Sensory Processing Sensitivity: A Deep Dive into the Science of Highly Sensitive People

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Sensory Processing Sensitivity: A Deep Dive into the Science of Highly Sensitive People

In the spectrum of human behavior and traits, Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) holds a unique spot. It refers to an increased sensitivity to both physical and psychological stimuli and is a defining characteristic of Highly Sensitive People (HSPs). These individuals, comprising about 15-20% of the population, experience the world with an intensity and depth of perception that others may find difficult to comprehend.

The journey of understanding and managing SPS can be a challenging one, marked by feelings of being different or misunderstood. However, with knowledge comes empowerment. This blog post will delve into the intricacies of Sensory Processing Sensitivity, exploring its evolutionary, genetic, and neurobiological underpinnings. We’ll also share practical strategies for managing this unique trait, empowering HSPs to navigate their daily lives more effectively.

Understanding Sensory Processing Sensitivity

SPS is characterized by a high degree of responsiveness to physical, emotional, or social stimuli. This can include sensitivity to light, sound, temperature, pain, other people’s moods, and even the subtleties of various situations. Highly sensitive individuals may feel overwhelmed by crowded places, become startled easily, or need more time than others to recover from intense experiences.

The concept of heightened sensitivity can be traced back to the works of Carl Jung, who identified the “innate sensitiveness” personality trait. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron formally defined the term “Highly Sensitive Person” and its underlying characteristics. Dr. Aron’s husband, Dr. Arhur Aron, is known for creating the Highly Sensitive Person Scale (HSPS) questionnaire by which SPS is measured.

The common signs and symptoms of SPS

Some common signs of Sensory Processing Sensitivity include:

  • Being easily overwhelmed by sensory input, such as bright lights, loud noises, or strong smells.
  • Feeling overwhelmed by strong emotions, either one’s own or others’.
  • Having a heightened sense of empathy and understanding of others’ feelings.
  • Needing more downtime to process and recover from overstimulation.
  • Having a rich inner life, with deep thoughts and a strong imagination.

How SPS Affects Highly Sensitive People

SPS can manifest in a variety of ways, but most HSPs share some common experiences. They tend to process information more deeply, and this can lead to feeling overwhelmed, especially in high-stimulation environments. They may also have strong emotional reactions to events, which can be both a strength and a challenge.

The Benefits of High Sensitivity

While being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) with Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) can certainly have its challenges such as a low sensory threshold or environmental sensitivity, it also comes with several advantages. Here are some of the positive aspects and benefits associated with SPS and being an HSP:

1. Deep Empathy and Emotional Understanding: HSPs tend to feel emotions more deeply than others, and this includes the ability to pick up on and understand other people’s emotions. This deep empathy can make HSPs exceptional friends, partners, and caregivers, as they are often attuned to others’ needs and feelings.

2. Rich Inner Life: HSPs often have a profound inner life. They can experience thoughts, feelings, and imagination more deeply, which can lead to a high degree of creativity and self-awareness. This makes them well-suited for roles in the arts and creative industries.

3. Appreciation for Detail and Nuance: Due to their sensitivity, HSPs can notice and appreciate details and nuances that others may miss. They can deeply appreciate art, music, nature, and other sensory experiences. This attention to detail can also be advantageous in roles that require precision and thoroughness.

4. Conscientious and Considerate: HSPs tend to be conscientious and thoughtful in their interactions with others. They are often careful to avoid causing upset or offense, which can make them great team players and leaders.

5. Intuitive Decision Making: Their keen awareness and deep processing skills can often lead to an intuitive understanding or ‘gut feeling’ about various situations. This can guide them in making decisions that feel authentic and right for them.

6. Ability to Anticipate and Mitigate Problems: Due to their heightened awareness, HSPs can often foresee potential issues or complications before they arise. This skill can be extremely valuable in many professional contexts, from project management to healthcare.

7. Connection with Nature: Many HSPs feel a deep connection with nature and the environment. They often find peace and rejuvenation in natural settings, which can be a significant benefit to their mental and emotional well-being.

