What is the sensitivity trait and how does it change the way some women experience pregnancy?

The Sensory Processing Sensitivity trait is a survival strategy that has evolved in 20% of humans, causing them to process information (stimuli) more thoroughly than others. This trait, if not recognized and tended to, may pose a challenge to some of our clients on the journey through pregnancy and into motherhood. In this piece, Laura Wood, MSW, NPC, Founder of Birthing Deep Connections,  explores what it means to be a highly sensitive person, and how we can better support highly sensitive women through pregnancy and birth.

“Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS, HSP, or Highly Sensitive Person) is not a condition, a disorder, or a diagnosis. It is a neutral trait that evolved in 20% of the human population and many non-human species as well, because it is a survival advantage in some situations and not in others. Their survival strategy is to process information (stimuli) more thoroughly than others do, for which there is considerable evidence.””

The majority of highly sensitive women who become pregnant are totally unaware of this Sensory Processing Sensitivity trait and therefore how it may likely affect their life during this major transformational period of pregnancy, motherhood, family life and reintroduction into the business world.  The research on the SPS trait in humans began in the early 1990’s along with the amazing discovery that this trait is also found across over 100 species.  With the increased demands and stimuli women are being exposed to nowadays, knowing about this trait is even more important.

Unbeknownst to me when my journey into motherhood began in 1996 after graduating with a Masters degree in Social Work & concentration in Children & Family Services, I experienced many years of intermittent mental, emotional, and physical pain that I did not understand or anticipate (infertility, miscarriages, threatened pregnancy loss, various medications, bed rest, “irritable uterus”, post-partum hemorrhaging, etc.) as an unaware highly sensitive person (HSP).  You see, some of the aspects of being highly sensitive include a heightened sense of awareness, sensitivity to sensory input, a more thorough, and thus deep, processing of an abundance of incoming information, which leads to quicker overstimulation and emotional reactivity.  HSPs are more susceptible to the shifts and changes within and around us to a greater degree than non-HSPs and upbringing has a significant impact overall.  Discovering the Sensory Processing Sensitivity trait, understanding how you are different, and how to identify and connect with the strengths of the trait will be most beneficial to all.  This trait is found equally among females and males and approximately 70% are considered to be introverted with 30% extroverted.

Those with the SPS trait are created with a survival strategy response mechanism that is innate, cannot be learned, and is displayed through a finely-tuned central nervous system, a more responsive immune system and identifiable differences in brain functioning and neuroanatomy.  When an HSP is faced with new sensory input there is an automatic scanning and processing of this new information before proceeding.  This new sensory input can be from external or internal sources.  As a result, HSPs tend to be keen observers, intelligent, strive to make good decisions for self and others, conscientious, reflective, empathic, curious and creative.  HSPs can also struggle with making decisions if over-analyzing occurs or attempting to rush, being self-critical when unable to accomplish what they intended, overextending themselves in an effort to care for other’s needs and emotionally reactive to other’s moods or concerns.  The more we understand about the SPS trait, how to tend to our own unique needs and raise highly sensitive children with this information, the more authentic and enjoyable life can be as a family and community.

This information was not given to us during our upbringing because it was not yet discovered.  There was no clear understanding as to why some of us were more sensitive, cried more easily, had our “feelings hurt”, appeared slow to make decisions, seen as “deep thinkers”, often perceived as quiet or shy, perhaps not fitting in and just an overall feeling of being different.  As adults, highly sensitive women might not recognize themselves as that different than non-HSPs as women share many common traits or they may just accept that they are different but not really know the specifics.

Why is this so important for birth professionals and pregnant women to know?  For the highly sensitive woman, the transition into pregnancy starts calling out all of the sensitivities that could’ve been previously overlooked, ignored or worked around.  It is as if the gifts of being highly sensitive are forging their way out of the darkness and when they are not recognized, acknowledged, understood and tended to the effects can compound and ultimately become problematic.  I describe it as repeated exposure to S.T.R.E.S.S. (Sensory Toxicity Response Eliciting Self-Sabotage).  Highly sensitive pregnant women are not only feeling the effects from their environment on their body, now they are also being more heavily influenced from within as this new life is developing inside of them.  It can become uncomfortable in a broader way, physically, mentally and emotionally that she is not clearly understanding or able to manage effectively.

