I often hear the frustration and sadness and defeat in the voices of highly sensitive people (HSP) when they share how they become more emotional, overwhelmed, shut down, or worn out in situations that don’t seem to affect other people. This difference can make HSPs feel like outsiders, like there must be something wrong with them because they are abnormal compared to everyone around them.
And, it’s true--there are significant differences between how highly sensitive people live and between the rest of the world. However, these differences exist for a reason and serve a purpose.
As HSPs, we feel and react more strongly because our nervous systems are more sensitive than non-HSPs. All people, from highly sensitive to non-sensitive, move about in the world while our brains take in and process information. One part of our brain, in particular, is on the alert for danger. The brain stem, also called the reptilian brain (yes, that’s because even reptiles have this response built in for survival too), responds when danger is perceived, and the fight/flight/freeze response is activated. This means that your sympathetic nervous system kicks in, and adrenaline floods your body as you prepare to fight back, run away, or play dead to survive the danger. The catch is--our brains can perceive danger when none actually exists.
This can happen for all people in the modern world. Think road rage, an argument with a significant other, or having to give a presentation at work. Each of these instances can cause someone’s brain and body to feel threatened and react accordingly, even though there’s no real threat of death. This is because, on a biological level, our body is most concerned with survival, so if the brain says there’s danger, the body gears up to do what needs to be done to stay alive. (The therapist part of me feels compelled to add that if you’re experiencing strong road rage that might lead to actual danger or if you’re in an abusive relationship, please seek help. There can be legitimate danger, and I don’t want to discredit that.)
You probably guessed where I’m going with this--the brains of HSPs interpret danger more often, and the nervous systems of sensitive people react more often as a result. This fight/flight/freeze response can cause sensations like a racing heart, shakiness, sweatiness, feeling on edge or jittery, having trouble relaxing or calming down, feeling tension in your muscles, having racing thoughts or being consumed by worry, having trouble thinking straight, and so on. And, when the body is reacting to a perceived threat, all your higher level cognitive processes shut down, so you can’t possibly think clearly or problem-solve well. Your body is just focused on reacting and surviving.
All of this is to say we HSPs are actually physiologically wired differently, and the science backs this up.
A 2012 German study performed by Friederike Gerstenberg gave HSPs and non-HSPs a task to look through a series of the letter “L” on a computer screen, and identify the letter “T” turned in various ways as quickly as possible. The researchers found that HSPs were faster and more accurate in identifying the T’s and that the HSPs were more stressed after performing the task.
A series of studies by Jadzia Jagiellowicz found that HSPs’ brains react more to positive pictures and images than non-HSPs and that HSPs use more of the deeper processing parts of the brain, especially when they’re focused on noticing subtleties.
Research by Bianca Acevedo on highly sensitive people has found more activation in the insula region of the brain, commonly called the “seat of consciousness,” and in the mirror neurons, which respond to emotions in others.
Okay, so what purpose does this actually serve? Such reactivity means that sensitive people are adept at noticing and responding to subtleties in other people, their environments, and in themselves. This is especially true if the sensitive person can recognize their initial wave of fight/flight/freeze, take some deep breaths to allow the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in and send messages to the body that all is safe and well, and then respond from that calmer, more grounded space. If someone is upset, an HSP may see that and know just what is needed. If there’s conflict, an HSP’s awareness and insight may allow them to help everyone in finding a resolution. An HSP might recognize potential problem areas and create solutions that others wouldn’t even think of. An HSP may even notice that something is wrong from minor cues early on and be able to respond before a full scale problem arises. This kind of awareness and skill serves everyone in a group--highly sensitive, less sensitive, and non-sensitive alike.
The trait of sensitivity has been found in over 100 animal species and across cultures. Why would this trait have evolved so broadly? Because it’s necessary. Having any members of a group who notice subtleties, think thoroughly and carefully, feel deeply, and care about others is key to survival. Biology knows this, so maybe we HSPs can hold on to this knowledge too.
PS--You are important and needed. If you struggle to know this or remember, please reach out for support. You don’t have to go it alone.
Ivy Griffin, LMFT # 51714, Director
Thrive Therapy & Counseling
1614 X St., Suite A
Sacramento, CA 95818
Acevedo, B., Aron, A., Aron, E. (2010). Association of sensory processing sensitivity when perceiving positive and negative emotional states. Presented at APA, San Diego.
Gerstenberg, F. (2012). Sensory processing sensitivity predicts performance on a visual search task followed by an increase in perceived stress. Personality and Individual Differences, 53, 496-500.
Jagiellowicz, J., Xu, X., Aron, A., Aron, E., Cao, G., Feng, T., & Weng, X. (2011). Sensory processing sensitivity and neural responses to changes in visual scenes. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 6, 38-47.