Navigating Sensory Sensitivity: A Comprehensive Guide for Highly Sensitive Persons

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Sensory sensitivity refers to the heightened response to sensory stimuli, such as sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures. This heightened sensitivity can make individuals more aware of their surroundings and more easily overwhelmed by sensory input. Sensory sensitivity can vary from person to person and can manifest in different ways, such as being overly sensitive to loud noises, bright lights, or specific textures.

Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs) are individuals who possess a heightened level of sensitivity to both internal and external stimuli. Approximately 15-20% of the population can be classified as HSPs. These individuals tend to have a greater depth of cognitive processing, a high level of empathy, and increased emotional reactivity. Their unique traits often make them more intuitive, compassionate, and creative, but also more prone to feeling overwhelmed by sensory input and experiencing high levels of stress.

The aim of this blog post is to provide an informative and useful introduction to sensory sensitivity, especially for adults who may identify as Highly Sensitive Persons. By understanding the unique challenges that sensory sensitivity presents, individuals can better manage their own experiences and seek appropriate support when needed. As a therapist, my goal is to help potential clients recognize their own sensory sensitivity and offer guidance on how to navigate the complexities of living with this trait.

Understanding Sensory Sensitivity in Adults

 Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurological condition that affects how the brain processes sensory information from the environment. Individuals with SPD may have difficulty interpreting, organizing, or responding to sensory stimuli, which can lead to challenges in daily functioning. Key characteristics of SPD include over- or under-responsiveness to sensory input, difficulty with motor skills and coordination, and challenges in regulating emotions and behaviour.

In adults, SPD can manifest in various ways, such as difficulties with balance and coordination, extreme sensitivity to particular sensory stimuli (e.g., loud noises, bright lights, strong smells), or feeling overwhelmed in crowded or chaotic environments. Additionally, adults with SPD may struggle with emotional regulation, anxiety, and difficulties in social situations due to their heightened sensitivity.

Sensory Overload in Adults

Sensory overload occurs when an individual is overwhelmed by the amount or intensity of sensory input they are experiencing. This can be caused by external factors, such as crowded or noisy environments, or internal factors, such as heightened sensitivity to sensory input due to conditions like SPD or being an HSP.

Common triggers and symptoms Common triggers for sensory overload include loud noises, bright or flashing lights, strong odours, and tactile sensations. Symptoms of sensory overload may include feelings of anxiety, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and physical discomfort. In some cases, sensory overload can lead to a fight, flight, or freeze response, resulting in panic attacks or disassociation.

The impact on daily life and mental health Sensory overload can have a significant impact on an individual’s daily life and mental health. The constant struggle to cope with overwhelming sensory input can lead to heightened stress levels, fatigue, and difficulty focusing on tasks. This, in turn, may affect an individual’s work performance, social interactions, and overall well-being. Additionally, the ongoing stress and anxiety caused by sensory overload can exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Neurological Underpinnings of Sensory Sensitivity

The brain is responsible for processing sensory information received from the environment through our senses. This process involves several regions of the brain, including the thalamus, which acts as a relay center for sensory input, and the cortex, where higher-order processing occurs. The brain filters and prioritizes sensory input, allowing us to focus on what is most relevant or important in a given situation.

When the brain is overwhelmed by sensory input, it struggles to effectively process and filter the incoming information. This can lead to an overstimulation of the nervous system, resulting in sensory overload. In such cases, the brain may have difficulty distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant stimuli, causing an individual to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and unable to concentrate on tasks.

Research suggests that the brains of HSPs may process sensory information differently than those of non-HSPs. HSPs tend to have a heightened awareness of their surroundings and may be more easily overwhelmed by sensory input. This heightened sensitivity has been linked to differences in the structure and function of certain brain regions, such as the insula, which is involved in processing emotions and interoceptive awareness, and the amygdala, which plays a key role in processing emotional stimuli and triggering the stress response. These neurological differences may contribute to the unique experiences and challenges faced by HSPs when managing sensory sensitivity.

Strategies for Managing Sensory Sensitivity and Overload

Self-awareness and Identification of Triggers

Understanding your own sensory sensitivity is essential for effectively managing and coping with sensory overload. By recognizing your individual sensitivities, you can better predict and respond to potential triggers, reducing the likelihood of sensory overload and its associated stress.

To identify your personal triggers and patterns, consider keeping a sensory journal. Document your experiences, noting when and where sensory overload occurs, the specific stimuli involved, and how you feel during and after the event. Look for patterns and recurring triggers, and use this information to develop personalized strategies for managing sensory sensitivity.

Environmental Modifications

Creating a sensory-friendly environment can help minimize sensory overload. Some suggestions include:

  • Using soft or natural lighting to reduce glare and brightness
  • Incorporating calming colours and simple decor to minimize visual clutter
  • Utilizing noise-cancelling headphones or white noise machines to reduce auditory distractions
  • Choosing comfortable, breathable fabrics for clothing and furniture

In different situations, consider the following techniques to reduce sensory overload:

  • Plan ahead by identifying potential triggers and preparing coping strategies
  • Take breaks and step away from overwhelming environments when necessary
  • Communicate your needs to friends, family, and coworkers so they can help support you

Coping Mechanisms and Self-Care

Practicing deep breathing exercises and grounding techniques can help manage sensory overload by calming the nervous system and focusing the mind. Techniques such as the 4-7-8 breathing method or grounding exercises, like naming five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste, can help regain a sense of control during sensory overload.

