Sensitivity is a personality trait that is authentic for many people: there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a sensitive person. However, sensitivity can lead to challenges in everyday situations, when uncomfortable feelings or social interactions prompt a disproportionate reaction and hurtness. In those cases, therapy can help.

What is sensitivity?

Sensitivity describes the emotional reactions that someone has to external stimuli, including things that people say, places that they go, or events that happen around them. People who are highly sensitive (often called an HSP or “highly sensitive person”) may respond strongly to stimuli, which is thought to come from a more reactive central nervous system. Things like violent movies, loud music, or bright lights can be uncomfortable for sensitive people. They’re also more susceptible to emotional responses to beauty, including music, art, or landscapes.

People who are sensitive may find themselves upset in common situations, needing strong coping skills to calm down. Without strong coping skills or emotion regulation skills, the individual may find themselves in conflict with those around them, including partners, colleagues, friends, or family members.

Origin of sensitivity

There are many reasons why someone might develop sensitivity. Because sensitivity is a personality trait, some people are born with a higher reactivity towards external stimuli. Others develop sensitivity as a result of their childhoods. Children who grow up in environments that are chaotic, disorganized, or hostile may develop a keen sense of how others around them are feeling. They might pay attention to all stimuli around them to have a better grasp on what’s going on or what is going to happen. In these situations, being sensitive is an adaptive behavior that may keep them safe. However, when these children grow up or move to a safe environment, their sensitivity may no longer be helpful for them.

People who experience traumatic events, including toxic relationships, may also develop sensitivity. For much of the same reasons as childhood sensitivity, being attuned to what’s going on around them is a helpful tool that can keep them safe.

Sensitivity, in a neurobiological sense, shows up in a number of mental health conditions. People with ADHD have heightened sensitivity due to their brain structures and chemistry. Depression, anxiety, and PTSD may also change a person’s brain, leaving them more sensitive to stimuli.

Symptoms of sensitivity

Sensitivity can be a challenge for highly sensitive individuals. Their sensitivity to what’s around them – and especially what other people are saying and doing – can actually harm their mental health. Their reactions can leave them feeling exhausted or burnt out. People who are sensitive may regularly feel overwhelmed by their stress, which can lead to the development of a mental health condition.

One of the largest challenges that comes with being a sensitive person comes within social interactions or relationships. People who are sensitive unconsciously pay close attention to the feelings of other people. They may find themselves feeling upset when they notice that someone else is upset. This can lead to feelings of guilt, especially when the sensitive person places pressure on themselves to reach assumed expectations.

There are also many benefits to being a sensitive person. Sensitive people make great friends, they engage deeply with art, and they feel a strong affinity towards emotion. These are all healthy outcomes of sensitivity.

Therapy for sensitivity

Going to therapy for sensitivity does not mean getting rid of your sensitivity. Therapists who specialize in treatment for sensitivity see the many strengths that come with being a sensitive person. Rather than decrease sensitivity, they aim to decrease the negative impacts of that sensitivity can have on a client’s life. Therapists teach clients how to identify instances of being sensitive – and the times when their sensitivity becomes detrimental to their own wellbeing.

In therapy for sensitivity, clients learn different ways of coping with their emotions. They may practice different relaxation or mindfulness exercises to find ways to manage their emotions. These tools can be used when they become overwhelmed in their daily lives. They’ll also gain a better understanding of how their sensitivity works, where it may have originated from, and how they can harness the benefits of being a sensitive person.