Highly Sensitive Person Traits: Understanding Social-Affective Sensitivity and Reframing ‘Trauma Responses’


Researchers studying nervous system sensitivity have uncovered five distinct ways our nervous system can be sensitive, including Social and Affective Sensitivity. Exploring these five states can provide valuable insights into why and how our nervous system reacts the way it does. 

  1. Strong Sensory Preferences: Individuals with strong sensory preferences actively seek or avoid certain stimuli, shaping their engagement with the world. This could range from relishing the texture of foods to avoiding intense sensations that others find unproblematic. 
  2. Sensitivity to Subtle Internal and External Stimuli: This trait involves a heightened awareness of subtle changes, from temperature shifts to the faint aroma of flowers. Those with this sensitivity experience the world in vivid detail, noticing things others might overlook. 
  3. Emotional and Physiological Reactivity: For those who resonate with emotional and physiological reactivity, their emotional responses resemble a vibrant spectrum with bold colors painting their inner world. This intensity sets them apart, contributing to a rich emotional landscape. 
  4. Social and Affective Sensitivity: Social and affective sensitivity involves the ability to perceive others’ emotions without explicit communication. Individuals with this trait navigate social landscapes skillfully, picking up on friend’s distress or subtle tensions in a room. 
  5. Aesthetic Sensitivity: Aesthetic Sensitivity encompasses a heightened appreciation for beauty across various forms. From art and music to literature and nature. However, aesthetically sensitive individuals may find unkempt environments stressful.

Let’s focus on Social and Affective Sensitivity (SAS): this trait represents your ability to empathize and understand others’ emotions. A high SAS individual expresses heightened connection to the feelings and needs of those around them, which can be a valuable trait in both personal and professional relationships.

Positive Impacts of High SAS

SAS can be beneficial in life in many different ways: 

  • Improved Communication: High SAS individuals can effectively perceive and understand the emotions of others, which can in turn, enhance clarity in communication and openness in social relationships.
  • Stronger Empathy and Compassion: Empathetic individuals foster deeper connections with others, which can contribute to a nurturing and caring environment for all.
  • Conflict Resolution: High SAS individuals excel in resolving conflicts, as they can understand diverse perspectives for effective problem-solving.
  • Enhanced Teamwork: Professional settings can benefit from the collaborative spirit of high SAS individuals, which can lead to improved teamwork and successful outcomes.
  • Better Parenting: Parents with SAS can navigate their children’s emotions more effectively. This can strengthen the bond with their child and create a supporting family environment. 
  • Increased Emotional Support: Individuals with high SAS can provide emotional support in times of need. This can facilitate relationships and foster a sense of belonging and connection with others.
  • Greater Success in Leadership Roles: Enhanced empathy and emotional understanding, position high SAS individuals for leadership success, as they can effectively motivate and guide teams.

Clarifying Misconceptions: Empaths, Trauma, and the Science of Sensitivity

In our journey to understand Social and Affective Sensitivity (SAS), we often come across various terms that might seem relevant but are somewhat misplaced in the scientific context. Let me clarify some of these terms based on my understanding and reading of the research.

The Term “Empath”

You might have heard people use the term “empath” to describe individuals who are highly sensitive to others’ emotions. However, it’s important to note that the scientific community hasn’t provided substantial backing for this term. While the concept of an “empath” often seems to align with what we know as SAS, it’s not a term widely recognized in research or scientific studies. It’s more of a popular culture label that has gained traction outside academic circles.

Confusion Around “Trauma Responses”

There’s also quite a bit of confusion surrounding terms like “trauma responses.” In popular media, these are sometimes used to describe certain emotional reactions, implying that they are always linked to past trauma. However, this isn’t entirely accurate. Emotional responses can stem from a variety of sources, not just traumatic experiences. It’s crucial to differentiate between innate traits and symptoms that might arise from specific problems or experiences.

Three Lenses of Understanding

To get a clearer picture, we can look at this topic through three distinct lenses:

