Last year, singer Lorde became the latest celebrity to identify as a “very sensitive person,” telling Vogue that her personality profile means she’s just “not cut out for the pop star life” and that you need long periods of time to be close. recover from the demands of her job. She joins other superstars, like Kanye West and Nicole Kidman, who have also labeled themselves this way, apparently finding that she helps them make sense of her own experiences.
When did the term highly sensitive person come about?
These creative celebrities did not invent the term “highly sensitive person.” In fact, it originated in an obscure 1996 advice paper 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 couple claimed that the highly sensitive personality profile was related to, but different from, being shy or introverted. Additionally, they noted that a key characteristic of being a highly sensitive person 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, the moods of others, violence in the media, and being watched.” In general, highly sensitive people, who Arons says make up 15 to 20 percent of us, are more affected by the external 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 focuses more on children. It states that a minority of children are like “orchids” in that they are highly sensitive to the environment in which they were raised, withering when challenging and thriving when supportive, in contrast to the “dandelion” majority, who out of extreme neglect , for the most part it’s just not okay, regardless of your positive or negative circumstances.
How is a person determined to be highly sensitive?
As part of their research on 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 on the scale: Are you easily overwhelmed by strong sensory information? Does the mood of other people affect you? Are you particularly sensitive to the effect of caffeine? Do you find it unpleasant to have many things to do at once? Do you startle easily? Do intense stimuli, such as loud noises or chaotic scenes, bother you? You probably get the idea. 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 very sensitive?
The Arons and their research colleagues believe that being highly sensitive is inherited and has a biological basis, including a higher-than-usual 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 “higher-order visual processing” regions during visual tasks and increased activity in related neural regions with empathy when looking at images. of a partner’s face.
In a review they published in 2019, Elaine Aron and colleagues stated that “people with high sensory processing sensitivity can easily intuit, ‘sense’ and integrate information, and respond to the affective states of others…”, though 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 higher risk for psychological and emotional difficulties; There are also unresolved links 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 cope with stress or feeling overwhelmed?
If you think you may be a very sensitive person, Aron and his colleagues have stated that you may particularly benefit from mindfulness-based interventions to help you cope with feelings of stress or feeling overwhelmed, or indeed any type of intervention. to give 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 act of acknowledging that you are a highly sensitive person could be an important first step … “because it allows [people like you] adopt appropriate self-care behaviors, such as avoiding situations of overstimulation at times and allowing enough time for 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 also worth noting that from a scientific perspective, the concept is not without its critics. Many personality researchers believe that the concept of a highly sensitive person is really not that different from being a strong introverted person, highly emotionally reactive (i.e., highly neurotic), and open to experience: all aspects of personality that already exist. they are captured by the 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 true that “the empirical basis for processing sensitivity sensory is currently weak. .
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