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An Underrated Superpower? The Science Behind High Sensitivity

Have you ever thought about how you experience stimuli in the environment around you?

Do you tend to seek out new people and places, eager to soak up every type you can, or does constant sensory input exhaust you?

I’m Livia, a regular contributor here at Inspire the Mind, and I relate to the latter.

Crowds overwhelm me, I can never tolerate a packed schedule for long, and I get extremely hangry, in other words, being hungry makes me irritable – not great when you are caught out and about and do not have a snack ready to hand. As a homebody who adores stillness, my senses exhaust me when I am exposed to a lot of busyness.

If you can relate to what I say, you may experience Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS).

Sensory Processing Sensitivity, Explained

Sensory Processing Sensitivity was popularised as a theory by psychologist Elaine Aaron, who suspected that she had found a new personality trait that stems from an extra sensitive nervous system.

According to Aaron, SPS means that you are more aware of what goes on around you, even subtle changes, and process that sensory data more slowly and thoroughly. In turn, you feel more than most, and are overwhelmed faster than others.

She created a test, where takers ponder for themselves whether they are, for example, greatly put off by violent movies, loud environments, and changes in life, and have an overall greater need for rest. Those who score at the very top, Aaron meant, have Sensory Processing Sensitivity, and may be called Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs).

Top Notch Nervous Systems

Over the last decade, more research has been undertaken to understand Sensory Processing Sensitivity better scientifically.

Researchers looking at the brain scans of people who report top HSP test scores, for example, have found that we do seem to be objectively differently sensitive. A recent study showed that brain regions that are relevant for awareness and empathy, such as the amygdala, showed more activity when HSPs saw photos of strangers whose faces expressed various moods — for example, happy and sad — compared to those who scored much lower.

Fascinatingly, research has also suggested that HSPs even seem to be more aware of their own bodies, and feel physical sensations, such as a hungry stomach or strong pulse, more vividly.

What causes that extra load of SPS that makes somebody extra sensitive to external and internal stimuli has not been established, but may result from several factors, such as genes and childhood experiences.

A Challenge...

High sensitivity is a healthy trait that is not exactly uncommon, as an estimated third of everybody on the planet has SPS.

But as HSPs often say, sensitivity plays a real part in shaping a life and should not be trivialised.

For better and for worse, a sensitive brain stays sensitive wherever it goes, and can become extra challenging when you face some unpleasantness on the way.

On an everyday note, to constantly respond more saps energy, and a bombardment of sensory data makes HSPs prone to suffer extra from stress when exposed for long. Burnout, for example, appears to be more common for nurses who have SPS.

It might also not help that our society tends to respect toughness and see sensitivity as weakness: many HSPs appear to feel lonely and odd around others.

... and a Blessing

But that extra bit of SPS can be an advantage, too — so much that more and more say that high sensitivity should be promoted as a superpower instead.

Researchers have found that HSPs are on average more creative and have stronger bonds to nature and more powerful responses to ASMR. Love, too, seem to take on a somewhat more colourful form — in the study where HSPs showed higher brain activity when exposed to the moods of strangers, their brain scans also showed that they responded more strongly when they got to see photos of loved ones.

Those are some lovely perks, and even though HSPs are more devastated by heartbreak and trauma, an enhanced response to whatever happens around them seems to grant HSPs better chances to make faster progress in therapy, both as children and as adults.

The same sensory depth that makes them more prone to struggle when they have to handle stress, then, may mean they are extra empowered when they stay balanced.

Makes sense, then, that sensitivity researchers use the metaphor of an orchid — a delicate flower that blooms gorgeously under the very right conditions — to refer to Highly Sensitive Persons.

Nurturing the Orchid

Nevertheless, HSPs cannot command the climate, and getting support and consciously following a wellbeing strategy can help them stay healthy.

In a day and age where we are encouraged to stay busy and stay tough, HSPs need to be better than most at saying no to unnecessary stressors — such as that loud party — that exhaust them from sensory overload.

Instead, to better the chances at that extra gladness that HSPs are capable of, they are recommended to put themselves first and arrange the everyday to suit their sensitivity.

To accept your sensitivity and care for yourself, says Elaine Aaron herself, becomes extra necessary when undue stress comes along.

Sensitivity as Strength

When you are exhausted after a regular day, ready to go under the covers as soon as you get home, sensitivity does not really seem like a strength.

But when humans evolved, tens of thousands of years ago, we had to overcome a very dangerous world together. A person who sensed the savannah around them better was probably more fearful, but could also detect a sneaky, nearby danger, such as a predator, faster. The group was stronger with people of different capabilities.

Sensory Processing Sensitivity can be seen as a superpower, then, that has helped humans survive. When it seems to amplify negative human experiences, however, it can make life overwhelming.

Even so, I welcome my SPS. When not pressed by a busy room, I’d dare say that I seem to talentedly see beauty everywhere. A tendency to respond extra to whatever happens around you makes the lovely even more lovely.

I would not have it any other way.


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