  1. Trait (Focusing on SAS): This lens helps us understand Social and Affective Sensitivity as a trait – an inherent part of a person’s makeup. If you have high SAS, you naturally understand and feel others’ emotions deeply. It’s not a problem or disorder, but a unique trait that shapes how you interact with the world. For instance, you might find yourself instinctively comforting a distressed colleague or sensing tension in a room before anyone else does.
  2. Stress Response: Here, we examine how individuals respond to chronic stress. For instance, caregivers or those in high-stress environments might develop what’s known as compassion fatigue or caregiver burnout. This form of burnout, sometimes colloquially called “empath burnout,” can happen more frequently in those who have high degrees of SAS, but anyone can experience it; it’s a reaction to prolonged and intense stress that overwhelms the body and nervous system’s ability to cope. Think about the parent who spends sleepless nights caring for young children, the son or daughter providing round-the-clock care to an ailing parent, or a worker in a high-stress environment like paramedics, firefighters, or police officers. They often encounter critical and emotionally charged scenarios, requiring them to make swift, life-impacting decisions amidst chaos and unpredictable environments. These situations can lead to what’s known as compassion fatigue or caregiver burnout. This kind of burnout is a physical and emotional exhaustion that comes from the constant demands of caring for others. It’s a state where the stress becomes too much for the body and mind to handle, leading to feelings of depletion and a sense of being overwhelmed. While those with high SAS might be more prone to this, anyone in a prolonged, stressful caregiving role can experience it. 
  3. Fear Response: This perspective looks at how people react to disturbing or challenging life events. Over time, or occasionally from just a single impactful event, these reactions can evolve into ingrained coping mechanisms, deeply embedded within our memory and behavior. While they might have been adaptive in specific past situations, they may not be helpful in the present.  For example, someone who grew up in an unstable environment might develop a heightened concern for others’ feelings as a way to ensure safety and harmony. However, this can lead to excessive worry or lack of boundaries in adult life. These responses, often mislabeled as “trauma responses” in media, can manifest as excessive worry or over-involvement in others’ emotional states, often without healthy boundaries. This lens also ties into our attachment styles, which dictate how we form and maintain relationships.  

Navigating Beyond the ‘Trauma Response’ Label

Mislabeling these coping strategies as “trauma responses” can be counterproductive. Emerging research suggests that the way we perceive and label our stressors significantly impacts our stress response. Labeling a disturbing or highly stressful situation too broadly as ‘trauma’ can be counterproductive, leading to feelings of helplessness and a belief that we have no control over our circumstances. This perception can intensify the situation’s negative impact on our mental and physical health, undermining our sense of agency and ability to cope effectively.

In contrast, recognizing these responses as learned behaviors that were once helpful gives us more agency in how we deal with them now. The good news is that just as these responses were learned, they can also be unlearned. This process involves recognizing these patterns, understanding their origins, and gradually adopting new, healthier ways of responding to our environment and the people in it. 

However, it’s important to differentiate these learned responses from PTSD, which is a specific condition characterized by a distinct set of symptoms following exposure to a traumatic event. If you are experiencing symptoms of PTSD, it’s crucial to seek professional help. Mental health professionals can provide the necessary support and treatment to help manage PTSD symptoms effectively.

In emphasizing the importance of how we label and perceive our experiences, I want to make it absolutely clear that this in no way minimizes or negates the real pain and struggle that people endure. The distressing events you go through can indeed cause genuine damage to your body and brain.

It’s important to recognize and accept these two truths, even though they might seem conflicting:

  • On one hand, the pain and damage you’ve experienced are real, regardless of whether they are categorized as ‘trauma’ or diagnosed as PTSD. You don’t need a label or a diagnosis to validate their significance or to make your suffering ‘worthy’ of attention and care. Every experience of pain and struggle is meaningful and real in its own right.
  • On the other hand, it’s equally important to recognize that just as these responses to stress and pain are learned, they can also be unlearned. You have the strength and ability to start a healing process. This journey involves understanding and working through your experiences, not as immutable labels that define you, but as parts of your story from which you can grow and evolve. By embracing this approach, you empower yourself to move beyond your pain, acknowledging and honoring its impact while actively pursuing recovery and resilience.

Final Thoughts

In navigating the world of Social-Affective Sensitivity (SAS), we embark on a journey of deep understanding about the subtleties of our nervous system. Recognizing the profound positive impacts of high SAS allows us to embrace and harness our innate traits for better communication, deeper empathy, and effective conflict resolution. Simultaneously, we must be mindful of the potential for burnout, especially in roles that demand constant caregiving, and be aware of the coping strategies we’ve developed in response to stress and fear. Understanding our sensitivity in these various dimensions allows us to navigate our interactions and our internal experiences with more grace, compassion, and effectiveness. Ultimately, it leads to a more fulfilling life, enriched by deep connections and a profound sense of emotional well-being.

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Dr. Linnea Passaler

Dr. Linnea Passaler

Dr. Linnea Passaler has dedicated 20+ years to serving patients, first to a small number of individuals as a successful surgeon and then to thousands of people worldwide as the CEO of a digital health startup. After overcoming her own struggles with a dysregulated nervous system, she created Heal Your Nervous System (HYNS) to empower others in their healing journey. Her combination of neuroscience and somatic work helps those struggling with overwhelm, trauma, burnout, and anxiety to heal their dysregulated nervous systems and thrive.