Highly Sensitive People

How to thrive when the world overwhelms you


| November-December 2000



When research psychologist and psychotherapist Elaine Aron published The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You (Broadway, 1996), many people felt a jolt of recognition. Aron's book was a godsend for those who'd been told since childhood how high-strung, nervous, timid, overly sensitive, or fearful they were. Here was a mental health professional describing high sensitivity as a normal state shared by 15 to 20 percent of the population and framing it positively rather than as a flaw.

According to Aron, highly sensitive people, or HSPs, typically share a number of characteristics: They're highly aroused by new or prolonged stimulation; strongly reactive to external stimuli such as noise and light; intolerant of pain, hunger, thirst, caffeine, and medication; susceptible to stress-related and psychosomatic illnesses; and deeply affected by other people's moods and emotions. They are also highly intuitive; able to concentrate deeply (but do best without distractions); right-brained, and less linear than non-HSPs; highly conscientious; especially good at tasks requiring vigilance, accuracy, and speed; and excellent at spotting and avoiding errors.

“Sensitivity is an inherited trait,” Aron says, “that tends to be a disadvantage only at high levels of stimulation.” Everything is magnified for HSPs. What is moderately arousing for most people, she explains, is highly arousing for the highly sensitive. And what is highly arousing for others is off the charts for HSPs, who reach a shutdown point once they attain a certain arousal level.

Aron's research has convinced her there are genetic and biological bases for extreme sensitivity. The brains of HSPs, she says, differ from those of other individuals. Studies have shown that they have more activity—and blood flow—in the right hemisphere of the brain, which indicates that they are internally focused rather than outwardly oriented. The balance between two opposing systems of the brain may account for heightened sensitivity. One system, the “behavioral activation system,” is hooked up to sections of the brain that propel people into new situations, making them curious and eager for external rewards. Another system, the “behavioral inhibition system,” compares present situations to past ones before proceeding and alerts the body to be cautious in risky situations. Aron believes that when the behavioral inhibition system in a person's brain is the stronger of the two systems, sensitivity results.

Most important to Aron is her finding that HSPs are inclined to be anxious, depressed, or shy only when they have suffered troubled childhoods. The strong “inhibition system” causes real inhibition only when personal history makes an HSP feel there are good reasons to be inhibited. Thirty percent of HSPs are actually extroverts.

HSPs process information differently, “more deeply,” than others. Because they're especially good at navigating through information, they're predisposed to work well with information technology and the Internet, which gives them an advantage in our present society. HSPs also have uncommonly sensitive nervous systems and a more reactive immune system. HSPs are 30 percent more likely to have allergies. They often have decreased serotonin levels, which may result from the stress of repeated overarousal, although the jury's still out on that one. And contrary to what our cultural assumptions may suggest, the HSP trait does not favor one gender: Just as many men as women are highly sensitive.

p. marya dasko
2/20/2008 12:00:00 AM

I've been searching for this article for years! I had read it originally with a friend who is also HSP and we felt so validated. It works with doctors also: I explain that I am a highly sensitive "patient" and explain my reactions to patent pharmaceuticals...now my doctor reconsiders whether I should have a flu shot...and aren't I lucky: this one only covers 40% of this year's brands of flues. Could they be created for population control? Thanks for the article on HSPs.