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Hypersensitivity and Sexuality

When every pore is open in bed:

Article by Michèle St-Amand

Illustration by Aless MC

Have you heard of hypersensitivity? What comes to mind when you think about it? Being an emotional sponge? Crying easily? Feeling on edge? Is it a quality or a flaw? And how can it affect your sex life?

Hypersensitivity: What is it exactly?

Let's start by demystifying hypersensitivity to develop an appreciation for it. Whether you are hypersensitive yourself or in a relationship with a hypersensitive person (to lighten the text, I'll use "HSP"), it's important to understand what it entails. Elaine N. Aron, an American psychologist and researcher, is renowned for her work on this topic. She suggests that between 15% and 20% of the population is hypersensitive. Remember, sensitivity at the neurological level is the ability to receive and analyze information. An HSP's nervous system processes stimuli more deeply and intensely, as if they have an internal amplifier!

Hypersensitivity allows for greater perception of environmental subtleties: sounds, smells, brightness, textures, ambiance, temperature... but it easily leads to overstimulation. An HSP is generally intuitive, creative, and empathetic; they have a rich and complex inner life. However, they can feel bombarded by external stimuli, and their nervous system tires more quickly than others. They are particularly affected by conflictual atmospheres and are more sensitive to hunger, fatigue, stress, pain, medications, caffeine, and other substances. They are also deeply affected by criticism, rejection, and judgment.

Hypersensitivity is neither a pathology nor a problem in itself; it is a neutral characteristic. However, in our society, it is not always well-received, and if hypersensitivity has been criticized and stifled by the family environment, a conflicted relationship with it may develop.

So how can this trait manifest? For instance, at the end of the day, an HSP might need space to relax and process the various stimulations their nervous system has absorbed. This can escalate to what is called a "shutdown threshold" when overstimulation occurs, and their tolerance for new stimuli is at its lowest. The HSP may feel irritated, annoyed, or even disoriented, with a strong need for solitude. I like to use the metaphor of a snow globe that we shake to animate the flakes. An HSP needs to be in favorable conditions to let the flakes settle at their own pace. This can be achieved in various ways, but withdrawal, calm, and good restorative sleep are often necessary.

And what about sexuality for HSPs?

Considering what has just been mentioned, you can imagine that hypersensitivity may have certain impacts on sexuality. Elaine N. Aron suggests that HSPs are more inclined to have a rather mysterious and powerful sexuality; to be aroused by subtle stimulations; to be easily distracted during sexual encounters; to be particularly sensitive to pain.

During sexual relations, the HSP experiences intense physical sensations, and they need concentration and connection. Moreover, being very sensitive to smells and tastes, personal hygiene is essential! They will notice details that escape others: from a poppy seed stuck between two teeth to the subtle noise the neighbor makes... nothing escapes her!

The sexual experience can vary in terms of pleasure and concentration. The HSP can transition from a state of intense sexual engagement to disconnection due to a distraction. Too rough a touch or a disturbing noise can pull her out of her sexual experience. Moreover, they tend to be tuned into the other's experience... They are so sensitive to external stimuli and emotions that remaining focused on her sexual experience can become difficult. But beware, the highly sensitive nervous system of the HSP can also provide her with very powerful orgasms! When the right conditions are met, of course.

The quality of the relationship with the other person is also an important factor. People who are not highly sensitive must be open to understanding what is happening on the HSP's side. They must contribute to open communication, without judgment. And for the HSP, her responsibility is to be assertive about her needs, limits, preferences, and truth. And informed consent... always and forever!

If you are highly sensitive, consider what your senses and body are telling you, as they are indicators of choice. During sexual activities, is there music that you enjoy? A type of lighting? A texture on which you like to place your body? What are the aromas that pleasantly stimulate you? What excites you? What do you need to transition after a draining day?

Of course, hypersensitivity is not the only factor influencing sexual life. And the experience of hypersensitivity varies from person to person. But this nature is to be considered in order to take care of it. The HSP will likely need to embark on a journey of deep self-awareness and communication to make this great sensitivity an ally in her sexual life. But hey, who wouldn't benefit from this journey to have a better sex life?

Michèle St-Amand

Michèle St-Amand practiced with passion and compassion as a sexologist and psychotherapist for many years.  She believes in the transformational potential of every individual. She has extensive experience working with individuals who are victims of sexual assault(s) and/or experiencing post-traumatic reactions. She incorporated art into her practice and values taking a social perspective on sexuality.

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