An introduction to the Highly Sensitive Person
HIGHLY SENSITIVE PEOPLE TEND TO BE....
Highly intuitive and sensitive to their environment.
Naturally very empathetic and compassionate.
Very connected to nature.
Resonate with being on a spiritual path or healing journey.
Need to withdraw after a busy day into a place where they can restore their energy.
Can become overwhelmed or overstimulated by the world around them.
Have a deep and diverse emotional Landscape.
Can be prone to overwhelm, burnout or anxiety when in more 'toxic' or challenging circumstances.
Thrive in nourishing environments and have the potential to be great leaders and healers of this world.
What does the research say?
According to research carried out by Elaine Aron, High Sensitivity, also referred to as Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), is an innate trait that impacts around 20% of the population and is also found in over 100 other species, for example, in dogs, fish and birds.
It is associated with greater sensitivity (or responsivity) to environmental and social stimuli, and there is a genetic, biological basis for a person’s sensitivity. For example, it has been shown that those who have the traits of high sensitivity have greater brain responses associated with awareness, memory, self-other processing and empathy.
It’s overly simplistic to say there are people who are sensitive and those who are not. High sensitivity is not a disorder, and it exists on a spectrum with around 20% of the population (1 in 5 people) being highly sensitive.
Why do the traits exist?
Evolutionary theories suggest that Sensory Processing Sensitivity has evolved as a way of promoting survival in species. Highly Sensitive people are more aware of opportunities as well as threats and are more responsive to their environment – being more likely to 'pause and check' in new situations. Other benefits include social advantages, such as the highly sensitive person's ability to respond to other people's needs, which can aid in sustaining relationships.
Beyond Neurobiological Explanations
From my personal experience and professional work as a coach, I have understood that being highly sensitive has a purpose that goes beyond evolutionary advantages. In other words - being highly sensitive isn't only an adaptive trait that has evolved for our survival, but sensitivity is connected to an innate soul purpose which, for many highly sensitive people, is related to a desire to heal and help ourselves and others.
I believe it's important to address sensitivity from a holistic perspective so that we don't simply explain the traits in terms of genetics or neural networks within the brain. From a holistic and transpersonal perspective, I'm curious about how sensitivity relates to the idea that we are spiritual beings having a human experience and the fact that highly sensitive people are drawn towards a path of significant healing and transformation. Could being highly sensitive be a fundamental aspect of our innate soul purpose in life?
The Impact of our Environment
The trait of high sensitivity may have advantages or disadvantages depending on the environment a highly sensitive person finds themselves in. Suppose a highly sensitive person experienced a lot of trauma as a child - this can result in symptoms of anxiety or a struggle with emotional overwhelm and burnout later in life. Unfortunately, many highly sensitive people see themselves as flawed, vulnerable or weak – they may want to get rid of their sensitivity or think their traits need to be 'fixed'.
However, being susceptible to burnout and emotional overwhelm may also serve as a catalyst for many highly sensitive people: their struggles propel them onto a psycho-spiritual path of significant healing and growth. In other words, it may be because of our struggles that we are led to heal, transform and potentially become guides for others – this is akin to the path of the 'wounded healer'. It's important to note that those who become spiritual teachers, therapists, or even shamans of this world don't step into these roles overnight! They have often faced a huge amount of suffering and struggle and have overcome many ordeals in order to be guides for others.
It is found equally in Males and Females
The traits of HS are found equally in males and females, yet we often equate sensitivity in men to a weakness and the traits don't fit with certain gender stereotypes; it can be frowned upon for a man to show his emotions or to cry. Phrases like ‘toughen up’ or ‘be a man’ are commonly used as a way to deny men of being able to connect with the depth of their emotional experience, and this denial of their emotions can be conditioned into them from a young age. We live in a fast-paced and often overstimulating world and, as a result, highly sensitive people can find themselves feeling overwhelmed, burnt out and exhausted. This is why it is so important to acknowledge that the traits of high sensitivity are real! The best way to do this is to explore the scientific research that supports its existence.
The Does of Sensitivity
HSP have very sensitive nervous systems, which means they can easily get overwhelmed or overstimulated by their environment. Everyone is impacted by their childhood experience, but the childhood of the highly sensitive person plays an even more significant role - and this can have either a positive or negative impact. In fact, those who grew up in a nourishing and supportive environment are unlikely to suffer as much from overwhelm or stress and anxiety in later life.
Depth of Processing
Those who are Highly Sensitive tend to process information much more deeply. They have high levels of self-awareness and an enhanced perception of the world around them. This depth of processing includes things like having a deeply ingrained memory of events and seeing what is beyond the mind’s eye. Research has shown that those who are highly sensitive are deep thinkers, interested in spiritual ideas and are also highly likely to engage in meaningful work (Aron & Aron, 1997)
Emotional Reactivity and Empathy
Research has shown that HSP have more mirror neurons which are responsible for empathy, and there is also more activity in the areas of the brain that handle emotions. HSP feel their emotions more intensely, and this can be overwhelming at times. It has been shown that HSPs are deeply impacted by the arts, nature and connection with others – their brain registers these experiences with greater reward and emotions.
Sensitivity to Subtleties
Highly Sensitive People are more in touch with subtleties in their environment. This includes their physical environment and things like food and caffeine, social environments so large crowds or other people’s moods and non-verbal cues in others. They are also more sensitive to sensory stimuli such as bright lights, noise or powerful smells. Finally, there is a sensitivity to subtle changes in their internal environment such as thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations.
Research over the past few decades, including brain imagining studies, have found that SPS can be identified through specific genes, behavioural traits and activation within particular areas of the brain. Even though sensitivity is partially explained by genetics and neurological differences in the brain, research shows that the expression of sensitivity in a person is also heavily influenced by their environment. Highly sensitive people are more likely to thrive in nourishing environments and experience the positive benefits than those who are not highly sensitive - something known as vantage sensitivity.
It is not introversion as 30% of highly Sensitive People are extraverts, so although many HSP may be introverted or like to spend time alone, this doesn’t mean that you can’t be extraverted as well as HSP.
It’s not a disorder such as Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There may be some similarities between these traits, but it is really important to distinguish between these as HSP is not a disorder.
It is not more common in women; the percentage of men and women who are HSP is roughly the same. It actually may be more difficult for men to identify with the traits or acknowledge their sensitivity because we often perceive it as a ‘flaw’ to be sensitive as a man.
It is not “neuroticism” but it can be strongly associated with neurotic traits, which is a tendency to feel depressed or anxious more easily.