Mindfulness and meditation practices can help individuals with sensory sensitivity develop greater self-awareness and emotional regulation. By focusing on the present moment and non-judgmentally observing thoughts and sensations, mindfulness and meditation can promote relaxation and reduce the impact of sensory overload.

Engaging in regular physical activities and exercises, such as yoga, swimming, or walking, can help release tension, reduce stress, and improve overall well-being. Exercise can also enhance the body’s ability to process sensory input, making it easier to cope with sensory overload.

Adequate rest, nutrition, and hydration are essential for maintaining overall health and resilience. Prioritizing sleep, eating a balanced diet, and staying hydrated can help support the body and mind in managing sensory sensitivity and overload.

It’s important to establish personal boundaries and communicate your sensory needs to others. Let friends, family, and coworkers know about your sensitivities and discuss ways they can support you. By being open and honest about your needs, you can create a more inclusive and understanding environment.

Seeking Professional Help

Benefits of therapy for HSPs with sensory sensitivity

Working with a therapist can provide a safe space for HSPs to discuss and process their sensory sensitivity. The therapist can help validate the individual’s experiences, fostering a greater sense of self-understanding and acceptance.

Therapy can help HSPs develop personalized coping strategies and tools to manage their sensory sensitivity more effectively. By exploring various techniques and approaches, individuals can find what works best for them in navigating sensory overload and minimizing its impact on daily life.

Through therapy, HSPs can develop greater resilience and improve their overall mental health. By addressing underlying emotional challenges and enhancing coping skills, therapy can help individuals build a stronger foundation for managing sensory sensitivity and maintaining well-being.

Different therapeutic approaches for HSPs

  1. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT): DBT focuses on identifying and challenging negative thought patterns and beliefs that contribute to sensory sensitivity and associated emotional distress. Through DBT, individuals can develop healthier thinking patterns and coping strategies.
  2. Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: Sensorimotor Psychotherapy is a body-oriented approach that integrates cognitive and emotional processing with physical awareness. This therapy can help HSPs develop a deeper understanding of their sensory experiences and improve their ability to self-regulate.
  3. Occupational Therapy: Occupational therapists can help HSPs develop strategies for managing sensory sensitivity in various settings, such as work or home environments. They can provide guidance on adapting environments, routines, and activities to minimize sensory overload.
  4. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR): MBSR is a structured program that teaches mindfulness and meditation techniques to help individuals manage stress and enhance emotional well-being. MBSR can be particularly beneficial for HSPs in managing sensory sensitivity and reducing the impact of sensory overload.

How to choose the right therapist or professional

Identifying your specific needs and goals Before seeking professional help, it’s essential to identify your specific needs and goals related to sensory sensitivity. Consider what aspects of your life are most affected and what type of support you are seeking.

Researching and evaluating potential therapists Research potential therapists by reviewing their websites, credentials, and areas of expertise. Look for professionals who have experience working with HSPs or sensory sensitivity. Schedule initial consultations to evaluate whether a therapist is a good fit for your needs.

Asking for recommendations and reading reviews Ask for recommendations from friends, family, or support groups. You can also read online reviews to gain insight into other clients’ experiences and satisfaction with a particular therapist. This can help you make a more informed decision when selecting a professional to support you in managing sensory sensitivity.


Understanding and managing sensory sensitivity is crucial for HSPs to lead fulfilling and balanced lives. By recognizing their unique traits and challenges, individuals can take proactive steps to navigate sensory overload and minimize its impact on daily life and mental health. It is essential for HSPs to develop personalized strategies and coping mechanisms to enhance their overall well-being.

It is important for individuals with sensory sensitivity to seek help and support when needed. Connecting with others who share similar experiences, attending support groups, or engaging in therapy can provide valuable resources for managing sensory overload and enhancing resilience. Remember, seeking help is a sign of strength and self-awareness, not weakness.

As a therapist with experience working with HSPs and sensory sensitivity, I invite potential clients to explore therapy options with me. Together, we can work to better understand your unique sensory experiences, develop tailored coping strategies, and enhance your resilience and overall mental health. Please feel free to reach out and schedule an initial consultation to discuss how we can best support your journey toward improved well-being.

Disclaimer: This blog shares general information only, not professional advice or recommendations. Consult healthcare providers for personal guidance. Decisions based on content are the reader's responsibility. Thank you.

Clayre runs a group practice of three queer and trans therapists, including youth therapist Audrey Wolfe, RCC, LGBT therapist Camber Giberson, RCC, CCC, and gender-affirming therapist Clayre Sessoms, RP, RCT, RCC, CCC, ATR-P. Work with us: book a session.