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Ten Ways to work with the Highly Sensitive Client

By Ted Zeff, Ph.D.

Approximately 20% of the population or 50 million Americans have trouble screening out stimuli and can be easily overwhelmed by noise, crowds and time pressure. The HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) tends to be very sensitive to pain, the effect of caffeine and violent movies. Highly sensitive people may also feel uncomfortable by bright lights, strong smells and changes in their lives.

HSPs experience a depth of processing stimuli, are easily over aroused and over stimulated, have stronger emotional reactions and are aware of subtle stimuli. Sensory processing sensitivity is not a disorder, but a normal trait. HSPs are found in equal numbers in both males and females, 30% are extraverts and some HSPs can be high sensation seekers.

Why HSPs may be the majority of clients

HSPs are more affected by an adverse childhood; stressed by trying to live like a non-HSP, enjoy depth of conversation, and gain more than non-HSPs from interventions (due to their conscientiousness).

Why it’s important for therapists to know about the trait

As a therapist, you will not expect HSPs to become like the other 80% of people in society, letting HSPs know there is nothing inherently wrong with them.

Guidelines to working with HSPs

  1. Be careful to reduce overstimulation in your office. Become aware of subtleties in your office, such as noise, your voice, lighting, dress, etc.
  2. Let your sensitive client know their trait is real.
  3. Help your client design a life that is compatible with the trait.
  4. Have your client reframe their past in light of their sensitivity.
  5. Teach your client methods of self-soothing and how to eliminate extraneous stimuli, such as regular meditation breaks, taking naps, and receiving a massage.
  6. To calm their nervous system, show your HSP client how to focus on what is familiar to them.
  7. Help your client pace themselves rather than trying to keep up with non-HSPs.
  8. Encourage your client to receive support and interact with other HSPs as well as not to compare themself with non-HSPs.
  9. Encourage your client to read about the trait of high sensitivity, visit HSP web sites, join HSP discussion groups and watch the movie “Sensitive” (sensitivethemovie.com).
  10. Discuss the many benefits of being an HSP and show your admiration for their sensitivity.

Ted Zeff, Ph.D. is the author of The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide, The Highly Sensitive Person's Companion, The Strong Sensitive Boy, Raise an Emotionally Healthy Boy and The Power of Sensitivity. Dr. Zeff offers consultations to professionals on how to work with the sensitive child and adult.