What Is High Sensitivity?

And Why We Need To Define It.

“You’re too sensitive for your own good”

“You need to toughen up”

“You take things to heart too much”

“Stop over-thinking things!”

“Stop worrying!”

Have you heard this before? You have? Then there is a big chance that you are Highly Sensitive. These judgments haven’t gotten you anywhere and you’ve been struggling to find a description that fits. Fits YOU. My whole life I’ve been hearing these from others. Heck, some of these things I have been saying to MYSELF for years. The process of finding out WHAT it was that made me ‘different’ has progressed in small steps and quantum leaps. The first huge step was finding out that my being gifted had already wired me differently. But I finally ‘came home’ when I realized I was Highly Sensitive as well and that no, I wasn’t manic depressive! And that being Highly Sensitive also really has it’s benefits.

The term Highly Sensitivity or Sensory Processing Sensitivity (not to be confused with Sensory Processing Disorder) as defined by researcher Elaine Aron, seems to provide an umbrella definition for an innate trait found in about 20% of the population. High Sensitivity is thus not a psychological disorder or a psychological issue as such that needs “fixing” but part of you biological neurological setting characterized by sensitivity to internal and external stimuli, including social and emotional ones.

Innate, so not acquired by trauma. There are many people who seem to think that they are Highly Sensitive but who have experienced trauma throughout their life. The Highly Sensitive brain is wired differently from day 1, as I will explain here.

So, this trait has been given a variety of names, depending on the focus of the research in which it has been studied.For example: “low sensory threshold”, “slow to warm up’, “affective negativity”, “inhibitedness”, etc. In daily life, we’ve all heard it been called “shyness”, “anxiousness”, being an “introvert”, being “withdrawn” or even being “neurotic”. However, biologists have found the trait in over 100 species, from fruit flies to primates, and research consistenly indicates that between 15% and 20% of the population is born with this more ‘sensitive’ nervous system. This percentage includes as many sensitive males as sensitive females.

Based on the findings of her own empirical research Dr. Elaine Aron published “The Highly Sensitive Person” in 1996. But, interestingly enough, there have been a few German psychologists who wrote about the sensitive person as early as 1935. Eduard Schweingruber wrote the book “Der Sensible Mensch” in 1935 in which he characterized the sensitive person as having:

  • A increased response to stimuli, and because of this
  • A greater chance of excessive irritability.
  • Also as having complex emotional processes.
  • And having more difficulty with releasing/processing their emotions.
  • He also describes how all the stimuli also influences the body of the sensitive individual.

Schweingruber states in his book that “The sensitive person can not simply decide to no longer be complicated”. Love that statement. So true.

Wolfgang Klages wrote the book “Der sensible Mensch, psychology, psychopathology and therapy” in 1978. In this book he describes how long ago, the sensitive person could compensate and channel their temperate and compensate, it now has become increasingly difficult. Because of the increased amount of stimuli in society, what first was just sensitive, has now become a psychopathology. Please note that this book was published in 1978. Can you imagine how difficult it is now, when the amount of stimuli has seemed to explode?

Elaine Aron’s huge contribution by also publishing in English is enormous. Since 1996. she has published a series of books on Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) (see my list), and has inspired a wealth of research on “sensory processing sensitivity”.

One study, using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) provides physical evidence that brains of individuals who are “highly sensitive” respond more powerfully to emotional images than individuals who are not “highly sensitive”. The researchers found that those who were Highly Sensitive had increased blood flow to areas of the brain related to awareness, emotion, self-other processing, and empathy. These results provide evidence that awareness and responsiveness are fundamental features of SPS, and show how the brain may mediate these traits (Source).

Another study suggests that individuals high in SPS take longer to respond to minor changes in a scene and show more activation in visual attentional areas when responding to minor changes, because they are attending more closely to the subtle details of that scene. There was a significant relationship between SPS and brain activation in the left middle temporal gyrus, the right claustrum, the right subgyral temporal lobe and the right declive of the cerebellum in response to minor vs major changes in stimuli. After controlling for the association of measures of neuroticism and introversion with SPS, this relationship remained significant. There was also activation in the bilateral inferior parietal lobe. Individuals high in SPS evidenced greater brain activation in an additional network of functional brain areas that appear to be involved in visual attention and oculomotor processes. These areas are not simply used for vision itself, but for a deeper processing of input. It does seems that what makes some people sensitive is a difference in what is going on at a deep level of processing, however happy or unhappy their external lives (Source).

