"This excessive sensitiveness very often brings an enrichment of the personality...Only, when difficult and unusual situations arise, the advantage frequently turns into a very great disadvantage, since calm consideration is then disturbed by untimely affects. Nothing could be more mistaken, though, than to regard this excessive sensitiveness as in itself a pathological character component. If that were really so, we should have to rate about one quarter of humanity as pathological”
(C.G. Jung, 1913)
In 1913, Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung first mentioned the concept of innate sensitiveness in several of his lectures. Jung argued that some people are born more sensitive than others and that this innate trait shapes and interacts with their experiences and their perception of the world.
Since the 1990s, sensitivity as a trait has been the focus of extensive research, showing that individual differences in registering, processing and responding to environmental stimuli do exist in over 100 species, including humans, and that these differences are caused by genetic, prenatal and postnatal factors (Greven et al., 2019; Wolf et al., 2008).
According to empirical studies, sensitivity is a common and normally distributed trait with people generally falling into three distinct groups on a sensitivity continuum: high-sensitive (31%), medium-sensitive (40%) and low-sensitive (29%) (Lionetti et al., 2018,). To date, one twin study (Assary et al., 2020) and at least five fMRI studies of Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) have supported the biological basis of the trait –the latter showing higher activation in brain regions that are involved in empathy, social processing and reflective thinking (Acevedo et al., 2018).
Although sensitivity has been conceptualised as a common trait and not as a psychological disorder, many studies have found associations between high sensitivity and an increased risk for the development of a wide range of symptoms of psychopathology and psychological issues in adults. This includes increased anxiety and depression (Bakker & Moulding, 2012; Liss et al., 2005; Liss et al., 2008), difficulties in emotional regulation (Brindle et al., 2015), lower levels of subjective happiness (Sobocko & Zelenski, 2015), lower levels of life satisfaction (Booth et al., 2015 ), increased levels of stress (Bakker & Moulding, 2012), physical symptoms of ill health (Benham, 2006) and greater dissatisfaction at work, as well as a greater need for recovery (Andresen et al., 2017; Evers et al. 2008).
However, it was also shown that high sensitivity correlates with more positive outcomes such as an increase in positive affect following positive mood induction and more positive responses to antibullying and depression prevention programmes in children and adolescents (Lionetti et al., 2018; Pluess & Boniwell, 2015; Nocentini et al., 2018).
Am I Highly Sensitive? Researcher and clinical psychologist Dr Elaine Aron developed the HSP scale in 1997 based on her research to assess whether individuals are highly sensitive or not. This self-test is based on her HSP scale. If you answer more than fourteen questions as true to yourself, it is likely that you are highly sensitive. However, a full assessment is necessary in order to be sure, so please do not rely only on the results of the questionnaire alone.
I am easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input
I seem to be aware of subtleties in my environment
Other people’s moods affect me
I tend to be very sensitive to pain
I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or into a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation
I am particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine
I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by
I have a rich, complex inner life
I am made uncomfortable by loud noises
I am deeply moved by the arts or music
My nervous system sometimes feels so frazzled that I just have to go off by myself
I am conscientious
I startle easily
I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time
When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment I tend to know what needs to be done to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating)
I am annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once
I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things
I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows
I become unpleasantly aroused when a lot is going on around me
Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration or mood
Changes in my life shake me up
I notice and enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, works of art
I find it unpleasant to have a lot going on at once
I make it a high priority to arrange my life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations
I am bothered by intense stimuli, like loud noises or chaotic scenes
When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise
When I was a child, my parents or teachers seemed to see me as sensitive or shy
If you answered more than fourteen of the questions as true of yourself, you are probably highly sensitive. But no psychological test is so accurate that an individual should base his or her life on it. If fewer questions are true of you, but extremely true, that might also justify you calling you highly sensitive.