Are We a Highly Sensitive Profession?

by Rebecca on November 23, 2014

Stress Thermometer Measure Stressful Overload Feeling

I recently heard the term “highly sensitive person” and it deeply resonated with me.  In 1991, Dr. Elaine Aron, a psychologist originally described a “highly sensitive person” (HSP) as someone who has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.

After talking to many of my colleagues, I have a feeling that HSP’s are way overrepresented in veterinary medicine.

15-20% of the population has this trait- which makes it way too prevalent to be a “disorder” but not prevalent enough to be understood by the majority of those around you.  HSP is NOT an illness or a flaw.

Highly sensitive people process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly due to actual biological differences in our nervous systems compared to non- sensitive people.

Often, people think of highly sensitive people as being introverts but up to 30% of HSP’s are actually extraverts and not all introverts are HSP’s.

Being an HSP is innate.  It reflects a certain type of survival strategy of being observant before acting.  Crazily enough, some dogs, cats, horses, fish and primates have also been found to be highly sensitive (Author’s notes, 2012 for the Highly Sensitive Person).

Dr. Aron uses the acronym DOES to describe HSP’s:

D- Depth of processing We tend to process information more deeply and process everything more, relating and comparing to past experience, this happens whether we are aware of it or not.  This is what gives HSP’s a good intuition.

O- Prone to Overstimulation– if you are going to notice every little thing in a situation (noisy, cluttered, stressful) then it seems obvious that you are going to wear out sooner from having to process so much.  HSP’s are easily stressed by overstimulation and often have learned to avoid these situations more than others

E- Being Emotionally reactive and having high Empathy- Studies have found that brain activation indicating empathy was stronger in HSP’s than non-HSP’s when looking at photos of faces showing strong emotion of any type (Author’s notes, 2012 for The Highly Sensitive Person). Having high empathy makes us great at what we do and I think it is one reason so many of us are drawn to veterinary medicine.  We must be aware of this though because what makes us great at what we do can also be very draining and wear us down.  This is probably one reason that Aron has found that HSP’s are more prone to depression.

 S- Being aware of Subtle Stimuli- we have a way of noticing what others do not.  We pick up on non-verbal cues (and our brains are more active when doing so) than non-sensitive people.  No doubt, this is a great skill to have when you work on patients that cannot tell you what is wrong with them!


Stay tuned, next time I will be talking about coping strategies to help highly sensitive people deal with all the chaos that is inevitable at work and at home.


 Do you think you are a highly sensitive person?  Do you think highly sensitive people are overrepresented in veterinary medicine?  I would love your feedback so, please leave a comment below!

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