Remember, it’s essential to view SPS as a unique way of interacting with the world, rather than a deficiency. Each individual’s sensitivity level influences how they perceive and respond to their environment, offering a rich tapestry of human experience and perspective.

The Highly Sensitive Child

Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) is as prevalent in children as it is in adults, with about 15-20% of children being highly sensitive. These children may become overwhelmed more easily than their peers in high-stimulation environments, showing signs of discomfort in loud, busy, or brightly lit settings.

Highly sensitive children often exhibit a deep capacity for empathy and understanding from a young age. They may ask thoughtful questions, display a keen sense of observation, and show strong emotional reactions. This sensitivity can also lead to high levels of creativity, conscientiousness, and intuitive learning.

However, highly sensitive children might struggle with the overwhelming nature of intense sensory experiences and may require additional support to navigate them. Strategies for supporting highly sensitive children include maintaining a calm and predictable environment, understanding and respecting their emotional responses, helping them develop coping mechanisms, and emphasizing the positive aspects of their sensitivity. Ultimately, understanding and responding to a child’s high sensitivity can foster their resilience, self-confidence, and overall well-being.

Is it possible to measure SPS?

Yes! While this is not a medical diagnostic tool, our Free Sensitivity Profile, based on the research of Michael Pluess, PhD, Dr. Francesca Lionetti, Dr. Elaine Aron and Arthur Aron, PhD, can provide valuable insight into a person’s level of sensitivity.

Sensory Processing Sensitivity: A Disorder or a Trait?

Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) is a personality trait, not a disorder. It involves increased sensitivity to internal and external stimuli, deeper cognitive processing, and higher emotional reactivity or emotional intensity. While this trait can lead to certain challenges, it also brings about positive qualities such as empathy, creativity, and as noted above, a very rich inner life.

It’s crucial to clarify that while SPS can share some characteristics with seemingly related disorders like Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), they are distinct entities. Autism and ADHD are neurodevelopmental disorders with broader symptom profiles and are typically identified in early childhood. Some individuals can be both highly sensitive and have Autism or ADHD. Understanding the distinct characteristics and potential overlaps can guide effective strategies for managing these traits and conditions.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder? Does everyone with SPS have a sensory processing disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition where the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. This could involve hypersensitivity to both internal and external stimuli, leading to discomfort or avoidance of certain situations due to sensory overload. Alternatively, it could involve hyposensitivity, where an individual seeks out more sensory stimulation. It’s a complex disorder that can affect one or multiple senses and can greatly impact a person’s daily activities and quality of life.

It’s crucial to distinguish Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) from Sensory Processing Disorder. While both involve a heightened sensory response, they’re not the same. SPS is characterized by deep processing of information, high emotional reactivity, and noticing subtleties in the environment, not necessarily involving problematic interactions with sensory information.

Not everyone with SPS has SPD. SPS, unlike SPD, is not a disorder but a personality trait that reflects a normal variation in the human population. Being a Highly Sensitive Person means you are more attuned to subtleties and process information more deeply, which can be a strength. However, if the sensory sensitivities cause significant problems in daily life, impairing social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning, it may be indicative of SPD, which should be evaluated and diagnosed by a healthcare professional.

How evolution shapes high sensitivity in individuals

From an evolutionary perspective, being highly sensitive has its advantages. Historically, individuals with SPS may have acted as the tribe’s “early warning system,” detecting subtle signs of danger before others. These heightened perceptual abilities could have been crucial in survival scenarios, allowing for early detection of predators or changes in the environment. It seems likely that a balanced mix of highly sensitive and less sensitive individuals would be most beneficial for a group’s survival. Highly sensitive individuals could pick up on subtle changes and threats, while less sensitive individuals could undertake riskier tasks without becoming overwhelmed.

Evolutionary benefits of SPS:

  1. Heightened awareness in survival scenarios: Historically, individuals with SPS may have been better able to detect changes in their environment, such as the presence of predators or fluctuations in food availability. Their heightened sensitivity could have served as an early warning system, alerting them to potential dangers before their less sensitive counterparts noticed anything amiss.
  2. Sensory processing as an adaptive trait: SPS might have been beneficial for individuals in different environments. For instance, in peaceful and resource-rich environments, the deep-thinking and cautious nature of HSPs could have led to improved problem-solving and planning skills.

