

Studies also show more brain activation in the Insula part of the brain. This is where moment-to-moment awareness of inner states and emotions, situations, and outer events are integrated. Some call this the seat of consciousness, that place of profound awareness of and connection to life.

In simple terms, HSPS are more highly aware of and sensitive to both their inner and outer world.

In the western world (which is designed by and for the 80% of ‘normal’ people) HSPs can struggle. They can feel something is wrong with them, not knowing that in fact, the world they live in is the problem.



In my own life, this trait, combined with a very tumultuous early life, led to me being in a state of constant fear. To this day I still have extreme reactions to loud noise, much to the delight of my children when they leap out of hiding places!

For many years I believed everyone felt the same way as I did, so I would judge myself harshly for not being ‘normal’ or able to cope with things most people seemed to coast through.  As a result, I did everything I could to reduce anxiety and the harsh voice of my inner critic, including turning to cigarettes and then, more recently, alcohol.

All or Nothing?

As an HSP my all-or-nothing strategy would kick in.  If I used a substance my highly sensitive system craved more of it. Why?  Because we get a significantly higher sense of reward than those who are not HSPs. I would chain smoke, and then, once I quit, I turned to alcohol. One was never enough. I could literally feel the anesthetising effect as it hit my bloodstream, and I wanted more, and more, and more.

When my nervous system was on high alert, alcohol provided the (albeit short-term) relief I craved.

In my opinion and experience, HPSs have a greater propensity to turn to substances.  They settle our hypersensitive, frazzled, and overwhelmed nervous systems that are activated by the hectic environment of the modern world and relieved by the surge of chemicals that soothe us so quickly and intensely.

This was certainly the case for me.

So all or nothing?  I believe that due to the intensity of our experiences we simply cannot moderate. We feel it all, or we numb it all. And herein lies the poison, and the magic.

The Good News

There is always a reason why certain types of species survive.  HSPs throughout history have used their intuitive and creative gifts to guide, lead and serve humanity.  If you are one you are not alone. Here are some you may have heard of...

Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Princess Diana, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Ralph Waldo Emerson to name a few.

And as I delved deeper into my research I came across the work of Prof. Tom Boyce ( professor emeritus of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of California).  Boyce presents the theory of Orchids and Dandelions and this additional piece to the puzzle helped me understand the gifts of the HSP that can free us from any sense that we are disadvantaged, as well as provide hope for those who are, in fact, highly gifted and who play a necessary and crucial role in human evolution.

Over the last 15 years, researchers have identified several gene variants that can increase a person’s susceptibility to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, addiction, and other problems. But carrying these ‘risk’ genes’ does not doom you to these disorders. It is a combination of these ‘risk’ genes plus a stressful or traumatic environment that ‘activates’ the problems.

In modern psychology, this is known as the vulnerability hypothesis. It takes the nature/nurture debate to a new level of understanding, explaining that it is a combination of gene-environment interactions that activates certain traits and disorders.

He proposed that the world is made up of Orchids and Dandelions, if Orchids are planted in the wrong soil they will wilt and die.


“These dandelion children—equivalent to our “normal” or “healthy” children, with “resilient” genes—do pretty well almost anywhere, whether raised in the equivalent of a sidewalk crack or a well-tended garden. Ellis and Boyce offer that there are also “orchid” children, who will wilt if ignored or maltreated but bloom spectacularly with greenhouse care.”

Tom Boyce – essay “Biological Sensitivity to Context.

Boyce discovered that whilst these risk genes create hyper-sensitivity to trauma and challenge, they also enable the person to have a heightened sensitivity to all experiences. If a positive supportive environment is experienced these people could thrive way beyond those who did not carry these risk gene combinations. 

This has been coined the Orchid Theory proposing that the capacity for creativity, compassion, empathy, and appreciation of beauty and of life, in general, is far greater than those who don’t have these ‘risky’ genes’

Once I discovered my HSP gifts I was able to apply a deep sense of compassion and empathy for myself.  Maybe I was an Orchid?  If so, it’s no wonder I was constantly feeling stressed and anxious growing up. Instead of being taught the tools that I needed to manage this trait, I taught myself to do everything I could to avoid my uncomfortable feelings.   Drinking was the perfect antidote. I could numb the overwhelm. I could be who I was not.

