This is the book I read a few years ago that started this whole business.

This is the book I read a few years ago that started this whole business.

Loyal readers of my blog know that I recently returned from a weekend retreat for HSPs (Highly Sensitive People) conducted by Elaine Aron, Ph.D. and author of many books and articles on the subject. Elaine is an HSP, too. The weekend was tough on her. It was pretty exhausting for me as well, but all I had to do was participate, not orchestrate.

I’ve gotten some feedback via comments that some of you out there are interested in what I learned over the weekend. My bet is that the interested parties are either HSPs or have to live with someone who is.

But maybe some of you don’t buy the notion that people can be “typed” as either “highly sensitive” or not. Either way, I will share with you what I learned. You can take the information and do with it what you will.

Elaine had several objectives for the the weekend:

1. define the trait that we all feel we share.

2. reassure us that our HSP-ness is real and documented in scientific fact

3. give us a number of coping strategies to deal with a variety of life situations in which we find ourselves that easily overwhelm us (relationships, work, stressful situations)

4. emphasize the positive qualities HSPs bring to the world, and not just bemoan the challenges we have in navigating the world

5. illustrate that we are as different from each other as we are similar to each other (we can’t be lumped together, as in “all HSPs are this way or are that way”)

I’ll address each of these points.

Are you an HSP?

If you visit Elaine’s web site, she has a self test. The higher you score, the more highly sensitive you are.

HSPs are self identified by taking this test. This instrument has been tested by researchers for internal and external validity and the items on the test “hang together” (not exactly a sophisticated methodological term, but you get the idea) consistently. This test is the “gold standard” for measuring sensitivity in adults.

Beyond taking the test, HSPs react to their world in ways differently than non-HSPs. Specifically, we:

1. process sensory stimuli more deeply

2. are easily over-stimulated or overwhelmed by all this stimuli that we are processing at such deep levels

3. have heightened emotional responses to both the stimuli and the over-stimulation

4. notice what many other miss or are more sensitive to subtle stimuli in our environment

All of these tendencies culminate in a person who is highly reactive to what is happening around her/him and needs a lot of quiet, alone-time to recover from what we perceive as chaos (but most people perceive as “normal life”).

A normal work day for most; a reason to start crying for me.

A normal work day for most; a reason to start crying for me.

The Science Behind the Sensitivity

The tendencies mentioned above are genetic, but can be enhanced or diminished by environmental factors–just like most genetic predispositions.

Elaine presented a long series of research studies. They are summarized in Aron, E. N. (2012). Temperament in psychotherapy: Reflections on clinical practice with the trait of sensitivity. In M. Zentner & R. Shiner (Eds.), Handbook of temperament (pp. 645-670). New York: Guilford. If you click here and scroll down the page, you will see a place to download the .pdf version of the full article. Elaine also promised to put her PowerPoint notes up on her website sometime soon. That presentation summarizes findings in this article.

Two of the most interesting findings concerned alleles (portions of genes) and something called “mirror neurons.”

Disclaimer: I’m a social scientist, not a neuroscientist. This is my best attempt at explaining some heavy-duty brain science studies. And remember, I’m dizzy, blonde, and easily overwhelmed by too much information.

As I understand it, brain genes responsible for collecting and hanging on to serotonin come in three varieties: long/long, short/long, and short/short. The best kind to have are long/long because they can collect and hold the most serotonin, which is the “feel good” chemical preventing depression, anxiety, and general snarkiness.

Scientists have found that HSPs with traumatic childhoods (many HSPs), have an unusually high rate of short/short alleles. Do all of them have short/short alleles? No one knows that. But it’s being investigated.


Another study looked at brain activity of self-defined HSPs and non-HSPs using an fMRI (functional MRI where people are asked to do mental activities while stuck inside one of those loud, obnoxious contraptions.

The experiment, which was replicated several times, asked both HSPs and non-HSPs to imagine different scenarios. Then the researchers watched how their brains lit up.

First scenario: You are having a pleasant experience. Both groups’ brains lit up in similar ways.

Second scenario: Another person is having a pleasant experience. Only HSPs’ brains lit up.

Third scenario: You are having an unpleasant experience. While both groups’ brains lit up, the HSPs’ brains looked like they were having a power surge (my words, not the neuorscientists’).

Fourth scenario: Another person is having an unpleasant experience: Only HSPs’ brains lit up like fireworks on the 4th of July.

Conclusion: HSPs are more sensitive to both their own experiences and those of others than non-HSPs, even in the imaginary world of the clackity-clack-clack of an MRI machine. That’s where the “mirror neuron” business came in. We seem to have more of those, therefore, can mirror other people’s feelings more easily than non-HSPs. In other words, we’re more attuned to the moods of other people.

This is long enough. We HSPs have to pace ourselves. I’ll have to continue in another post. I know you HSPs dislike ambiguity, so I’ll shoot for tomorrow.

I've had enough, have you?

I’ve had enough for now, have you?