The Genetic Basis for Sensory Processing Sensitivity

Research suggests that SPS has a genetic component. Specific genes related to the nervous system’s functioning, such as the serotonin transporter gene and dopamine D4 receptor gene, have been associated with high sensitivity. These genes influence how our brains process information and respond to our environments, affecting individuals’ sensitivity levels.

The role of genetics in SPS is not yet fully understood, but it’s clear that genetics play a part. Twin studies have found a substantial genetic component to sensitivity, indicating that genes influence whether someone will be highly sensitive or not. However, research is ongoing, and many questions about the genetic basis of SPS remain unanswered.

Specific Genes Linked to SPS

Several specific genes have been linked to SPS, including:

1. The serotonin transporter gene: This gene plays a role in the transport of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, social behavior, appetite, sleep, and memory. Variations in this gene may affect serotonin transport, which could lead to increased sensitivity to emotional and physical stimuli.

2. The dopamine D4 receptor gene: This gene is involved in the processing of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a significant role in reward and pleasure centers in the brain. Certain variants of this gene have been associated with novelty-seeking behavior, suggesting a potential link with sensitivity.

Variations in these neurotransmitters’ function or regulation might influence the intensity of a person’s sensory processing.

The Heritability of SPS in Families

SPS appears to be heritable, meaning it can be passed down in families. Parents who are highly sensitive are more likely to have children who are also highly sensitive. This suggests a strong genetic link. However, environment and upbringing also play a crucial role in how SPS traits manifest in a person.

The Highly Sensitive Brain: Understanding the Neurobiology of Sensory Processing Sensitivity

Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) is rooted in the neurobiology of the brain. Understanding the unique workings of the highly sensitive brain can provide valuable insight into why HSPs experience the world in the way they do.

The highly sensitive brain is characterized by enhanced neural responsivity, heightened activity in key brain regions, potential neurotransmitter differences, and deep sensory integration. This unique neurobiology provides the basis for the heightened sensitivity, deep empathy, and rich inner life often experienced by HSPs.

Enhanced Neural Responsivity

One of the defining characteristics of the highly sensitive brain is its heightened neural responsivity. This means that certain areas of the brain are more active in HSPs compared to non-HSPs when responding to various stimuli. Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have shown that HSPs exhibit greater brain activity in response to sensory and emotional stimuli, reflecting their enhanced perceptual and emotional sensitivity.

Brain Structures and their Role in SPS

Neuroimaging studies have found that HSPs show heightened activity in various brain regions, including:

  1. The Amygdala: Known as the brain’s emotional center, the amygdala plays a crucial role in processing emotions, especially those related to fear and anxiety. In HSPs, the amygdala may be more responsive, leading to more intense emotional reactions and a heightened sense of empathy.
  2. The Insula: This part of the brain is deeply involved in interoceptive awareness, or the conscious perception of internal bodily states. A highly responsive insula can lead to heightened sensory sensitivity and a keen awareness of one’s physical and emotional state.
  3. The Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC): This brain region is involved in various cognitive functions, including attention, decision-making, and emotion regulation. Enhanced activity in the ACC can contribute to the heightened awareness, deep processing, and conscientiousness often observed in HSPs.

Greater Sensory Integration

The highly sensitive brain tends to integrate sensory information more thoroughly. This means that HSPs not only pick up more sensory details, but also process and combine these details more deeply. This deep processing can lead to rich, nuanced perceptions, but it can also lead to overstimulation when the sensory input becomes too intense.

The Role of the Nervous System in Sensory Processing Sensitivity

The nervous system, comprising the brain, spinal cord, and a vast network of nerves, is essentially the body’s control center. It’s responsible for interpreting and responding to all kinds of stimuli, from the temperature of your surroundings to the emotional content of a conversation. For those with Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), the nervous system plays a crucial role, often leading to amplified responses to stimuli and an enhanced experience of both the external and internal world.