Since removing alcohol, something I knew ‘deep down’ wasn’t right for me, I have discovered a genuine joy in life and in who I am.  I have embraced my ability to feel everything deeply, and I now use these gifts to do work I truly love and to help others do the same.

I now know from my own experience that when the external environment and rich inner life of an HSP is acknowledged, supported, and nurtured, significant and extraordinary upsides are also possible.

HPSs are needed

Our society celebrates and rewards the traits of the majority. The hustlers and the hardy who have conquered, thrived economically, and ruled for centuries. Sensitivity has been seen as weak and the depth of processing as ‘over-thinking’.  

However, historically HSPs have always been present, as thought leaders, advisors, creators, and spiritual and moral leaders.

I suggest that HSPs are the Orchids, a minority of people who are not as ‘hardy’ as the majority.  I suggest that it is more often these people who succumb to the numbing effects of substances such as alcohol because it quickly and intensely relieves the pain that comes with this level of sensitivity. 

But it is also these people who, with hard work, care, nurturing, and specific lifestyle changes, can learn to thrive way beyond what they believe is possible and what is accessible to their Dandelion friends.  I’m not saying HSPs are better, just that they are as necessary and important in the world as those who are so often in the foreground.

My hope is that, as human consciousness slowly awakens, the role of HSPs will become more apparent, necessary, and appreciated. As this unfolds those who have stayed safely in the background, trying to numb and escape from who they truly are, will gain the courage to step into their true nature and to live at peace with their abilities.  As change happens on a micro level it has a ripple effect, in families, and in communities.  And through this process, perhaps more of us can step up and start to serve the world from the place of profound understanding, empathy, and appreciation that is accessible to High Sensory People.

So what now?

If you’ve read this far, the chances are you, or someone you know, are on the HSP scale. This is amazing news, and now it’s time to start doing the work required to activate all the extraordinary benefits HSPs can experience.

Step One: Take the HSP quiz here to see if you’re an HSP

Step Two: Celebrate! You have a unique gift!

Step Three: Take your time to absorb.  See if you can turn the potential rejection & need to escape from these traits into compassionate understanding.  Not everyone thinks and feels like you do, but you are not alone and your capacity for great freedom and joy is real.

Step Four: Find support.

Visit the HSP Resources page where I link to HSP expert Julie Bjellands work.

Join the High Sensory CoachingCommunity 

Join my Facebook group with both orchids and dandelions, all trying to navigate life alcohol-free and amplify our gifts as best we can.

Find an HSP coach to help you navigate change with this new understanding.

You can book a call with me, HSP or not HERE.


I integrate my lived experience, HSP gifts, and extensive training and study into a unique methodology combining modern psychology with the wisdom of ancient philosophy. I am an alcohol-free lifestyle and beyond alcohol life coach. I work in private practice and as a coach for both Thrivalist and The Alcohol-Free lifestyle programs.

Certified Coach in the following methodologies:

Master Grey Area Drinking Coach – Jolene Park Healthy Discoveries, High Sensory Coach – Illuminance, Strategic Intervention Coach – The Coaching Institute, Results Coach – now the NeuroLeadership Institute.

Other Study

Grad Diploma Counselling – Australian College of Applied Psychology, The Science of Wellbeing – Yale University, Self-Compassion Training – Dr Kristen Neff, Mindfulness Training - Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, Mindfulness Educator – Mindful Schools,  RMT Coach Program– Robbins-Madanes Yoga 200hr Teacher training ( HYA) and advanced embodied practice (BIYOME yoga)

And I am currently in the Optimize Coach program.

This Blog references the work of Dr Elain Aron at hsperson.com, Julie Bjelland at jbjelland.com and the “Environmental Sensitivity in Children study: by Prof Thomas Boyce, Michael Pluess, Elham Assary, Francesca Lionetti, Kathryn J. Lester, Eva Krapohl.

This Post was originally featured on CUPPA The Free Social Network for the Sober and Sober Curious

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