What is a highly sensitive person and how can you spot the signs?

Last year, singer Lorde became the latest celebrity to identify as a ‘highly sensitive person’, telling Vogue that her personality profile means she’s simply “not cut out for the pop star life” and that she need long periods of time to be close. recover from her work demands. She joins other superstars such as Kanye West and Nicole Kidman who have also labeled themselves this way, apparently finding it helps them understand their own experiences.

When did the term highly sensitive person come about?

These creative celebrities didn’t invent the term “highly sensitive person.” In fact, it originated in an obscure 1996 counseling article by American psychologist Elaine Aron and then gained traction in a much-cited 1997 research paper she co-authored with her husband Arthur Aron, in which the pair claimed that the highly sensitive personality profile was related to, but different from, being shy or introverted. Furthermore, a key characteristic of being a highly sensitive person, they noted, is having “sensory processing sensitivity.”

What is this sensory processing sensitivity?

Based on interviews the two Arons conducted with dozens of sensitive students, they concluded that having sensory processing sensitivity manifests itself in a number of ways, including being more sensitive than usual to “niceness, arts, caffeine, hunger, pain, change.” , overstimulation, strong sensory input, humor from others, media violence, and being watched”. Overall, highly sensitive people – which the Arons estimate represent between 15 and 20 percent of us – are more affected by the outside world than average, reflect and process things more deeply, and are more empathetic.

It is worth noting that there is a closely related concept in the psychological literature, but one that is more focused on children. He claims that a minority of children are like “orchids” in that they are highly sensitive to the environment of their upbringing – wilting when it’s defiant and thriving when it’s supportive – in contrast to the “dandelion” majority, who out of extreme neglect, mostly just OK, regardless of your positive or negative circumstances.

How do you determine that a person is highly sensitive?

As part of their investigations into being a highly sensitive person, the Arons created a new personality test, aptly named the Highly Sensitive Person Scale. To find out if you are a highly sensitive person, see if you agree with any of these sample items on the scale: Are you easily overwhelmed by strong sensory stimuli? Does other people’s mood affect you? Are you particularly sensitive to the effect of caffeine? Do you find it unpleasant to have too much going on at once? Do you get scared easily? Are you bothered by intense stimuli, such as loud noises or chaotic scenes? You probably understood the image. There are 27 items like these on the formal scale – and the more you agree, the more likely you are to be a highly sensitive person (if you want to dig deeper, Elaine Aron also has a free trial on her website).

Why are some people highly sensitive?

The Arons and their research colleagues believe that being a highly sensitive person runs in families and that it has a biological basis, including a greater-than-normal sensitivity to stress. At the neural level, several brain imaging studies have identified differences in highly sensitive people compared to controls, such as increased activity in regions of “higher-order visual processing” during visual tasks and greater activity in neural regions related to empathy when looking at images of the brain. partner’s face.

In a review published in 2019, Elaine Aron and colleagues stated that “Individuals with high sensitivity to sensory processing can intuit, ‘feel’ and integrate information and respond to the affective states of others…”, while also acknowledging that research in the biological basis and causes of being a highly sensitive person is “still in its infancy”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, another line of research has documented that highly sensitive people are at greater risk for psychological and emotional difficulties; there are also links yet to be drawn between the sensitive personality profile and conditions such as autism, which also often involve heightened sensory sensitivity.

What can highly sensitive people do to help them deal with stress or feelings of overload?

If you think you might be a highly sensitive person, Aron and his colleagues stated that you might especially benefit from mindfulness-based interventions to help you deal with feelings of stress or burden, or indeed any type of intervention that gives you tools to manage your emotions and emotional reactivity (you might consider cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy or acceptance and commitment therapy). According to Aron and his collaborators, the simple recognition that you are a highly sensitive person can be an important first step… “because it allows [people like you] adopting appropriate self-care behaviors, such as sometimes avoiding over-stimulating situations and having enough time to process your recent experiences.”

If the concept of a highly sensitive person resonates with you and helps you manage your own mental health, that’s certainly a good thing. But it is also worth noting that, from a scientific point of view, the concept is not without criticism. Many personality researchers believe that the concept of a highly sensitive person is really not that different from being a strong introvert, highly emotionally reactive (i.e., highly neurotic), and open to experience – all aspects of the personality that are already captured by popular and well-established Big Five. personality model. For example, in a detailed statistical review published last year, a pair of German psychologists concluded that while Arons’ influential 1997 paper “provided some interesting insights,” it is also the case that “the empirical basis for the sensitivity of sensory processing is currently weak”. .

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