Basics of Highly Sensitive People

From an interview earlier this year with Planet Mindful:

What is a Highly Sensitive Person?

People who identify as highly sensitive have the naturally occurring personality trait Sensory Processing Sensitivity.  Sensory Processing Sensitivity is present in at least 100 other species, is evenly distributed between males and females, and present in about 15-20% of the overall population.  SPS was first identified as a distinct personality trait by clinical psychologist Elaine Aron in 1996, further researched in the intervening 22 years by Aron and other researchers around the world and is the subject of the 2015 documentary film Sensitive-The Untold Story.

Sensory Processing Sensitivity may best be encapsulated as the following four key aspects:

Depth of processing of all stimulation.  Highly sensitive people (or HSPs) process everything they see, hear, smell, feel in a more elaborate way in their brains.  All personality traits serve the purposes of survival and reproduction in the ancestral time in which they evolved and SPS likely allowed those who thought more deeply about events, sensory stimulation, and people a slight advantage that likely translated to better survivability for their respective groups.  HSPs may be very deep-minded individuals who spend a good deal of time in self-reflection and considering the what-ifs of a given situation.  This propensity makes HSPs potentially very good planners, leaders, and counselors.

Overstimulation in certain highly individualized circumstances.  HSPs may feel overwhelmed by certain smells, lighting conditions, fluctuations of temperature, scratchy fabrics, certain types of noises, and strong interpersonal energetic interactions.  SPS works by the triggering of strong emotions leading to the depth of processing previously noted.  HSPs experience these emotions as particularly intense and may find it difficult to remain in overstimulating circumstances.  They often prefer to “get away” and recharge in quiet.  It is vitally important to note that HSPs are not a homogenous group.  Indeed, what bothers one HSP might not even register with another.  The sources of overstimulation for HSPs vary tremendously from person to person with males sometimes experiencing little to no overstimulation from sensory sources, but possibly from emotional sources.

Emotional responsiveness and High empathy.  Highly sensitive people have a broader possible range of emotional expression than in those without the trait.  A person without the trait may feel happy at, say, a child’s graduation, while an HSP may feel happy, sad, anxious, scared, confident, and ecstatic all at the same time.  This is not to say that HSPs are fragile, weak, hysterical, or emotionally unstable but they do have a broader possible range of emotional reactions.  Intertwined with this emotional responsivity is generally higher empathy.  HSPs may be good at identifying with the reality of other people more readily than in those without the trait.  Being able to step into another person’s shoes and see the world (or a given situation) from their viewpoint, without judgement, means HSPs may be very good at “reading” people.

Sensitivity to subtle stimuli.  Highly sensitive people notice visual information more acutely, pick up on subtle smells or sounds more readily than those without the trait, and generally are more sensitive to a range of subtleties than in others.  This keen sensitivity may make them very good at planning, developing alternatives, or noting details.

There is another personality trait about 30% of HSPs have; it’s known as Sensation Seeking.  Sensation seekers may identify with any of the four aspects below:

Thrill and Adventure Seeking – seeking physical thrills (roller coasters, rock climbing, fast cars, etc).

Novelty and Experience Seeking – seeking new experiences that provide a similar rush of dopamine in the pleasure pathway of the brain.  This may be going to new museums, new countries (or places one does not know) and doing new things for the sake of doing them.

Disinhibition – indulging in hedonistic experiences for the fun of it: parties, differing sexual partners, experimenting with drugs, going outside normal behavioral parameters for the thrill of doing it.

Boredom Susceptibility – propensity to become disinterested, lethargic or unmotivated at repetitious or uninteresting activities.

Being both highly sensitive and a high sensation seeker is quite a push-pull dynamic between the more cautious approach of the sensitive and the bolder approach of the sensation seeker.  Often, the sensation seeking side wins out and overwhelms the sensitive side resulting in exhaustion.  It is extremely important for sensitive sensation seekers to know themselves well and strike a balance between the two traits.  Sensation seeking is a naturally occurring personality trait (just like SPS) with several identified genes controlling its expression in the brain.  Being a sensitive sensation seeker, if one can strike an appropriate balance, may be the best of both worlds.

Are the brains of HS people different to other people’s?

