Highly Sensitive Person


A highly sensitive person (HSP) is a person having the innate trait of high psychological sensitivity (or innate sensitiveness as Carl Jung originally coined it). According to American pyschologist Elaine N. Aron, who coined the term, highly sensitive people comprise about a fifth of the population, and process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly due to a biological difference in their nervous systems.

This is a specific trait with key consequences that in the past has often been confused with innate shyness, social anxiety problems, inhibitedness, or even social phobia and innate fearfulness, introversion, and so on. The existence of the trait of innate sensitivity was demonstrated using a test that was shown to have both internal and external validity. Although the term is primarily used to describe humans, the trait is present in nearly all higher animals.

The term ‘highly sensitive person’ was coined by Dr. Aron in 1996, and gained some popularity because it presents the trait in a positive light. It posits that shyness, inhibition, and fearfulness may or may not be acquired by highly sensitive people and animals, depending on environmental challenges. Other names used to describe the trait in literature include ‘introverted emotional temperament,’ ‘chronic cortical/cortisol arousal,’ ‘hypervigilance,’ and ‘innate shyness.’

Dr. Aron describes the opposite end of the spectrum, ‘the opposite of a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is a person who takes many risks, that is, acts without reflecting very much. An HSP who is an HSS (High Sensation Seeker) also will find ways to have lots of new experiences, but won’t take a lot of unreflected-upon risks.’ She also cites studies involving other animals ranging from mammals to houseflies and goldfish.

The approach adopted by Aron and colleagues questions the role of notions such as ‘shyness’ in explaining basic differences in behavior that are encountered in many species, including humans. As opposed to shyness, which is constructed both as a negative trait and a genetic weakness that can be worsened by circumstances, the trait of high sensitivity is considered a basic, evolutionarily conserved trait with survival advantages in itself. Zoologists observe: ‘… in sunfish a ‘shy-bold continuum’ has been identified, in which ‘bold’ individuals differ from ‘shy’ ones in their propensity to approach novel objects (including minnow traps), eat certain food items, and acclimate to laboratory environments.’

Zoologists are aware that notions of ‘shyness’ and ‘boldness’ are anthropomorphic (‘personality’ as well), and uses such terms sparingly. Some animals and even insects were shown to get survival advantages (avoidance of dangers) and even, as a consequence, reproductive advantages (availability for ‘exuberant’ courtship behaviours) from being ‘shy.’

Faced with this apparent misnaming of a basic survival strategy, Aron and colleagues developed the notion of high sensitivity, expanding on Jung’s suggestion of the trait of innate sensitiveness, which he distinguished from his own notion of introversion. In support of this distinction, Aron showed that the Highly Sensitive Person Scale identified a sizable proportion of extroverted sensitive persons (30%). In addition, Aron provides evidence supporting that highly sensitive persons can also be highly sensitive to favourable social cues and respond with traits of extroversion.

The research on sensory-processing sensitivity, however, builds on Eysenck’s views on introversion and arousal and Gray’s work on the inhibition system. This research in turn builds on Pavlov’s work on sensory response to both physical and mental over-stimulation, and work by Jung and his contemporaries differentiating extroverted and introverted cognitive sensitivity types. This research shows that about 15-20% of humans and higher animals have a nervous system that is more sensitive to subtleties. This means that regular sensory information is processed and analyzed to a greater extent, which contributes to creativity, intuition, sensing implications and attention to detail, but which may also cause quick over-stimulation and over-arousal.

This temperament may also have some correlation with continuously high cortisol levels, which may cause hypervigilance and susceptibility to trauma, or the same traumas may encourage hypervigilance, which in turn may contribute to high cortisol. Being highly sensitive may amplify or create psychological issues when over-arousal occurs. The ability to unconsciously or semi-consciously process environmental subtleties often contributes to an HSP seeming ‘gifted’ or possessing a ‘sixth sense.’ Sensitivity is often confused with shyness, but 30% of HSPs have extroverted personalities. Another common misconception is that only females can be HSPs; there are roughly the same number of male HSPs as female. The percentage appears to hold true for all animals possessing this trait.

Recent research in developmental psychology provides further evidence that individuals differ in their sensitivity. According to the differential susceptibility hypothesis by Belsky, individuals vary in the degree they are affected by experiences or qualities of the environment they are exposed to. Some individuals are more susceptible (or sensitive) to such influences than others, however, not only to negative but also to positive ones. For example, research has shown that children with difficult temperaments in infancy are more susceptible to the effects of parenting and child care quality in the first 5 years of life. Intriguingly, these children not only had more behavioral problems in response to low quality care, they also had the least problems of all children when having a history of high quality care suggesting that children with difficult temperament are highly susceptible rather than difficult and therefore able to benefit significantly more from positive experiences compared to other less susceptible children.

HSP students work differently from others. They pick up on the subtle things, learning better this way than when overaroused. If an HSP student is not contributing much to a discussion, it does not necessarily mean they do not understand or are too shy. HSPs often process things better in their heads, or they may be over-aroused. This can be the reason for their not contributing. HSPs are usually very conscientious but underperform when being watched. This also applies to work situations; HSPs can be great employees—good with details, thoughtful and loyal, but they do tend to work best when conditions are quiet and calm. Because HSPs perform less well when being watched, they may be overlooked for a promotion. HSPs tend to socialize less with others, often preferring to process experiences quietly by themselves.

Many writers on HSP propose a positive, accepting attitude towards [being an] HSP. However, this is not the general consensus in the professional psychological community. For instance, Jeffrey E. Young, founder of the increasingly applied Schema Therapy, links high sensitivity, or as he calls it, the ‘highly empathic temperament’ with the Self Sacrifice Schema, which in turn is almost always related to the Emotional Deprivation Schema. In his opinion, these persons need to learn to focus on themselves instead of others and to learn to get their own needs met, needs they typically are not aware of. In individuals who have the genetic trait of HSP and come from a troubled family, this trait of sensitivity can have an adverse effect on self concept, and thus is mistakenly considered by some to be a psychopathological condition that can be treated with experiential, cognitive, behavioral, and limited-reparenting strategies.

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