What is a highly sensitive person and how do you recognize 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 “just not built for the life of a pop star” and takes a long time to get by. . herself to recover from the demands of her job. She joins other superstars, such as Kanye West and Nicole Kidman, who have also labeled themselves this way, apparently because they feel it helps them understand their own experiences.

When did the term highly sensitive person originate?

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

What is this sensory processing sensitivity?

Based on interviews the two Arons conducted with dozens of sensitive students, they concluded that sensitivity to sensory processing manifests itself in a variety of ways, including being more sensitive than usual to “subtleties, art, caffeine, hunger, pain, change, overstimulation, strong sensory input.” , moods of others, media violence and being observed”. In general, highly sensitive people—who make up between 15 and 20 percent of us, according to the Arons—are influenced by the outside world more than average, they reflect and process things more deeply, and they are more empathetic.

It is worth noting that there is a closely related concept in the psychological literature, but one that is geared more towards children. It states that a minority of children are like “orchids” because they are highly sensitive to the environment of their upbringing – wilting if it is challenging and blooming if it is supportive – in contrast to the “dandelion” majority, who are beyond extremes. neglect, usually just OK, regardless of their positive or negative circumstances.

How do you determine if someone is highly sensitive?

As part of their research into being a highly sensitive person, the Arons created a new personality test, aptly called the Highly Sensitive Person Scale. To find out if you are a highly sensitive person, see if you agree with some of these sample items from the scale: Are you easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input? Do the moods of others affect you? Are you particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine? Do you find it annoying to have a lot at once? Do you get scared easily? Do you suffer from intense stimuli, such as loud noises or chaotic scenes? You probably get the picture. There are 27 such items in the formal scale — and the more you agree with them, the more likely you’re a highly sensitive person (if you want to dig deeper, Elaine Aron also has a free test on her website).

Why are some people highly sensitive?

De Arons and their research colleagues believe that being highly sensitive runs in families and that it has a biological basis, including a higher-than-usual susceptibility 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 “higher-order visual processing” regions during visual tasks, and greater activity in empathic neural regions when looking at images of the face of a person. a partner.

In a review published in 2019, Elaine Aron and her colleagues stated that “individuals with high sensory processing sensitivity can easily intuitively ‘feel’ and integrate information, and respond to the affective states of others…”, although they also acknowledged that research into the biological basis and causes of a highly sensitive person is “still in its infancy”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, another line of research has shown that highly sensitive people are at increased risk for psychological and emotional problems; There are also yet to be worked out connections between the sensitive personality profile and disorders such as autism, which often also involve increased sensory sensitivity.

What can highly sensitive people do to deal with stress or feelings of overwhelm?

If you think you may be a highly sensitive person, Aron and her colleagues stated that you might especially benefit from mindfulness-based interventions to help you cope with feelings of stress or being overwhelmed, or even any kind of intervention you may have. tools to manage your emotions and emotional reactivity (for example, consider cognitive behavioral therapy or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy or acceptance and commitment therapy). According to Aron and her collaborators, simply acknowledging that you’re a highly sensitive person can be an important first step…”if it allows. [people like you] to adopt appropriate self-care behaviors, such as avoiding overstimulating situations at times and getting enough time for themselves to process their recent experiences”.

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

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