We're a social species. We generally gravitate toward others, crave connection and belonging, follow certain social norms, and get influenced by our peers. And even when we're not in social settings, we're attuned to what's going on around us: The lights, sounds, crowds, music, scenes and moods of our environment—you know, the vibes.
According to some psychologists, about 15–20% of people feel these social and environmental connections more powerfully. The term coined for such individuals is "highly sensitive person," meaning someone who experiences and internalizes stimuli more intensely than the average person, mentally, emotionally and physically. But of course these people are just like everyone else in at least one respect: Addiction can come for them. And so can recovery.
So, What Is a 'Highly Sensitive Person'?
In the 1990s, psychologist Elaine Aron posited that some individuals experience emotions and physical feelings more acutely than the norm; she termed that personality trait "sensory processing sensitivity," the set of qualities and characteristics that makes one a highly sensitive person, or HSP. It's not a disorder, a "defect" or any kind of diagnosis at all—it's just a type of person.
HSPs may experience some interactions and situations in life differently in that they can become overwhelmed by emotions related to empathy more easily than their peers. They may be dismissed as "too sensitive" or "overreacting" to something when their nervous system is overstimulated. Research has identified certain biochemical responses in HSPs to intense or extreme situations and environments. This can make their ability to rationalize and process information more difficult. But in many situations, HSPs may be more perceptive, intuitive and empathic than most. (This type of person shares many similarities with another you may have read about: the "empath.")
HSPs are not only affected by social or interpersonal settings: They may have heightened sensitivities to light, sound and even caffeine. In the virtual world, they may also avoid movies or video games with excessive violence, or particularly combative corners of social media.
Mind Yourself: How Being an HSP Impacts Recovery
The use of drugs and alcohol is a common way to avoid processing emotions, escape feelings or numb us to adverse situations and experiences. Substances allow people to disconnect from reality, avoid confronting their thoughts and feelings, repress trauma, or avoid current stressors.
The motives behind a person's substance use can help identify what resources and support they need to help them address negative emotional experiences. A significant component of success in recovery is the ability to manage how the brain responds to current stress and old wounds to avoid seeking substances as a coping mechanism—an ability that can be learned.
An HSP may use drugs or alcohol to cope with the overwhelming emotional response to triggering stimuli. For an HSP, using substances may seem like the fastest and easiest way to relieve the intensity of negative thoughts and feelings, a quick way to quit caring and worrying.
In light of that, HSPs in recovery should take special care to address concerns related to trauma or current stressors. An HSP can be supported by resources that help them reduce or work through their interactions with triggering situations and stimuli. Providing proper support to highly sensitive individuals acknowledges their experiences in the now—and it helps set them up for success by giving them the most relevant resources while navigating their sobriety going forward.
Go Forth: Resources for HSPs in Recovery
The resources available for all individuals in recovery are pretty robust these days. There are unique interventions and programs to meet the unique needs of individuals embarking on sobriety. As is often said, recovery looks different for everyone. An HSP has unique needs, too, that must be met to ensure their empathic nature is considered. There are tools to handle powerful negative stimuli and situations without drugs or alcohol, and if you're an HSP, you will likely find them useful.
Here are some of the resources that may be a good fit for an HSP in recovery:
- Support groups: The classic venue for individuals to engage with others coming from similar situations and backgrounds. Being an HSP is somewhat rare and can feel isolating, so the connection found in recovery groups helps people feel less alone and more understood for who they are.
- Journaling: This technique can be used to "dump" thoughts and emotions. Being an HSP can be draining, as your nervous system tends to go into overdrive to process your experiences. Holding on to emotions is exhausting, so having a place to let your thoughts and feelings go is helpful.
- Therapy: Therapy helps all sorts of people and comes in many different forms. It offers a nonjudgmental space to share your thoughts and feelings and an empathetic ear that listens. This is specifically helpful for an HSP, as it provides a space where their sensitivity isn't questioned, and they can be themselves. An HSP can also try to find a therapist who specializes in working with the HSP population, someone with professional experience advising on the issues they deal with.
- Education on being highly sensitive: There's plenty of info out there on what makes an HSP and what ails an HSP. What do other HSPs find constructive, calming or stimulating (in a good way)? The answers could give you insight into the most effective treatment options for your specific needs.
- Sponsorship: Having a sponsor is a key part of some recovery programs. A good sponsor will serve as a mentor to help you navigate your recovery, encourage you to take the steps you choose, and hold you accountable for your actions and decisions. In addition, sponsorship can be helpful for an HSP because you'll have someone to check in and share feedback with on how life and its many complicated situations are affecting you, both positively and negatively.
Being highly sensitive has its ups and downs—but then, as an HSP, you understand that's how life is for everyone. Use your sensitivity and intuition to your advantage in recovery: Be mindful of what's bothering you, what's lifting you up, what soothes you, what stresses you, what you can do about it all and whom you can talk to. Know yourself, and get the care you deserve.