Are you a Highly Sensitive Person? Non-pathologizing those with sensory processing sensitivity as we look into the research evidence.
Are you easily overwhlemed by external stimulation? Do you have higher than average empathy? Do you have high emotional reactivity? If your answers are “yes” to these questions, you may have a genetically determined temperament trait known as Sensory Process Sensitivity (SPS). Usually, people with this trait are known as Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). However, due to their personality profile, such as higher score on neuroticism and lower score on extraversion in the Five-Factor Model Questionnaire (NEO-PI-3), they are being misunderstood as having some kind of mental disorders. Of course, due to their sensory processing sensitivity, they may have higher risk for having mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. In fact, their mental health issues may sometimes due to others’ misunderstanding on them and the stimatization and discrimination they experienced in their life. What are some of the research findings for HSP up-to-date?
In a research done by a group of psychologists in Belgium in 2021, it was found that HSP has specific personality profile. They scored higher on the Openness to Experience and Neuroticisim Scales on the NEO-PI-3. They are open to fantasy of having a more vivid imagination and an active fantasy life. They tend to create an interesting inner world when being alone. They also have a deep appreciation for art and beauty. In terms of emotion, these people have higher receptivity to their own inner feelings and emotions. With all these inner richness, HSP are more apprehensive, fearful, and prone to worry. They are also more prone to feelings of guilt, sadness, hopelessness and loneliness. On the low side, HSP scored lower than non-HSP on Extraversion. Especially, they have lower preference for other people’s company. They actively avoid social stimulation. With this personality profile, it is inevitable that HSP may be misunderstood by others as majority of people praise for extraversion and social networking asset. Indeed, they are actually easily feeling overwhelmed by external stimulation and have a high level of deep processing of their inner fantasy, imagination and emotions.
In another study by a psychologist in Canterbury, UK, the unique experience of HSP was investigated. In the research, it was found that HSP struggled to process their intense emotions throughout their lives and thought there must be something wrong about them. Sometimes, they may be wrongly diagnosed as suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder. It is only when they come across literature on HSP, they start to realise that their intense emotional experience is not pathological. It was also found that all of the HSP have higher empathy than non-HSP. They found it a blessing and a curse at the same time. On the one hand, they can be very effective in providing empathic support to others with emotional needs. On the other hand, they are easily being affected by others’ sufferings. With their special qualities, HSP need to learn how to manage their experience in their own unique ways. They had mentioned in the study that it takes tremendous effort to manage their experience. They shared that it is a blessing for them to be able to connect with others in such a deeper level and to have such a rich and deep inner world. However, it is also a curse for them to be overwhelmed easily in their daily encountering with others and the external world.
Recent research helps us to have a better understanding of HSP and it is important for us to destigmatize those with SPS. For HSP, it is not a shame to be so unique and there are a lot of gifts in this special trait. It is important for HSP to learn to cope with their experiences given the demand on social interactions in our society. It is also important for them to appreciate their uniquenss and fully develop their potentials.
Bröhl A. S., Leeuwen, K.V., Plues, M., et al. (2021). Personality profile of the self-identified highly sensitive person: a lay theory approach. Journal of Individual Differences, 43(2), 95-104.
Roxburgh, E. C. (2022, August 18). “It’s Like Feeling and Experiencing Everything in HD”: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of Sensory Processing Sensitivity. The Humanistic Psychologist. Advance online publication.