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What does it mean to be a highly sensitive person? © Getty Images
© Getty Images

Reality Check: What is a highly sensitive person, and how can you spot the signs?

Published: 13th May, 2022 at 17:30

The singers Lorde and Kanye have said they are highly sensitive. What do psychologists make of the phenomenon and what can you do if you feel the same?

Last year the singer Lorde became the latest celebrity to identify as a 'highly sensitive person', telling Vogue that her personality profile means that she just "isn't built for pop star life" and that she needs long stretches of time to be by herself to recover from the demands of her work. She joins other superstars, such as Kanye West and Nicole Kidman, who have also labelled themselves in this way, apparently finding that it helps them make sense of their own experiences.

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When did the term highly sensitive person arise?

These creative celebs did not invent the term "highly sensitive person". In fact it originated in an obscure 1996 counselling paper by the US psychologist Elaine Aron and then gained traction in a much-cited 1997 research paper that she co-authored with her husband Arthur Aron, in which the pair claimed the highly sensitive personality profile was related to, but different from, being shy or introverted. Moreover, a key feature of being a highly sensitive person, they observed, is having "sensory processing sensitivity".

What is this sensory processing sensitivity?

Based on interviews that the two Arons conducted with dozens of sensitive students, they concluded that having sensory processing sensitivity manifests in various ways, including being more sensitive than usual to "subtleties, the arts, caffeine, hunger, pain, change, overstimulation, strong sensory input, others’ moods, violence in the media, and being observed". Overall, highly sensitive people – which the Arons estimated accounts for between 15 to 20 per cent of us – are more affected by the external world than average, they reflect on and process things more deeply, and they are more empathic.

It's worth noting there's a closely related concept in the psychological literature, but one that's focused more on kids. It states that a minority of children are like "orchids" in being highly sensitive to the environment of their upbringing – wilting when it's challenging and thriving when it's supportive – in contrast to the "dandelion" majority, who outside of extreme neglect, mostly do just OK, regardless of their positive or negative circumstances.

How do you determine 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're a highly sensitive person, see if you agree with some of these example items from the scale: Are you easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input? Do other people's moods affect you? Are you particularly sensitive to the effect of caffeine? Do you find it unpleasant to have a lot going on at once? Do you startle easily? Are you bothered by intense stimuli, like loud noises or chaotic scenes? You probably get the picture. There are 27 items like these in the formal scale – and the more you agree with, the more likely that you are a highly sensitive person (if you want to delve deeper, Elaine Aron also has a free test 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 usual sensitivity to stress. At a neural level, several brain imaging studies have identified differences in highly sensitive people compared with controls, such as increased activity in "higher-order visual processing" regions during visual tasks, and greater activity in empathy-related neural regions when looking at images of a partner's face.

In a review they published in 2019, Elaine Aron and her colleagues stated that "high sensory processing sensitivity individuals may readily intuit, 'feel' and integrate information, and respond to others’ affective states...", although they also acknowledged that research into 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 increased risk of psychological and emotional difficulties; there are also still-to-be-worked-out links between the sensitive personality profile and conditions such as autism, which also frequently involves heightened sensory sensitivity.

What can highly sensitive people do to help them cope with stress or feelings of being overwhelmed?

If you think you might be a highly sensitive person, Aron and her colleagues have stated that you might be especially likely to benefit from mindfulness-based interventions to help you cope with feelings of stress or being overwhelmed, or indeed any kind of intervention that gives you tools for managing your emotions and emotional reactivity (you could consider cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy or acceptance and commitment therapy). According to Aron and her collaborators, simply recognising that you are a highly sensitive person could be an important first step ... "as it allows [people like you] to adopt appropriate self-care behaviours such as sometimes avoiding overstimulating situations and getting enough time to themselves to process their recent experiences".

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

Read more about mental health:

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Authors

Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.

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