The Nervous System’s Reaction to Stimuli in HSPs

In Highly Sensitive People (HSPs), the nervous system tends to react more strongly to stimuli than in non-HSPs. This heightened reactivity can manifest in numerous ways, from intense emotional responses to increased sensitivity to physical sensations such as sound, light, or touch.

What does this mean in practical terms? Well, it might mean that an HSP finds loud noises not just distracting, but deeply unsettling. It could mean that they’re more moved by music or art, or that they’re more aware of subtle changes in a person’s mood or demeanor. It could also mean that they are more affected by stimulants like caffeine, or more prone to feeling stress or anxiety in response to challenging situations.

The “Fight, Flight, or Freeze” Response in HSPs

One key area where this heightened nervous system response becomes evident is the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. This is our body’s primal, automatic response to perceived threat or danger, orchestrated by the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system. For HSPs, this response can be more readily triggered and more intense.

In the face of stress or danger, the body responds by preparing to either confront the threat (fight), run away from it (flight), or become motionless (freeze). This involves a cascade of physiological changes, including an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and a rush of adrenaline. As HSPs have a more reactive nervous system, they may enter this heightened state of alertness more often, even in response to stimuli that others might find manageable or unremarkable.

Calming Down After a Stressful Event

The heightened reactivity of the nervous system in HSPs also affects their ability to calm down after a stressful event. The parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system, often referred to as the “rest and digest” system, is responsible for restoring the body to a state of calm after the “fight, flight, or freeze” response has been triggered.

However, in HSPs, this calming process can take longer. After experiencing a stressor, they may continue to feel agitated, anxious, or over-stimulated for a more extended period, even when the stressor is no longer present. This aspect of SPS can be particularly challenging, as it can make HSPs more susceptible to feelings of chronic stress and overwhelm.

How a Dysregulated Nervous System Affects Individuals with SPS

Dysregulation of the nervous system refers to an imbalance or dysfunction in the way the nervous system responds to various stimuli. This could involve an overactive “fight, flight, or freeze” response, a diminished “rest and digest” response, or both. For individuals with Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), a dysregulated nervous system can significantly impact their overall well-being and quality of life.

Overactivation of the Stress Response

When the nervous system is dysregulated, the body’s stress response—often referred to as the “fight, flight, or freeze” response—may become overactive. This means that relatively minor stressors could trigger a full-blown stress response, causing the person to feel panicked, anxious, or overwhelmed even in non-threatening situations.

In Highly Sensitive People (HSPs), whose nervous systems are already more responsive, this could lead to excessive stress and anxiety. They may find themselves frequently in a state of high alert, even when there’s no real threat or danger. This chronic activation of the stress response can contribute to various physical and mental health issues over time, including fatigue, insomnia, digestive problems, and mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.

Difficulty Returning to a State of Calm

After the stress response has been triggered, the body usually returns to a state of calm through the “rest and digest” response. This process, governed by the parasympathetic division of the nervous system, allows the body to recover and replenish its energy reserves.

However, in a dysregulated nervous system, this calming response might be impaired or slow to engage. For HSPs, this could mean that they have a hard time calming down after experiencing a stressor. They might continue to feel agitated or on edge long after the stressful event has passed. This prolonged state of arousal can lead to feelings of chronic stress and overwhelm and can interfere with sleep, relaxation, and overall well-being.

Heightened Sensory Sensitivity

A dysregulated nervous system can also exacerbate the heightened sensory sensitivity associated with SPS. HSPs may find themselves even more sensitive to sensory stimuli like loud noises, bright lights, or strong smells. This heightened sensitivity can lead to sensory overload, causing discomfort, distress, and difficulty concentrating.

Emotional Repercussions

The emotional experience of HSPs can also be profoundly affected by a dysregulated nervous system. They might experience more intense emotions and have a harder time managing these feelings. Mood swings, increased emotional reactivity, and a heightened sense of empathy might be observed, which can be overwhelming and emotionally exhausting over time.