Professor Elke van Hoof at the University of Brussel has recently teamed up with Elaine Aron to better define and validate High Sensitivity. Her research has been published in 2016 and her book: ‘High Sensitivity, what you should know?’ came out in October 2016. I don’t know if it will be English or only in Dutch, but I will update this information as soon as I read the book. This will be the first scientific research on High Sensitivity in the academic world. 1500 adults have participated in the research and all the literature available has been studied. At the University of Leuven a similiar research has been conducted by Professor Patricia Bijttebier and in which 800 highly sensitive children have participated. The Highly Sensitive test has been validated and improved. The new test has not been made available to the public yet but can be found in the book.

There are four main indicators/categories in which we can group the characteristics of being Highly Sensitive:

  • Depth of Processing (this being the key trait of HSPs, also found in the new research by van Hoof)
  • Being more affected and distressed than others by the same events in childhood or adulthood. Highly Sensitive People seem to ponder these events more deeply, not only leading to a stronger emotional reaction but also being fed by it.
  • Reflecting (more than others would) about the ‘way the world is going’, the meaning of life, spirituality or their line of work.
  • Feeling deeper and more empathy for others, including the suffering of animals and social injustices.
  • Giving careful and thorough analysis to decisions/tasks/situations sometimes to the point of being unable to decide or take action.
  • Often being highly conscientious and having a tendency to be perfectionistic.
  • Overarousability: High levels of stimulations lead to high level of arousal, especially in HSPs. Overarousal presents itself more often in HSP during important life transitions, even pleasant ones. Chronic overarousal leads to feeling stressed out, being burnout, feeling overwhelmed or a sense of ‘not being able to handle it anymore’.

A few examples of overarousability in HSPs:

  • Are often more aware of subtleties in their environment and because of this, overstimulated quicker than others.
  • Tend to be easily startled and often feel overwhelmed by loud sensory inputs, violent films or large crowds
  • Tend to need more time on their own in order to reduce their level of overstimulation/over-arousal, often preferring being in nature or in a quiet, less stimulating environment to do so.
  • Get easily rattled in stressful situations and under time pressure.
  • Are easily shaken up and distressed by changes and thus need more time to process and reflect on what is happening.
  • Do less well in “multitasking” situations.
  • Emotional intensity: Highly Sensitive People bring more emotional reactivity to EVERY event in life. The sensitive person is touched by many things. They are affected strongly by positive and negative situations.The most negative emotional intensity is felt around emotions such as shame, guilt, disdain, compassion and fear of abandoment.

We might see this as:

  • Having stronger feelings about almost everything.
  • Being easily moved to tears of joy, gratitude or relief.
  • Being easily moved to laughter.
  • This also means that HSPs react more to the emotions of others and might know more than others what you are feeling.
  • Sensory sensitivity: This sometimes manifests as a low treshold, sometimes as the ability to distinguish subtleties, and sometimes as low tolerance of high levels on sensory input. If you’re lucky, you only experience one of them, but often all three are present.

This sensitivity presents itself as:

  • Being more sensitive to physical pain (lower pain treshold).
  • Often having physical disorders (due to stress or lower pain treshold) like migraines, fibromylagia, chronic fatigue, unusual allergies, extreme premenstraul syndromes, back and neck problems, and enviromental sensitivities.
  • Often being sensitive to loud noises, strong scents, coarse fabrics or bright lights (e.g. sirens, airplanes, woolen jumpers, fluorescent lighting etc.).
  • Being more senstive to the effect of stimulating substances (e.g. caffeine).
  • Responding to lower doses of medications than most people.

Most people think that all Highly Sensitive People are introverts but this depends on the definition. Sensitivity and introversion are the same in the way that Carl Jung first defined this terms. Jung defined this as ‘a preference to understand an experience subjectively, through comparison with other experiences, rather than explore its objective qualities’. This is a definition based on deeper inner processing and not on social introversion. Researchers have found a consistent 30% of the highly sensitive being social extroverts. Many sensitive people are quite outgoing, talkative, and have many friends, but they still have the characteristics of needing time to themselves, strong emotional reactions, a preference for deeper conversational topics, concern for others, easily hurt feelings, easily hurt feelings, and sometimes a high level of creativity or intuition, love of nature, and strong spiritual interests. Sensitivity thus appears to be more fundamental and innate and should not be assessed in the terms of social behaviors.

