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What does the research tell us about the Highly Sensitive Person?

What does the research Tell us about the Highly Sensitive Person?

There can be a lot of misunderstandings and misconceptions about the term, so – the first thing to say is - the scientific term for HSP is sensory-processing sensitivity, and Dr Elain Aron first discovered it in the early 1990s. It’s also important to recognise HSP is not a disorder; scientific research shows us around 20-30% of the population are HS.

Research has shown that HS is also found in 100s of other species. It is believed to have evolutionary advantages, so there is a small group of us who pause-to-check, and our interests are of the group and protecting the group. In comparison, there is a majority who are more impulsive. This impulsive group is also necessary for survival, but so is the group that stops to pause and think.

The DOES of High Sensitivity

Dr Elaine Aron, who initially coined the term and discovered the trait – uses the acronym DOES to describe the characteristics:

D- Depth of processing: HSP processes information taken in from their internal and external environment more deeply.

O- Overstimulation: there is a predisposition to one’s nervous system becoming overstimulated. This occurs when the level of information we are perceiving or taking in through our senses cannot keep up with the speed of processing.

E- High levels of empathy: research has shown that areas of the brain contain mirror neurons. Mirror neurons enable us to feel what another person is feeling - they light up and are more activated in the brains of HSP.

S- Sensitivity to subtleties: HSP appear to notice more, such as subtle changes in their environment or the moods or states of other people.

So if you’re a HSP you will be more likely to pause to check and think before acting. You’re more likely to be introverted (but this is not always the case)!

Dandelions and Orchids

I love the following analogy for Highly Sensitive People based on the research of Ellis and Boyce, who found these two groups in their research. First, we have dandelions, which make up around 80% of the population – dandelions are quite resilient; they thrive no matter their environment. The second group are orchids which happen to be around 20-30% of the population and need just the right conditions to thrive.

I resonate with the idea that sensitivity exists on a spectrum – like everything, we cannot, in my opinion, put people into these distinct categories or boxes.

More recent research highlights the existence of three groups: Dandelions, tulips and orchids. This is evidence of the existence of low-sensitive (29%), medium-sensitive (40%) and high-sensitive individuals (orchids, 31%).

Differential Susceptibility

I think the best way to describe HSP, and the best understanding I’ve come to – is through the term differential susceptibility.

Differential susceptibility means that HSP are more sensitive to their environment and will struggle more in challenging environments, especially in childhood – as a result, we can be more impacted by traumatic events. However, research shows that this group of people are also much more likely to thrive in positive and nourishing environments, which is called vantage sensitivity.

This is so important to recognise because it dispels some of the common myths – that sensitivity means weakness or vulnerability – it doesn’t. It, in fact, represents the diversity and range of our lived experience is broader – so yes, we can struggle, but we respond exceptionally well to positive interventions.

Where are we up to with the research?

Most of the research is based on neurology and the brain - I think this research is important as it helps us to see the trait as ‘real’ as valid. It grounds and validates people’s experiences.

However, our understanding of HS – and our interventions for supporting HSP needs to go beyond this research. We need to integrate the transpersonal paradigm when defining and attempting to understand the traits of HSP (SPS).

As an example, it’s believed HSP is an adaptive trait that has benefits in terms of survival. I think this is important, but I don’t think the trait of sensitivity is just based on the survival of the group. There is a purpose behind sensitivity that relates to the evolution of consciousness and transcendence - what we can define as our desire to awaken spiritual or transcend. Of course, we all have that desire, it is something that is innate in all of us. Still, I have experienced Highly Sensitive People have an innate ability to tap into their intuition, their unconscious, the collective unconscious - there is a knowing, wisdom and knowledge beyond their years. We see this in HSC.

Exploring the Lived Experience

There needs to be more understanding of the lived experience of the HSP and how HSP are more connected or in tune with the spiritual dimension, and in tune with spiritual concepts and this inner knowing of ‘something more than’. One of the things I find a lot in the clients I work with is this longing to get somewhere, this searching for something beyond and yet a feeling that they can’t quite reach 'it' – it is connected to this search for a deeper meaning and purpose.

We need to offer interventions for HSP that are transpersonal orientated (and integrative) because these interventions help clients connect more deeply with their purpose, values and gain clarity on what is meaningful for them.

Also, from my personal experience and from working with HS adults and children, the majority of HSP are called in some way to be of service for others. Because of our innate gifts, we are more likely to become helpers, healers, coaches, therapists or guides and mentors for others, so we must explore how HSP can feel more resilient to engage in this type of work.

This is something I share through my integrative model for Highly Sensitive Human. A framework that offers skills in eight key areas for HSP to embody their transformation and feel more empowered. If you'd like to find out more, check out the Highly Sensitive Human Academy here >>


About the Author

Jules De Vitto, MAEd, MSc Certified Transpersonal Coach and Educator

Jules De Vitto has a BSc in Psychology, MA in Education and MSc in Transpersonal Psychology, Consciousness and Spirituality. She is an accredited and certified Transpersonal Coach for HSP, Authentic-Self-Empowerment Facilitator, as well as an experienced trainer and educator.

She is the founder of the Highly Sensitive Human Academy™ which provides quality courses and certified training for Highly Sensitive People all over the globe. She helps those who identify with the traits of high sensitivity to navigate emotional overwhelm, step into their authentic power and align with their true purpose in life.

She is a published author who wrote ‘Resilience: Navigating Loss in a Time of Crisis’ which provides practical resources to cultivate greater resilience and find greater meaning and purpose through times of crisis. She has published her research in the peer-reviewed journal Consciousness, Spirituality & Transpersonal Psychology.

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