Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person

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Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person is a book I wrote to fill a need for authoritative information explaining the intersection of the two personality traits Sensation Seeking and Sensory Processing Sensitivity.  Feeling as if I have been simultaneously pulled toward novelty, new experiences, and a certain amount of thrill and adventure seeking, I was forced to reconcile my twin need for quiet, time to think and absorb, balance empathy, creativity, and my need to avoid certain unpleasantly stimulating situations with the realities of life.  I also had to contend with a powerful sense of boredom that could set in so profoundly I could feel it in my bones.

Having no reference frame work to look to for guidance – other than scant coverage in some articles – I resolved to write Thrill as a go-to book that others may look to for the guidance and insights I could not find.  We needed a book…

Sensation seeking has been an identified personality trait for decades with psychologist Marvin Zuckerman, conducting much of the research publishing books and articles throughout his career.  Over the past four decades Zuckerman has looked at how sensation seeking is related to thrill seeking and risky behaviors, drug and alcohol addictions (indeed addictions of many kinds), smoking, drinking, sex, crime and antisocial behavior, and delinquency.  Sensation seeking drives many people to do incredible things in life to satisfy the need for the “rush” of sensation that comes from the release of dopamine in the pleasure pathway in the brain.  Zuckerman has also looked at the genetic basis for the trait and established that there are likely one or more genes that determine its expression, moderated by the environment.  Sensation seeking, however, had not been looked at in the context of intersecting with a seemingly opposite trait (sensory processing sensitivity).  For those of us who have felt the push-pull dynamic of sensation seeking combined with sensory processing sensitivity life can be confusing and contradictory to say the least.  As I began to contemplate writing a book I knew that my experiences as a sensitive sensation seeker (my shortened phrase) would not be enough I would need to interview many people to determine what their experiences had been and consider the big picture.

I began the study by conducting interviews with 35 sensitive sensation seekers.  I recruited study participants from several social media sources and through word of mouth.  I asked all participants to take two self-assessments to ensure they were good candidates for the study.  Typically, males scored higher in sensation seeking and somewhat lower in sensitivity (likely due to cultural bias) and females scored higher in sensitivity and lower in sensation seeking (cultural bias again).  There were outliers: some males did score at the high end of sensitivity and some females did score at the high end of sensation seeking.  I was continually fascinated by the descriptions people provided, during our interviews, of the kinds of things they had done throughout their lives from wild seat-of-the-pants thrill seeking to disinhibited sexual experiences.  Surely sensitives wouldn’t do any of this right?  Wrong!  In fact, the more I learned about the experiences of other sensitive sensation seekers the more I came to appreciate the element of disinhibition, which can be thought of as throwing caution to the wind and doing it anyway.  Disinhibition is not the same as impulsivity, rather it is a conscious choice to do something “naughty.”  Again, sensation seeking is about the “rush” we derive from novelty and new experiences, we don’t get the same rush from constantly avoiding sensation or risk.   The dichotomous part is the constant interplay between wanting to do something while feeling a strong cautionary urge to think it over first, or to feel an invisible leash holding us back.

Researchers decide how many people to interview by paying careful attention to when people begin to repeat themselves.  When we no longer hear anything new we know we have reached a point of saturation.  For me, that number was 35; the study could have certainly continued and I would have, no doubt, been fascinated by additional stories, but there was a book to write.  At some point in every study, and that number could be 35, 75, or 105, one must move on to compiling data and analyzing what we’ve gathered.  Choosing what needs to go into a book is always a lengthy process of reflecting on the data after we have sorted things into categories and arrived at themes.  The themes help, such as self-care, childhood, career, or so on, but there are always smaller points that add to the inherent interest-level of a book.  Readers want to read something interesting after all, not an esoteric book full of academic language.  I wrote Thrill in a comparable way to how I wrote Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career: as a logical progression from childhood to career, relationships, and a broader societal picture.

Thrill begins with a primer of sorts because I felt we needed to provide some background information detailing what personality traits are, how they were developed, and their genetic basis in evolutionary history.  I hoped the primer chapter would serve to orient readers toward an appreciation of sensation seeking and sensitivity as normal personality traits that have been with the human species for a very long time.  Too often people seem to believe that traits just popped up recently or that they exist in a vacuum.  In fact, personality traits have been around as long as we have been around and they persist simply because nothing better has come along to replace them.  I hoped readers would understand this primer as a basis for reading the rest of the book and frame their reading in that context.