You can also be Highly Sensitive AND a sensation seeker. These two traits are controlled by different pathways in the brain and are independent of each other. The proper interpretation of high sensitivity is not an avoidance of stimulation, even if it leads to an avoidance of overstimulation. A few characteristics of sensation seeking sensitive people are:

  • They are susceptible to boredom and like to challenge themselves with new projects.
  • They do not like to watch the same movie twice, unless it’s a very good one!
  • They may hang glide or travel to exotic places, but they are never impulsice and the study the activity beforehand, doing everything they can to ensure their safety.
  • They may like novelty, but they do not like high risks or shocks.

To make things even more complicated, there are a few terms that seem to get used interchangeably in books, articles, workshops and websites, which can lead to misunderstandings. These terms being “Highly Sensitive Person (as defined by Aron)”, “A Sensitive (someone with psychic or other extrasensory gifts )” and “Empath (someone with to a heightened awareness of environment and people, their moods, needs, actions and motivations)”. These are NOT the same concepts!

Peter Messerschmidt sums this up nicely:

“Some HSPs are Empaths and Sensitives, and many Empaths are HSPs, but being an HSP does not make you an Empath, and being an Empath does not mean you’re automatically a Highly Sensitive Person. None, one, some or all of the above can all be true.”

Messerschmidt then explains what it means: it just doesn’t seem to add up! HSP’s account for 15 to 20% of the population, true Empaths account for about 2–3% (if even that many) and an authentic Sensitive is ever rarer. So, HSP=Empath=Sensitive can’t possibly be accurate. Messerschmidt goes on to explain:

“Ultimately, I believe most of it has to do with simply mislabeling heightened awareness of people’s moods as “being an Empath,” perhaps as a result of not fully understanding what an Empath actually is. Perhaps this is not so surprising, as most HSPs have a much above-average ability to feel empathy for others, and the journey from “feeling empathy” to “being an Empath” is pretty short, in most people’s heads. In addition, many HSPs describe their experience of life by saying “I feel EVERYthing!” and it’s not a stretch to segue from that thought to believing one is an Empath.

The line between “Sensitives” and “Empaths” seems a little fuzzier, but from talking to dozens of people about these terms, the clearest delineator appears to be that Sensitives typically are more tuned into the energies of the deceased, while Empaths are more tuned into the energies of the living. However, that is not an “absolute,” and a number of people could be described as being both a Sensitive and an Empath.” (Source.)

It is vital to get the definition clear because the HS community wants the research that is being done to be accepted in the scientific community. As Aron stated herself on her website:

For the sake of you and all other HSPs, please do not associate high sensitivity with being an “empath” or anything that could sound weird to those we want to reach. Do not condone it in others. Seriously. Such writing and talk is beginning to endanger the credibility of the research, at least in Scandinavia. Watch for HSPs as “empaths” or “Highly Sensitive Empaths” or statements about HSPs being psychics or having ESP. It has been growing steadily, as you will see if you check the internet. Those who train doctors, teachers, therapists, and all the rest will not make use of any information about high sensitivity if it seems unscientific. This is not about what you believe to be true. Think what you wish about it in private. Maybe it interests you or you recognize something about yourself in this material. But think about what it means for our future and the future of sensitive children.”

Confusion may also arise when talking about Highly Sensitivity and Giftedness. This is a very difficult one because in the HSP definition, we’re talking about 15–20% of the population and in most definitons of Giftedness we talk of about 1.5 to 3% of the population. But, if we talk about Giftedness in terms of overexcitabilities, it seems that most HSP are gifted. Aron herself wrote an extensive article about this issue. Read it and I’ll let you decide!

Most people self identify with being Highly Sensitive when reading or hearing about it. It’s like all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place: ‘That’s me!’ and ‘I’m not crazy!’. All these different personality qualities and innate traits are what make you YOU. No two highly sensitive people are exactly the same. If you want to know more about your sensitiviy, Elaine Aron developed a HSP self-test and a Sensation Seeker self-test, just follow the links below to learn more.