Understanding the effects of a dysregulated nervous system on those with SPS is essential. It can guide therapeutic interventions, lifestyle adjustments, and self-care strategies to help regulate the nervous system and manage SPS more effectively, fostering a better quality of life for HSPs.

Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Everyday Life

HSPs often face challenges in their everyday lives, such as becoming easily overwhelmed or needing more time to recover from intense situations. The impact of SPS on daily life can be substantial. Sensitivity to noise, for instance, might make an open office environment difficult for an HSP. Similarly, a highly sensitive person might find social gatherings draining and require more quiet, alone time to recharge. However, there are various strategies they can employ to manage these challenges effectively.

Strategies for Managing SPS

Several strategies can help HSPs manage their sensitivity:

  1. Self-care techniques, such as taking regular breaks, getting enough sleep, and engaging in calming activities like meditation or nature walks, can be immensely helpful.
  2. Professional help, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or occupational therapy, can also provide valuable tools and strategies.
  3. Nervous system regulation is another helpful approach which can be done in the comfort of your own home. Nervous system dysregulation is a common experience amongst HSPs and one of the leading causes of chronic stress, anxiety, and chronic pain or illness. Here at HYNS, we often hear that many of you have tried therapy as well as other modalities for years with little to no success. This is where nervous system regulation comes in, as it works to heal your stress response at the body level vs. a purely-cognitive approach.

The Importance of Nervous System Regulation in Managing Sensory Processing Sensitivity

The human nervous system plays a pivotal role in how we interact with and interpret the world around us. For individuals with Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), the nervous system’s responses can often be heightened, making it all the more crucial to learn techniques for regulation. Successfully regulating the nervous system provides a way to manage the intense stimuli that can sometimes lead to feelings of being overwhelmed, facilitating a more balanced and comfortable interaction with the environment.

One fundamental aspect of nervous system regulation revolves around the body’s automatic “fight or flight” response. This is an evolutionary mechanism designed to protect us from danger, but for highly sensitive individuals, this response can be triggered by stimuli that wouldn’t typically be seen as threatening. Techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and grounding exercises can help mitigate this response, effectively ‘telling’ the nervous system that there is no immediate threat, and it’s safe to relax. These techniques serve to calm the body, reduce anxiety, and promote a feeling of stability and control.

If you’d like to get started on your journey of building a flexible, thriving nervous system with structure and support from a team of professionals who have dedicated their lives to this work, you are in the right place! Please click here to learn more.

Conclusion

Sensory Processing Sensitivity is a captivating and multifaceted trait, deeply entrenched in our evolutionary history and sculpted by our genetics. Although it introduces distinct challenges, it also endows a depth of perception that bestows richness and profundity to our human experience. For the highly sensitive individuals among us, understanding and managing this trait is a cornerstone for leading a fulfilling life.

So, embrace your sensitivity! Make an effort to regulate your nervous system and manage your high sensitivity. The world needs your unique perspective, your empathy, your depth of understanding, and your ability to perceive subtleties that others might miss. You’re capable of experiencing life in a uniquely profound way – celebrate it, and continue your journey of understanding and managing your Sensory Processing Sensitivity.

References:

Greven CU, Lionetti F, Booth C, Aron EN, Fox E, Schendan HE, Pluess M, Bruining H, Acevedo B, Bijttebier P, Homberg J. Sensory Processing Sensitivity in the context of Environmental Sensitivity: A critical review and development of research agenda. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2019 Mar;98:287-305. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.01.009. Epub 2019 Jan 9. PMID: 30639671.

Aron EN, Aron A, Jagiellowicz J. Sensory processing sensitivity: a review in the light of the evolution of biological responsivity. Pers Soc Psychol Rev. 2012 Aug;16(3):262-82. doi: 10.1177/1088868311434213. Epub 2012 Jan 30. PMID: 22291044.

Jagiellowicz J, Xu X, Aron A, Aron E, Cao G, Feng T, Weng X. The trait of sensory processing sensitivity and neural responses to changes in visual scenes. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2011 Jan;6(1):38-47. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsq001. Epub 2010 Mar 4. PMID: 20203139; PMCID: PMC3023077.

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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.