There has been research conducted utilizing fMRI brain scans administered to highly sensitive people while they attended to various tasks.  The same scans were made of the brains of people without the trait and the results show that there is greater activation for HSPs in certain areas of the brain related to visual processing (specifically there is more activation in making fine visual distinctions in a scene), emotions, emotion processing and emotional memories.  There is evidence of sensory processing in the secondary visual system and the inputs to the autonomic nervous system/emotional responses being moderated by SPS.  HSPs exhibit greater neural response to happy and sad states of others especially in the insula and mirror neuron areas and show greater neural response to positive and negative images.  One study conducted to determine whether culture moderates brain response to basic sensory information showed that HSPs tend to ignore cultural biases in processing information.  The brains of HSPs work in a slightly different way with regards to the way they process stimulation of all kinds in a more elaborate way.

If someone if HS, what can they do to ensure they are not overwhelmed by their environment? (For example, noise, bright lights).

First, they will undoubtedly encounter overwhelming environmental stimulation from time to time and it is important to take steps to minimize the effects of overstimulation where possible.  It is important for HSPs to speak up and ask for less light, adjustments to temperature, or for distracting noises to stop.  In some cases, an HSP simply needs to take matters into their own hands and get up and move; if in a noisy restaurant or other public place where this is possible.  Where it is not possible, it’s important for the person to know they may need additional downtime to recharge after a particularly overstimulating event.  Developing and maintaining a rigorous self-care practice is key to managing overwhelm in our modern world.

There are many small ways we can manage overstimulation (or unwanted or unpleasant stimulation), such as using earphones or a headset to listen to something more pleasing, or simply to block out the noise to a comfortable degree.  One may also intentionally search out quiet spots to sit or bring along aromatherapy oils like lavender or eucalyptus for a quick sniff of comfort.  Similarly, it is important for HSPs to spend time in nature and recharge in the best ways that work for them.  As for all people, it is advisable to eat a healthy diet (though there is no one best way to eat or diet that is specific to HSPs), hydrate with enough liquids, and self-monitor and self-correct our thinking and emotions.

There are some big misconceptions about HSPs that we should bear in mind:

  • That HSPs are somehow weak or fragile in overstimulating conditions. Overwhelm may be a momentary reaction but most HSPs become quite skilled at avoiding overstimulation when possible and mitigating its effects otherwise.  Many very successful people through history and in today’s world are, in fact, highly sensitive people.  HSPs will not break if they are overstimulated; they may become irritated or frustrated, even tearful or angry but they will likely recover quickly and come back better prepared.  It’s when HSPs encounter unplanned for overstimulation that it becomes a problem.  HSPs may enjoy concerts, fireworks shows, or any of a host of other stimulating events just like anyone else, if they expect the stimulation.
  • All HSPs are alike. This is absolutely not true, and we should resist the all too human tendency to homogenize a group of over one billion people thereby negating their infinite and beautiful variation of individual expression.  HSPs, just like anyone in the human species, may be a joy to know or a misery.  It all depends on the things that have happened to a given person and the individual choices she has made.  Much also depends on the early environment of the HSP with abusive, traumatic, or neglectful environments being especially bad and positive, supporting, and nurturing environments being especially good.  Aron has stated that it all depends on the psychological complexes we may have formed as a result of early environments and the lingering hold those may play in our subsequent behaviors.
  • Being an HSP does not mean being easily offended. SPS works by the activation of strong, quick emotions triggering more elaborate processing in the brains of HSPs.  While HSPs may intuitively feel whether something or someone is positive or negative, taking offense is optional.  Many HSPs are wonderful people you probably already share time with in your family, at your workplace, and in your social groups (most probably do not know they are HSPs).

Are there any challenges associated with being HS? (Are they at risk of being anxious or depressed – and if so, why?

There are many challenges associated with being a person that is highly complex, deeply intuitive, innately creative, and intensely emotional but the most prominent factor that affects how HSPs experience life is the culture they are born into.  Many cultures around the globe have become increasingly western in attitude and orientation with norms and expectations of behavior shifting toward extreme extraversion, constant stimulation, and superficial thought and actions.  To be a sensitive person in such cultures is to be out of place, to some extent, but also to be faced with having to work harder at maintaining balance within ourselves (a calm core) where we can retreat to when necessary and find stillness and calm.  Calm may not exist in the world, but it can exist inside of us if we care enough to work on developing the aspects of ourselves that will lead us to a still center.

Highly sensitive people, due to their nature as deep-thinking, intensely emotional, and intuitive individuals may be predisposed to spend more time than may be warranted focusing and reflecting on negative events that happen as they replay interpersonal interactions on an endless loop in their minds searching for clarity.  Often the focus is unnecessary and counterproductive and may lead to needless anxiety, worry, and depression, in some cases.  Simply being a highly sensitive person does not make one a depressed person; spending too much time focusing on minute details of every interaction, however, might.

