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
Link: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/…/…/00000044/00000002/art00002

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