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 30% of the population being highly sensitive, 40% moderately sensitive and 30% low on sensitivity.
Why do the traits exist?
It has been suggested that high sensitivity may be adaptive and have advantages in certain environments. For example, there are benefits to being more aware of the dangers and threats that are around us. This awareness that HSP carry also means that they are more alert to opportunities and resources which has advantages in terms of survival.
It is found equally in Males and Females
The traits of HS are found equally in male 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.
Depth of Processing
Those who are Highly Sensitive tend to process information much more deeply. They have high levels of self-awareness and 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 idea and are also highly likely to engage in meaningful work (Aron & Aron, 1997)
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.
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 has shown that there are various genes which can determine a person's level of sensitivity. These genes are responsible for neurotransmitters in the brain, which affects our emotions and mood.
One of these genes is the serotonin transporter gene which can lead to lower levels of serotonin in the brain. Lower levels of serotonin have often been linked to depression, but this is not always the case. Lower levels of serotonin can also have advantages!
In a study by Suomi, they found that rhesus monkeys with HS traits, if raised by skilled mothers, were more likely to show resilience to stress, and be leaders of their social groups. So the good news is HSP respond more to stress, trauma and adversity, but they also respond better to positive environments, nurturing and interventions which can build their resilience!
So, if you have had a tough childhood as well as a predisposition to sensitivity then this may lead you to struggle with some issues we will talk about in the Highly Sensitive Hub, such as difficultly with emotional regulation, anxiety or stress and burnout. Studies, published in 2005, verified that HSP with a troubled childhood are more at risk of becoming depressed and anxious than non-sensitive people.
However, research has shown that HSP who are placed in a very positive environment - with great parenting and low levels of stress and adversity are more likely to thrive and succeed.
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.