It is certain that being insensitive is an undesirable trait, but does that mean that the opposite, ‘being sensitive’, is a desirable one? Apparently, in our Western society we cannot make up our minds: We consider either being insensitive or being sensitive to be unfavorable. Society demands that sensitive people develop thicker skin, and that insensitive people be more considerate.
But what does highly sensitive really mean? Is "Highly Sensitive Person" a scientific term?
As it turns out, there is actually research on this innate trait, high sensitivity. The scientific term is “sensory-processing sensitivity" (SPS). People who are highly sensitive are born that way; it is not something they learned. As children they might be described by teachers as shy or inhibited, especially in Western countries. As adults, they might be described as introverts. It is important to note that not all sensitive people are shy or introverts. In fact, 30% of HSP are thought to be extroverts.
HSP scales for adults and children have been developed and has been used in research (1). A commonly used scale contains 27 diverse but strongly interrelated items.
A HSP ...
A case study of a young female who would be classified as a HSP
"Fatima likes to throw herself in the arms of nature, she experiences the blueness of the oceans like nobody else. As she walks, she feels like trees bend just a little to talk to her. Mountains provide her with a sense of greatness, like there is something out there much bigger than humans.
When she enters a room, she is the first to notice odors, subtle sounds, and startles easily. When she watches TV series, she immerses herself in each of the characters. It takes her days to recalibrate her sense of self after watching a movie or reading a book.
She is an amazing teacher. However, when the principal observes her class, she gets overwhelmed and delivers her worst performance. The week before her menstrual cycle, she is very focused on her pelvic pain, and PMS causes her to be irritable, have foggy brain, and make poor decisions.
She is very conscientious, wants to avoid making mistakes at all costs. She is guarded around people so that she does not say anything wrong, which would make her very anxious. At the same time, she easily gets affected by others’ moods and stories."
Researchers linked this trait to positive qualities but also to mental illnesses
It is not surprising that this trait is found in artists, poets and is linked to giftedness, creativity and empathy. At the same time, a HSP is at a higher risk of depression and other mental illnesses.They are also at a higher risk of burnout, because they get easily overwhelmed. This is why it is critical to know if you are a HSP, so you can seek out relationships and environments that make you shine (see the last section).
The brain of a HSP is different
There are biological reasons for all the components of this trait. A HSP’s brain is wired differently and the nervous system is highly sensitive with a lower threshold for action (2). This hyper-excitability contributes to increased emotional reactivity, a lower threshold for sensory information (e.g. bothered by noise, or too much light), and increased awareness of subtleties (e.g. quick to notice odors).
There are also changes at the macro brain level. The areas associated with this trait greatly overlap with the brain areas that support empathy! Also, they have a hyperactive insula, which explains their heightened awareness of their inner emotional states and bodily sensations. This hyperactivity explains their sensitivity to pain, hunger and caffeine.
How to make the most of your high sensitivity
Aron, E.N., Aron, A., Jagiellowicz, J., 2012. Sensory processing sensitivity: a review in the light of the evolution of biological responsivity. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Rev.16 (3), 262–282.
Pluess, M., Boniwell, I., 2015. Sensory-processing sensitivity predicts treatment response to a school-Based depression prevention program evidence of vantage sensitivity. Pers. Ind. Differ. 82, 40–45.
Homberg, J.R., Schubert, D. Asan, E. & Aron, E.N. (2016). Sensory porcessing sensitivity and serotonin gene variance: Insights into mechanisms shaping environmental sensitivity. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. 71, 472-483.