Each chapter of Thrill is thematic, meaning each one explores a category of related aspects.

Chapter 1 – Personality Traits

Chapter 2 – Childhood

Chapter 3 – Career

Chapter 4 – Relationships

Chapter 5 – Self-Care

Chapter 6 – Risky Behaviors and the Sensitive Sensation Seeker

Chapter 7 – The Creative Force Within

Chapter 8 – Living in Community

Chapter 9 – The Talking Stick

Each chapter is chock full of quotes from sensitive sensation seekers in the study, along with supporting information that helps provide insights into how we have lived our lives from various angles (childhood, career, relationships, etc.).  With all of the descriptions of push-pull regarding sensitivity and sensation seeking I felt a need to form some sort of context for it all, some way to provide a pathway that values both traits.  I chose a theory called the Theory of Positive Disintegration by Dr. Kazimierz Dabrowski, which is a theory of human motivation, to inform the complex journey we are on.  Dabrowski is well-known in the gifted child community and his theory has been widely applied in that regard.  I felt that Positive Disintegration held much value in explaining my life and the difficulties I have encountered and began to appreciate the power of Dabrowski’s theory the more I spoke with other sensitive sensation seekers.

Chapter 7 of Thrill is one I am especially proud of.  I knew it would be mysterious material to many people, but if I cannot stimulate readers to think and discover new territory for themselves my work is of no use.  I want readers to think and think well; that happens through pushing ourselves to grow and discover our potential.  Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration may hold some fascinating answers and insights into the muddled, sometimes confusing, and/or maddening, sense of exasperated potential many of us experience in a world set up for the mundane exploitation of ordinary people.  In no way am I implying that sensitive sensation seekers are gifted; in fact, to the contrary, most are creative, curious, driven individuals with a need to stay ahead of boredom in their lives.  Positive Disintegration privileges the role that disintegrative experiences play in our overall development as human beings.  We move from lower versions of ourselves to higher versions propelled by inner dynamisms which are likely present in many to most sensitive sensation seekers to one degree or another.

Thrill contains many great chapters that sensitives and sensitive sensation seekers will find informative.  We are all sensation seekers to one degree or another and will find application for much of the material in Thrill.  The high sensation seeker, however, goes beyond the ordinary and may seek out the unusual thrill.  For them, I wrote chapter 6 on risky behaviors because the “push” I spoke of earlier is one half of the push-pull paradigm we sensitive sensation seekers experience in life.  The push to seek out thrills, both socially approved of and otherwise, is part and parcel of being at the high end of sensation seeking.  Zuckerman has said that a healthy expression of sensation seeking is at more of a moderate level where we don’t take undue risks or engage in activities that may be illegal, immoral, or hurtful to others.  I include chapter 6 as a discussion meant for all of us for whom the notion of a “fragile” sensitivity simply does not describe us.  I am deeply opposed to the ongoing homogenization of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and HSPs as crybabies, fragile wallflowers, or as profoundly introverted, unsuccessful individuals.  Of all of the people I have interviewed for books, articles, and whom I have consulted with the notion of sensitivity as a mental illness has not factored prominently.  Societal non-acceptance of difference has factored prominently, however, and I continually advocate for people to live out the fullest realization of who they are in the best way they can given their circumstances.  You might be surprised to learn that many of the people I have interviewed are very successful people in the world holding leadership roles across the gamut of possibilities.  There are challenges, of course, but the positives far outweigh the negatives.

Lastly, I provided a final chapter filled with stories from sensitive sensation seekers in the study because I love stories.  We all love stories; they connect us to real human experiences we can identify with and learn from.  Some are very poignant stories of struggle and heartbreak as the challenge of sensation seeking ground them to a halt in life and forced them to commit to a higher path of self-improvement and self-mastery.  I am sure you will be impressed and interested to enter the lives of fellow sensitive sensation seekers for a few moments as they graciously share with us something of their experiences.  I found the writing of Thrill to be cathartic in some ways, inspirational in other ways, and ultimately satisfying as I knew the book would help many other sensitive sensation seekers come to a deeper sense of who they are and who they might be.  So many of us are too caught up in our lives to take a moment to reflect on the context we live in, but Thrill is that brief respite in which we can be among fellow sensitive sensation seekers and revel in the knowing that we are not alone.  The journey continues…

Tracy Cooper, Ph.D. is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career and Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person.  Dr. Cooper appeared in the documentary film Sensitive – The Untold Story and provides consulting services through his website at drtracycooper.com.

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