When you were a child, did people call you sensitive or shy? Do chaotic scenes, crowds or competing demands cause you stress or anxiety? Do you feel like you are paying greater attention to or experiencing the world around you more intensely than others? If yes, then you may have high sensory processing sensitivity. Research suggests about one in five people are sensitive or have a high level of sensory processing sensitivity. Elaine Aron, Ph.D. introduced the world to the idea of the highly sensitive person or sensory processing sensitivity in the late 1990s. Her book, The Highly Sensitive Person (Aron, 1996), as well as numerous research articles by Aron and others, dive into this concept and its implications.
Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) is identified as a greater depth of processing ones’ internal and external environment. This greater depth of processing has been captured on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans (Acevedo et al., 2021; Jagiellowicz et al., 2011). Essentially, if you have this trait, your brain is processing the world around you in a more intense manner than someone without high sensory processing sensitivity.
Aron and other researchers propose that this is a genetic trait, and there is a growing body of research to support this position. In fact, this trait is not unique to humans (Aron et al., 2012). It has been identified in primates, rats, goats, fish, dogs and other animals (Aron, 2010; Bräm Dubé et al., 2020). It is thought to be an evolutionary advantage to have a minority of a species have this trait. Individuals with high sensory processing sensitivity are unlikely to jump into a novel situation without first taking time to assess the risks verse benefits. The trait may also make one hear or see a threat before everyone else, allowing time to warn of the danger.
While it can certainly be useful to read a room more easily, or recognize a threat before others, this unique trait like many things in life can also have drawbacks. One common complaint of people with high sensory processing sensitivity is feeling burnt out, easily overwhelmed or overstimulated (Golonka & Gulla, 2021; Vander Elst et al., 2019). At this point, it is important to highlight that sensory processing sensitivity is separate and distinctive from sensory processing disorder. Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is often found in individuals on the autism spectrum or with ADHD. It, unlike sensory processing sensitivity, is a disorder and causes a detrimental impact on one’s ability to process information. On the other hand, sensory processing sensitivity is not a disorder or a diagnosis. It has not been shown to hinder processing; on the contrary, it seems to improve the ability to process information.
So, while sensory processing sensitivity is not a disorder or mental health illness, it does have an impact on your mental health. As stated above, if you have sensory processing sensitivity, you are at risk of becoming more easily overstimulated. Furthermore, research shows that children with sensory processing sensitivity are at a greater risk of developing mental health disorders (e.g. anxiety, depression) if they have a troubled or unhappy childhood (Aron, 1996). Because negative experiences or environments will have a stronger impact on someone with sensory processing sensitivity, a difficult childhood will increase someone’s risk of developing a mental health disorder. Fortunately, the opposite is also true. People with high sensory processing sensitivity are also strongly impacted by positive experiences. Imagine going to a small venue with beautiful music or an art gallery with extraordinary works of art. These positive and moving experiences will lift the spirits of a person with sensory processing sensitivity more than someone without the trait.
One key component to being a highly sensitive person is to recognize the importance of self-care. That does not necessarily mean having a spa day or a friends’ trip, though if that sounds fun and restorative, then enjoy. Self-care rather means recognizing and honoring your needs. If saying yes to a fun night out over a quiet night at home with a book or TV causes stress, then listen to your inner self. People with sensory processing sensitivity will usually need more down or quiet time than someone without the trait. The modern world can be a stimulating and exhausting place, especially for a person with high sensory processing sensitivity. So, while most of the crowd is ready to keep plugging away when you need a break, remember they are not processing at your level. Recognizing and granting yourself the permission to take the space for calm and quiet allows you to function at your optimum potential.
Being highly sensitive is a special trait, but it can be a vulnerability. Do you think you, or maybe your child, has sensory processing sensitivity? Wondering what steps you can take to understand more? The Highly Sensitive Person Scale as well as the Highly Sensitive Child Scale self-tests are available at hsperson.comalong with additional information. However, if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health problems, it is important to seek professional care. You can be evaluated by a mental health provider directly, or your primary care provider is another place to start.
Acevedo, B. P., Santander, T., Marhenke, R., Aron, A., & Aron, E. (2021). Sensory Processing Sensitivity Predicts Individual Differences in Resting-State Functional Connectivity Associated with Depth of Processing. Neuropsychobiology,80(2), 185-200. https://doi.org/10.1159/000513527
Aron, E. N. (1996). The highly sensitive person: How to thrive when the world overwhelms you.Three Rivers Press.
Aron, E. N. (2010). Psychotherapy and the highly sensitive person: Improving outcomes for that minority of people who are the majority of clients. Routledge.
Aron, E. N., Aron, A., & Jagiellowicz, J. (2012). Sensory processing sensitivity: a review in the light of the evolution of biological responsivity. Pers Soc Psychol Rev,16(3), 262-282. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868311434213
Bräm Dubé, M., Asher, L., Würbel, H., Riemer, S., & Melotti, L. (2020). Parallels in the interactive effect of highly sensitive personality and social factors on behaviour problems in dogs and humans. Sci Rep,10(1), 5288. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-62094-9
Golonka, K., & Gulla, B. (2021). Individual Differences and Susceptibility to Burnout Syndrome: Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Its Relation to Exhaustion and Disengagement. Front Psychol,12, 751350. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.751350
Jagiellowicz, J., Xu, X., Aron, A., Aron, E., Cao, G., Feng, T., & Weng, X. (2011). The trait of sensory processing sensitivity and neural responses to changes in visual scenes. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci,6(1), 38-47. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsq001
Vander Elst, T., Sercu, M., Van den Broeck, A., Van Hoof, E., Baillien, E., & Godderis, L. (2019). Who is more susceptible to job stressors and resources? Sensory-processing sensitivity as a personal resource and vulnerability factor. PLoS One,14(11), e0225103. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0225103