Many people experience challenges in finding the “right” career but HSPs may face exceptional difficulties in finding work that is meaningful, allows for autonomy, and provides interpersonal and environmental conditions that are tolerable.  According to one large survey I conducted in 2014 many HSPs opt for careers in what may be described as the “helping professions,” i.e. education, healthcare, human services.  Many more are in the creative arts, business management, information technology, marketing and sales, and STEM fields.  Some of these might seem incongruous but it is a manifestation of the wonderful variety inherent in highly sensitive people.

Highly sensitive people may experience challenges with relationship issues like finding a long-term partner who is kind and understanding of greater need for downtime or alone time; need to plan things carefully to alleviate anxieties; and need to feel secure.  There isn’t a specific partner type we can point to as being most appropriate for HSPs because people vary so much at different times of life and may make poor choices no matter how great they seem in the short-term.  The best partner for an HSP is one who is open, kind, calm, and loving but finding the right partner may take a lifetime or happen right away.  Friendships are a similarly tricky issue for many HSPs as close relationships go through life cycles; it is vitally important, however, to have at least one close friend in whom HSPs can trust and relate to.  Socially, it is very helpful for HSPs to be around other HSPs, so they can 1) know they are not alone, and 2) find kinship with others who are similarly deep-thinking, deep feeling, intensely emotional and creative people.  Highly sensitive people can experience fulfilling and rewarding relationships with others just like anyone else.

The beauty in being highly sensitive is being able to inhabit both ends of any spectrum.  An HSP might be logical and creative, focused and unfocused, dedicated yet value autonomy quite fiercely.  An HSP might also be one dimensional and quite unlike a highly sensitive person at all, especially men, who are conditioned from a young age to hide sensitivity or feel shame for their intense feelings, thoughts and emotions.  One study found that HSPs do not subscribe to cultural notions of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, thoughts, and values but culture is all around us all of the time and undoubtedly is a source of annoyance when it is not inclusive of other personality types except the dominant paradigm.   HSPs represent a slightly different survival strategy for humans but, in the end, are not so very different.  It is important for HSPs to learn about Sensory Processing Sensitivity, make adjustments to their lives, and meet other HSPs but then move on with the ever-present business of living their lives as best as they can.

Tracy Cooper, Ph.D. is a researcher exploring and investigating Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Sensation Seeking.  He has written two books on highly sensitive people: Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career and Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person.  Dr. Cooper is a Program Chairman for a Master of Liberal Arts degree at Baker University.  He provides consulting services on a one on one basis on the topics of HSPs and career, the high sensation seeking highly sensitive person, and self-care though his website at drtracycooper.com.

3 thoughts on “Basics of Highly Sensitive People

  1. I’ve just recently understood that i’m not mental or something…that’s the feeling i had for my last 5 years of being a truly analytic person but still having such impulses and feelings that i couldn’t manage most of the times and i would just do what my intuition tells me even if that would make others unhappy.

    I’ve started working on myself from the first moment i’ve understood that i can sense the depths of my emotions and analyze them,but to this day i have a hard time controlling them.

    One good example is after i’ve left my home country 10 days ago and started a new life in Denmark. The experience as a whole has been ecstasic to say the least,but i can’t dwell on the fact that i’ve been ghosted by a person that seemed to understand the depths and layers of my feelings once. I’ve tried from the first moment to take the feeling itself and keep it as distant from me as possible,as i think about it a lot and try not to feel that an important part of me has left,as i’m whole and still going strongly in this world.

    The bit of advice that i’m asking you for is firstly about my life in it’s essence,how should i approach this HSP/HSS type of person that i am?

    Should i just try to balance the parts and live them to their extremes? I know the HSS can be damaging and i’m trying project it into activities that aren’t,but indeed it is leaning into the direction of activities that make me understand more about myself and my state of mind. Shrooms kinda help sometimes too.

    The part i’m unsure about is the HSP side. When things go out of my control i mostly am overwhelmed by the situation until i gather myself up and start thinking eloquently about the situation,but am still affected and thinking about the intensities of most of the bad feelings toroughoutly until i understand them fully so i can do something about it. The problem is that for the moment i can pass it but afterwards it is a carousel of emotion and toughts which appear the following period of maximum 1,5-2 weeks about every situation,mostly the most intimate remain unsolved in my mind more than that[(romantic relationship, family, career) ,placed in the ascending order of their importance in my life,but very close and linked] . The moment i can think clearly about the real feeling it is a soothing sensation,relief mostly. This part of my personality is so strong that it made me act accordingly for far too many times in my life and ,ofc, i’ve embraced it,but it can take control for a brief period of time….
    Any tips and tricks on how to manage that?

