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

Highly Sensitive People and Emotional Reactivity

Do highly sensitive people who come from supportive childhoods respond differently to positive stimuli than those from unsupportive backgrounds? A research study published in 2016 in the journal Social Behavior and Personality seems to indicate the answer is yes. HSPs who experienced supportive childhoods do respond more quickly and to a more profound degree than do those from unsupportive backgrounds. How is this news?

What’s interesting about this study is that even HSPs who were rated low in Sensory Processing Sensitivity (the underlying personality trait or temperament highly sensitive people have) also responded more quickly and to a greater degree of arousal than those from unsupportive backgrounds. Whether you are at the high end or the low end of high sensitivity your parenting and early experiences color how quickly and how deeply you respond to positive stimuli. Reflecting on this finding, it seems to make sense that HSPs from unsupportive backgrounds, where people become conditioned to “expect the worst,” are indeed looking for the worst and even if the best did happen right in front of their eyes they might not even notice! Now, what’s the difference between emotional reactivity, which is what this article measured, and emotional responsiveness, which is a key aspect of Sensory Processing Sensitivity?

Emotional reactivity is exactly that: reactivity to stimuli, while emotional responsiveness represents the range of possible emotions we might experience in a given circumstance. Highly sensitive people, according to Dr. Elaine Aron, really do need to identify as being emotionally responsive in order to be considered highly sensitive. Emotional responsiveness does not necessarily mean we freak out every time something happens, mostly because things happen all the time in life and there isn’t patience for emotional instability (or what people might of external expressions as instability) in daily life. We learn to not express our often strong emotions in an external way; especially men.

Men who are highly sensitive (and there are supposedly as many men who are highly sensitive as women) learn quickly in hegemonic cultures, where masculinity is toxic, to be stoic, unemotional, to be “in charge” of emotions and never express them in an external way, unless it’s anger then that’s approved (ironically). Men, however, suffer as a result of experiencing the same range of emotions (responsiveness) but face negative social sanctions in general for expressing them. Not surprisingly, men also die sooner than do females; stress plays a huge role.

If we are to learn anything from research, and I do believe it is crucial that we base all of our thinking on well-done, peer-reviewed research in order to preserve accuracy, clarity, and rigor, we must extend the findings of studies such as the one I will link to below. Knowing that we come from a supportive or unsupportive background is key to understanding how we are wired to function in the world. For HSPs from supportive backgrounds, for instance, it might be wise to understand that they will respond more quickly to positive stimuli and to a greater degree, but what about negative stimuli? Will they overlook it and if so how might that be a problem?

Similarly for HSPs from unsupportive backgrounds where they experienced trauma, conflict in the home, abuse, neglect, derision; how will not responding to positive stimuli as quickly be a potential problem? Again, would we even notice when things are going well when we are geared to note the negative? Can we train ourselves to pay more attention to positive stimuli and to feel more arousal by it? My feeling is yes, we can train ourselves to move beyond our unsupportive backgrounds to ones where we too respond to positive stimuli and I feel it is essential to do so because to continually engage in catastrophizing is stressful and unhealthy, though it may have served the purpose of alerting us to potential dangers and having action plans in place.

This all being said, it is important to note that human behavior is plastic and changeable. No two HSPs are alike and no one can predict human behavior reliably because any of us are capable of anything at any given time. The task for HSPs, whether you experienced a supportive or unsupportive background, is to broaden our emotional responsiveness to encompass both positive AND negative stimuli. Do you find yourself always noting just the positive? Work on better relating to the negative implications because there is much to be learned in knowing both. Find yourself noting only the negative? Work on identifying the positive aspects (there are almost always ways to find positivity) and shifting your perceptions.

What have been your experiences with noting the positives and negatives in relation to the background you experienced?
Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career
Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person

Relationship Between the Temperament Trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Emotional Reactivity
Authors: Jagiellowicz, Jadzia; Aron, Arthur; Aron, Elaine N.
Journal: Scientific Journal Publishers