Many of the unexplained physical, mental and emotional experiences of pregnant women in general can get chalked up to the body’s adjustments, “hormones” or go left unnoticed.  For the highly sensitive pregnant woman (HSPW) the true causes of these experiences left unaddressed could contribute to either ceasing to report the symptoms or reporting them more forcefully, an increased frequency of anxiety, and leading to additional feelings of being misunderstood.  If this occurs she could have an increase of STRESS-filled thoughts which not only has an impact on her but her developing child as well.  So it is important to be able to acknowledge and assess her specific concerns and symptoms as described by her, making every effort to lead the HSPW with positive thoughts, eliciting positive emotions and encourage focusing on the most positive potential outcomes that you have been able to discern.

breathing deeply
HSPWs have a heightened awareness involving all senses so she may experience more physical symptoms due to a lower threshold for pain and hunger.  This may elicit increased concern in her mind for her baby’s development or her own health.  It is important to help her recognize that having a heightened awareness of these symptoms does not necessarily indicate a justified need for concern but that her automatic response system was likely activated and lovingly remind her that breathing deeply can calm her.  Please note that sensitivity to medicine may also be present so recommending more gentle, natural approaches are a good place to start which will benefit her body, mind, heart and soul especially meditation, prenatal yoga, essential oils, energy work, homeopathy, Ayurveda, and other alternative healing modalities.

Although HSPs tend to have a lower threshold for pain it does not mean that a HSPW won’t be able to experience a natural delivery.  Ways to increase her ability includes; the discovery and understanding of the SPS trait, practicing tuning into her own body, using the techniques & tools that she finds helpful that calm her body and mind, trusting her intuition and allowing the childbirth process to unfold naturally which is absolutely ideal and beautiful.  The environment during the birthing process needs to be specific to her tolerance which will likely include low lighting, soft or no music, very few people present and only those with a loving and supportive presence.

HSPWs may ask more questions as it comes naturally to be curious and due to processing more thoroughly information from her own and other’s pregnancies she is going to inquire further for clarity and reassurance.  When it is necessary to make a decision she will likely require more time to process the information so that she can be comfortable with what she chooses.  HSPs are typically slower to make decisions because of the thoroughness involved in the process and wanting to make the best decision the first time.  In urgent situations it is imperative to assist her in calming her body and mind, allowing her the necessary time to process all of the information before making a decision.

HSPs have a broader emotional range.  An HSPW’s view of herself or her life challenges can cause her to dip into lower emotional states of sadness, worry, anxiety, or depression. When an HSP understands the aspect of emotional intensity and has tools to regulate her emotions she can increase her self-care/love/acceptance and be more able to shift.  She can then tap into her higher positive emotional reservoir available and ask for the assistance she needs.  Opening an HSPW’s eyes to the SPS trait and what she will benefit from discovering about herself and her new journey is priceless.  It goes way beyond the pregnancy and childbirth experience.

It is important for an HSPW to understand that she is different than the 80% of women who appear to have an easier time keeping up with their previous activities.  It is a sacred preparation time for this great transformational period into family life.  A time to broaden her understanding and connection with her body, mind, heart, soul and that of her developing child’s in a deeper manner and tap into her innate ability to appreciate abundantly the beauty within and around her (in nature, with loved ones, creatively, etc.)  It is a time to shift into a whole new way of embracing life free of comparison because the HSPW’s journey to motherhood is different and a time to re-discover what is truly important in the present moment.  HSPWs are uniquely brilliant, beautiful, bountiful and blissful sensitive beings waking up to their true essence and nature.

As the SPS trait is explored by birth professionals, many may likely discover that they have the trait also which will add enormous value to their own life and what they than bring to and share with their clients.  Some of the ways that birth professionals can help raise awareness is by adding questions to any intake forms inquiring whether there is a history of sensitivity to pain, medicine, sights, sounds, smells, moods of others, being easily overwhelmed at times, considered sensitive or shy growing up, a deep thinker or deep feeler, difficulties watching others in pain?  If the client answers yes to several of these it would be a good recommendation for them to look into the Sensory Processing Sensitivity trait themselves further so they can better move forward with this new information.

A visit to Birthing Deep Connections will give visitors access to Dr. Elaine Aron’s self-test with the 27 questions of the HSP Scale, the services that I offer via telephone or in-person, and for Highly Sensitive Pregnant Woman the opportunity to connect with others who also have the SPS trait to increase their sense of being understood and supported via the Closed Facebook Group named Birthing Deep Connections ~ HSPW Community.

For any Birth Institute Professionals or Pregnant Women a 10% discount/$20 savings is offered on an Initial HSP Consultation session – 90 minutes over the phone or in-person by accessing the contact form here and typing BIRTHINSTITUTE in the Subject section.

Laura Wood, MSW, NPC is a Highly Sensitive Person Life Coach, Consultant & Advocate for Professionals, Parents, Pregnant Women & Children, Founder of Birthing Deep Connections ~ HSP Community in Orange County, CA www.BirthingDeepConnections.com. Awakening Sensitive Beings to their unique gifts & talents to inspire a deeper connection within and embrace being HSP!