    Like

    1. The bit of advice that i’m asking you for is firstly about my life in it’s essence,how should i approach this HSP/HSS type of person that i am?

      Alex, first, I suggest reading my book on HSS/HSPs for a number of insights on various areas of life. Second, you seem to be describing a depth of processing in your note that is common to all HSPs. Thinking deeply, reflecting, and replaying events all help us work through things that happen and prepare us to cope better next time (as a defense and survival mechanism) but that doesn’t help blunt the effect of being ghosted by someone we may have felt a deep connection with. Ghosting another person happens for many reasons and we are left to entertain them all, unfortunately, when the other person simply vanishes. Time will certainly help as will meeting new people. Being in a new country is certainly exciting and a time for meeting many new and interesting people! The sensation seeker in you probably loves that…

      To your question though regarding how to approach living life as a HSS/HSP, my advice is to be compassionate toward yourself and know that it will take years to truly get to know yourself and along the way you will make mistakes and cope poorly at times. Be willing to find forgiveness for when you’re feeling overstimulated and need to withdraw but also find self-love in caring for yourself and being authentic with your own needs. A lot of being a highly sensitive person involves a lifelong practice of managing ourselves, our emotions, and how we are able to maintain a sustainable balance. If you haven’t found that balance yet keep working toward it. Everything matters in finding balance, sleep, diet, socialization, career, relationships, and how we tend to our spiritual life.

      If you can, make a few friends (or one) who is an HSP as well because then you will have a compatriot to compare your perceptions with and provide support. Knowing that someone else is an HSP isn’t easy and will only come through knowing someone for a period of time and you are able to see the four D.O.E.S aspects of Sensory Processing Sensitivity in them.

      I do not advocate for living either trait to an extreme. The most benefit is derived when a more moderate expression of any trait is manifested in one’s life. Extremes get us in trouble in many ways, especially with sensation seeking. In that sense, the more you understand about both traits the better you will be bale to find ways to moderate them both in expression. Sensitivity has aspects that can be managed quite well if one is aware of them and finds positive ways to cope. None of this si to say that life as a HSS/HSP will ever be easy but it will be rewarding and more interesting in deep and profound ways because of your propensities and capacities, if you develop them.

      Lastly, I encourage you to explore many more resources around Sensory Processing Sensitivity at Dr. Elaine Aron’s website (the originator of the trait) at https://hsperson.com/.

      I also suggest viewing the documentary film Sensitive-The Untold Story at http://sensitive-theuntoldstory.vhx.tv/. The movie covers the bulk of the research and provide many other insights.

      Thanks for you post!

      Like

      1. Thank you for your respone! It was everything i’ve been thinking for myself in the last years. Moderation has helped me to stay balanced in all things,but in my earlier years i’ve been keen to go to the extremes. Lesson learnt.

        I have observed your comment late because i’ve been reading and researching continously the whole day. That’s why i have messaged you again on facebook and kinda feel embarassed of my way of explaining myself now,but in that moment of writing i was a little overwhelmed by the many feelings i’ve got when i’ve found this about myself.
        I’ve never had a friend that’s like me,but i’ve had one that was an introverted HSP, but very child like in nature..maybe because his childhood remained the same with his early adulthood that we are both in.
        I truly hope that starting university here in Denmark will help me get in touch with people with the same mindset as me,but i’m trying not to dive fully into this mostly because i’ve done it with the person that ghosted me and i don’t feel ready to show myself entirely to another person yet.
        Btw after a long period of thinking about what i would like to do with my life,this being surely in the STEM fields because of my natural attraction to mathematics and logical thinking, i’ve tought one day after finishing my 3rd year of Mechatronics and Robotics bachelor that this is not the thing for me and i can not make a difference or make myself happy entirely through this so i have decided to pursue the most diverse and full of creativity field that i’ve imagined: Civil Engineering.
        I have been fond of architecture all of my life,but never knew what to do with this passion, as i am not inclined to drawing or designing superficial design. In my eyes it was just beauty,but not so much utility. So then the idea came to me and i’ve been fond of it from that day on(something like 6-8 months ago).

        I will start reading more about this and the movie is the perfect way to end this day.
        I thank you very much for responding me,it has filled my day with joy that i can talk with someone about this,as i don’t have any more friends that i could be this intimate with..for now 🙂

        Like

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