Emotional Intensity and Highly Sensitive People
In her book ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’, Dr. Elaine Aron defines a distinct personality trait that affects as many as 15-20% of the population — too many to be a disorder, but not enough to be well understood by the majority.
What is moderately arousing to most people, such as crowds or constant noises like clock ticking, can be overwhelming for Highly Sensitive People (HSP). Research has found that the brains of highly sensitive people have more activity in the right hemisphere. They also have more reactive immune systems (allergies) and more sensitive nervous systems. Thus, being an HSP can also lead to physical sensitivities to loud noises, bright lights, humming television, and even fabrics (such as tags on clothing).
Some HSPs feel that seeing things ‘out of alignment’ can actually be physically or mentally distressing, hence often being described as ‘perfectionists’. As up to 70% of HSPs are introverted, many also require more private time than others in order to feel replenished. This sensitivity trait is just as likely among men as among women; both represent about 20% of the population.
These sensitivities are often identifiable from an early age. In most cases, these children are labelled as 'weird', 'sensitive', or 'shy'. Like their adult counterparts, they are easily overwhelmed by high levels of stimulation, sudden changes, and the emotional distress of others. However, depending on their different temperaments and parenting, the behaviours they demonstrate can vary – from being ‘difficult’, active, emotionally intense, demanding and persistent, to being calm, inward, and almost too easy to raise.
There has been a lot of discussion around the connection between Highly Sensitive People and introversion, especially inspired by Susan Cain’s work ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking’. Despite Cain’s discussion of “introversion” being almost identical to the standard definition of high sensitivity, it is claimed that 30% of HSPs are extraverted and the two traits are separate entities.
HSP Characteristics (Elaine N. Aron, 1996)
- Noticing sounds, sensations and smells that others miss (e.g. clock ticking, the humming sound from a refrigerator, uncomfortable clothing)
- Feeling deeply moved on a visceral level by things like art, music and performance, or nature
- ‘Pick up’ others moods or have them affect you more deeply than most
- Being sensitive to pain or other physical sensations
- Peace and quiet environment is important to you
- Feel uneasy or overwhelmed in busy and crowded environment
- Sensitivity to caffeine
- Startle/ blush easily
- Dramatic impact on your mood
- Having food sensitivities, allergies, asthma
You may wonder: The HSP concepts seem to describe me to the tee, how is this different?
I have expanded the definition of emotional sensitivity to include a dimension of intensity. In my research and clinical work, I have found that there is a group of people— perhaps a subgroup of HSPs— who are not only ‘sensitive’, but also exceptionally intense, passionate, perceptive, and creative. If you are one of them, the term “sensitivity” is simply inadequate to describe the spectrum of how you experience life.
In the dictionary, a sensitive person is “capable of perceiving with a sense or senses, responsive to external conditions or stimulation, susceptible to slight differences or changes in the environment.” Those who are sensitive are “easily irritated, predisposed to inflammation,” and “easily hurt, upset, or offended” (American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 2011). Although this traditional definition of sensitivity captures your ability to be highly aware of your surroundings, it only showcases the reactive and passive aspect of your personality.
In contrast, here is the dictionary definition of intensity: “having great energy, strength, concentration, vehemence, etc., as of activity, thought, or feeling,” and having “a high degree of emotional excitement; depth of feeling.” (Random House Dictionary, 2016) Being emotionally intense means you are not only sensitive, but also full of passion, emotive energy, and vigour.
Just as laid out in the HSP framework, you may possess a rich and complex inner life and relish fine or delicate tastes, scents, sounds, and works of art. Because of that, you are acutely aware of the subtleties of your environment. Just like the HSPs, you are usually highly empathic and can sense what needs to be done in a given situation to make others comfortable. Your sponge-like ability to soak up information makes you sensitive to the moods of others’. But you are not only sensitive but also passionate— perhaps an idealist or a romantic. When in your most natural state, you feel vividly alive. On a regular basis, you have a taste of ecstasy.
Another issue that is worth considering, beyond the current advice for HSPs, is energy and stimulation management for the emotionally intense and sensitive.
In the original HSP concept, sensitive individuals are described as those who are startled or rattled easily, and they were advised to make it a high priority to arrange their life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations. It is believed that changes can shake up the HSP, and competition or observation can lead to nervousness or shakiness (except for a small a sub-group of “sensation-seeking” HSPs who seek out the novelty and risk). As a result, most HSP self-help books focus on managing over-stimulation, and many therapists and coaches who work with HSPs concentrate on offering guidance on how to limit them. (Aron, 2013)
However, emotionally intense and gifted people are not necessarily stimulant-phobic. In fact, they need a certain degree of stimulation to maintain their optimal level of functioning. To be physically and psychologically well they must also be generative and creative, and to have found their “sweet spot” of balance where they can consistently enter a creative flow state. Yes, they need to be mindful of the amount of stimulation they let into their life, but they must also avoid being under-aroused. Under-stimulation is just as problematic as over-stimulation and can hold ramification for all aspects of life, including work, love relationship, and daily activities. We will tackle the issues that come with both ends of the spectrum. For instance, we will explore how partners that “under-stimulate” the gifted brain can bring about unique challenges. The key to the health and wellness of the emotionally intense is to find the right intellectual, emotional and physical stimulations, rather than only limiting their exposure to the world.