The Research: HSPs and Sensory Processing

“I can’t get that sad movie out of my head.” “That person’s smile was amazing, I have a feeling she’s in a great place in life.” “It’s too crowded in here, I can’t think straight.” “Are you OK? Your mood seems different since you got off the phone.” “OMG what is that smell?” “I hate Costco on the weekend, it makes me crazy…” “Please don’t get mad at me, it really upsets me.” “Wow, I just had the most exciting dream.” “Humanity is really amazing, I can’t even wrap my head around it.”

It is important to understand that the trait of high sensitivity is not a condition or a disorder; it is an inherited trait, just like eye and skin color.

Dr. Elaine Aron and her collaborators recently conducted a study that proves that the areas in the brain correlated with external stimuli processing, empathy and emotion are more active when triggered in highly sensitive people than non-HSPs.

In this study, The Highly Sensitive Brain: An fMRI Study of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Response to Others’ Emotions, 18 people were shown photos of strangers and their spouses showing happy, sad, or neutral expressions. “Functional magnetic resonance imaging” was used to detect activation of brain areas while participants viewed the images.

The Results: Compared to the non-HSPs in the study, the HSPs’ brains were more responsive to expressions of emotions on the faces of others. This was true in all cases, stranger or partner, happy or sad (compared to neutral). However, HSPs’ brains were especially responsive to the emotions of their husband or wife, and even more responsive to positive emotions than negative ones.

Ok, so we know that HSPs respond differently to sensory and emotional cues, but why do we have this trait to begin with?

Scientific research suggests the trait of High Sensitivity or Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) is actually an evolved survival strategy in 15-20% of humans and over 100 other species (yes! Dogs, cats, fish, even fruit flies)…

By being more responsive to their environments, these more sensitive organisms have an enhanced awareness of opportunities (e.g., food, mates, and alliances) and threats (e.g., predators, loss of status, competitors), and thus may be more ready to respond to emerging situations.

But like fear and the “fight or flight” response, heightened responses to our environment aren’t always necessary, especially for me and you, in 2015, in the middle of a city square or during dinner when someone’s laughter roars across the table. This means that we need to manage it in every day situations, so overstimulation doesn’t control us.

We can develop ways to cope with our trait of high sensitivity as it affects us.

Below are some scenarios where HSPs may feel themselves becoming overwhelmed. I have provided ways to help modify these situations so you can function at an optimal level.

  • If you’re at a party and have just had an intense conversation, take a break and step outside to breathe in the fresh night air until you feel relaxed.
  • If you’re at a food truck festival and find yourself struggling to decide what to try next, sit down around the corner on a bench and avert your eyes from the busyness for a few minutes. Then try again.
  • When you’re at home studying or writing an important email but feel distracted, think of your surroundings….maybe the window is open and the noises from outside are disrupting your concentration. Close it, or go into a quieter room.
  • If you’re making dinner it might be really hard to hold a meaningful conversation and continue to cook, timing everything correctly (this is so me!), simply realize this, and focus on one thing at a time.

And most importantly, don’t beat yourself up! Remember, you have been given the gift of high sensitivity, but like everything, it can have it’s set backs. Love yourself anyway because this trait comes as an entire package; the good totally out weights the bad, especially if we utilize tools to mediate it.

Until next week,

XO your fellow HSP, Chelsie



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