It is vital to understand that sensitivity affects all areas of a person’s life. As already stated, there is no specific “disorder” that is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V) published by the American Psychiatric Association for being “Highly Sensitive”.

The Highly Sensitive trait:

  • Can occur alongside a mental disorder, or
  • Can be overstated as a mental disorder when it is a natural trait (and this happens a lot!!), or

• Can be understated as simply a trait when there is actually a mental disorder present.

Being part of a minority in society is never easy and it can make you more vulnerable to developing mental health issues, such as anxiety, social anxiety or depression. Some Highly Sensitive People might not suffer from any mental health issues, but might struggle with functioning in a society that values sensory overstimulation and a fast-paced lifestyle, thus experiencing their trait as distressing and interfering with their quality of life. They usually struggle with making life-style changes in order to find their optimal level of stimulation. Other HSP might struggle with being in a relationship with a partner who is not Highly Sensitive. Many HSPs find it difficult to accept their sensitivity as it makes them feel ashamed or worthless. Growing up with a more finely tuned nervous system and therefore a “sharper” perception of the world can come with its own difficulties and issues. So in other words, the trait itself is not problematic, but it does come with its own challenges that might require some support or psychotherapeutic work.

Recently I ran a survey on the needs of Highly Sensitive Parents. I also asked what the specific needs of the Highly Sensitive People in general were. A few of their answers:

“Non HS people don’t understand. Or people aren’t open to high sensitivity. I’ve noticed that it seems more widely recognized in the UK, Australia, etc. The US seems to be a little more on the conservative side. So educating others about it is difficult.”

“Focus. The mind gets easily distracted by triggers, and this can interrupt work and family time”

“Knowing how to build a life that supports the trait so that they can thrive and contribute from their gifts. I have so much to give but I feel like it’s a big knotted ball of confusion that keeps me stuck in overwhelm. It is a challenge to know how to move about in the world.”

“My biggest challenge is how I communicate my thoughts and feelings to others especially when its about something I feel strongly about.”

“In general I think that HS are more easily drained and prone to depression because they are so easily affected by so many often uncontrollable factors like noises and lights and weather and people.”

“We live in such a crowded, noisy world. Furthermore, we are expected to love being in those noisy crowds without being run-down. * I do recognize that the crowds are a different kind of experience for a extroverted HSP, but for an introverted one like myself and so many others, this is the greatest challenge.”

“I am sensitive to everyone’s needs, I absorb all of their emotions, I am a sucker for a sob story and give too much away. I don’t protect myself or stand up for myself as much as I should. I am aware of everyone’s needs, comfort, food, lighting etc., I never sit down when other people are with me as I am always making sure they are happy. It’s exhausting!! “

“Society not understanding us.”

“The feeling of constant assault or overwhelm”

“Their brain never stops seeing stuff, thinking stuff. It is exhausting. Everything is more clear to you than others. Able to learn how to filter and relax.”

And so on and so on….sounds familiar?

But please don’t forget that being Highly Sensitive also means that we have a higher awareness of the world around us. If we weren’t needed in the world, we wouldn’t have existed anymore. That’s just pure Biology. We are necessary. We bring to light what hurts in this world.

“Being highly sensitive means being able to enjoy life in high definition, the natural world, light, music and art, friendship, comfort and solitude can all bring acute happiness. In the absence of stress, being highly sensitive can be beautiful.”

- Kate Coady

Being sensitive is not being weak. It actually takes courage to live life in full awareness. Hiding is not an option.

It is time for us to start honouring our sensitiviy and harnessing it into higher purposes. Embracing our inspiration, passion and creativity. Trusting our inner knowing for living life on our terms.

Tell me on the comments below what you recognized about yourself in this article or through the tests and survey results and share with me how this has impacted your life! The more you share, the more I learn, the more I can share with the world about being Highly Sensitive!

Contact me if you want to learn to accept and love your sensitive self!

“A certain innate sensitiveness produces a special prehistory, a special way of experiencing infantile events, which in their turn are not without influence on the development of the child’s view of the world. Events bound up with powerful impressions can never pass off without leaving some trace on sensitive people. Some of them remain effective througout life and such events can have a determining influence on a person’s whole mental development.”

Carl Jung, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung.

Source if not otherwise specified: Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Personby dr. Elaine Aron.


Originally published at www.highlysensitiveparents.com.