Sensory Processing Sensitivity: An Overview

We are exposed to internal and external stimuli at almost every moment in our lives, its forms being physical, emotional and biological; it is either foisted upon us or we willingly welcome it. Each individual’s management of and reactions to these impulses vary in intensity—while in some people, the cognitive processes unfolding behind the scenes might be cursory, in some others these processes involve and are driven by a heightened sensitivity of the central nervous system. The topography and depth of these processes, referred to as sensory processing sensitivity, is measured in order to discern the strength of one’s responsiveness to stimuli. 

What is Sensory Processing Sensitivity?

Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) is a personality trait that is represented by an increased sensitivity[2] to sensory stimuli, however subtle or miniscule. It is measured and calculated using a questionnaire that inquires the respondent’s sensitivity to stimuli. A high measure of SPS in a person is indicative of a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). An important consideration to note and remember about SPS is that it is not a disorder, and that the similarly named sensory processing disorder is different. SPS is simply a personality temperament that characterizes a class of people referred to as Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs). These terms were coined by Dr. Elaine Aron in the mid-1990s, a pioneer in the study and the proliferation of SPS and HSPs in academia and society.

Who can be categorised as a highly sensitive person?

Since an HSP is someone who is simply more receptive and responsive to subtleties around them, this trait can be found in people of all ages, from babies, children, teenagers and adults, affecting about 15-20% of the population. It is an innate quality, and has also been found in non-human species[1].

What are the traits of a HSP?

HSP have been observed[1] to be more prone to having a “pause to check” reaction when presented with a novel situation. They are also found weaving strong, deep and complex cognitive maps, mostly based on emotional processes and reactions, whether positive or negative. A highly sensitive person can be identified through the following tangible characteristics[3]:

  • Prone to sensory overload. Chaotic environments such as those containing loud noises, strong smells and graphic images deeply overwhelm HSPs.
  • Low pain tolerance. The threshold for pain of any kind, physical or emotional, of HSPs is lower than that of non-HSPs.
  • Easily moved. An HSP is often vehemently moved by evocative forms of art such as imagery, music and dance. They are also more nature-inclined than most. HSPs are also often deep thinkers, due to their complex cognitive processing pathways. As a result, they might also be seekers to life’s big questions, diving deep into the WHY of things that happen in and around their lives, and might become upset when they don’t encounter satisfactory answers.
  • Deeply perceptive. They recognize and pick up on other people’s discomfort, unease or any other negative emotion, and might even absorb the moods of others.
  • Rich inner world. HSPs are people who can get lost in the landscape of their inner world, and are often found in a state of trance and daydreaming.
  • Avoiding of violence. HSPs often cannot handle violent depictions of any kind, whether in media or in real life. Cruel and brutal situations affect HSPs, making them upset and sometimes even prone to physical symptoms such as nausea, or at the very least leave them feeling deeply unsettled.
  • Conflict avoidant. Since disputes have the potential to rake up unpleasant emotions, HSPs tend to avoid them as a protective measure to their sensitivity.
  • Prone to withdrawing. When the world around HSPs keeps shifting and changing, and when things become overwhelming as a result of being bombarded by stimuli, HSPs have the tendency to retreat in order to allow their mind to catch up with their external surroundings.

Reminders to HSP

  • Allow yourself to retreat. You are allowed to withdraw from environments, people, situations and things that make you uncomfortable, even if you were conditioned to believe that it is the norm, or that you should stick it up. You are not a quitter for engaging in unapologetic self-preservation.
  • Make time to rest. It is easy, especially in the edifice of capitalism, to feel “lazy” for needing more rest than what others, or even you, deem the norm. This results in a tendency to work more than you can handle and edge into burnout. Remember, Rest is an indispensable requisite, not a luxury you can opt out of.
  • Feel however you deem necessary. The way you feel is justified, even if the people around you do not understand the intensity, potency and ferocity of it. You are allowed to carve out the space you need to express yourself to the fullest, without suppressing your feelings.
  • Set boundaries. Not everyone will appreciate your sensitivity, and that’s their choice. It is also your choice to walk away from people who do not hold space for you.
  • Remember, you are strong. Being highly sensitive to and having a low threshold for pain, whether emotional or physical, does not make you weak.
  • Think, process and act for yourself only. You don’t need to burn-out trying to deduce what others might need or think. Trust the people in your life to seek your help if they need to, do not push it on them. This process not only tires you out, but might also breach others’ boundaries.

How can you help HSP?

  • Research and learn. Round up resources to educate yourself on sensory processing sensitivity, and invest time and energy towards realizing their reality. They will thank you for it abundantly.
  • Openly talk about SPS and HSP. About 15-20% of the population have high sensory processing sensitivity, the number reflecting a minority. Learning and openly conversing about these things helps remove the stigma behind sensitivity and its usage as a yardstick for “strength”, and helps push the HSP in your life toward self-acceptance.
  • Do not infantilize them. The intensity of their emotions is not an excuse to treat them as a child and belittle them, nor is it an excuse to tell them that what and how they’re feeling is wrong. Do not treat their emotions as if it were a tantrum.
  • Hold space for the extent of their feelings. Remember that their tendency to viscerally feel does not discount their humanity. Motivate them towards an acknowledgement of the magnificence that they are.
  • Accept their need to withdraw and encourage it. HSPs saunter through life embodying a myriad of emotions, thoughts and questions. Allow them a non-judgemental room to process it all.
  • Communicate clearly. While HSP are susceptible to non-verbal cues, it does not necessarily mean they are always cognizant of their intricacies and origins. Talking to them with clarity allows them peace and strips away any room for anxiety.
  • Support them. HSP often needs reminding that the way they feel is justified, that they deserve rest, and that they are not weak. Remind them that there is nothing repugnant with their sensitivity.
  • Be gentle with them. Since HSP have heightened responsiveness, adopting tender words and actions towards them helps in not overwhelming them.

Reference used and Sources to learn more

  1. Aron EN, Aron A, Jagiellowicz J. Sensory Processing Sensitivity: A Review in the Light of the Evolution of Biological Responsivity. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 2012;16(3):262-282.
  2. Wikipedia contributors. (2020, December 8). Sensory processing sensitivity. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 07:24, February 7, 2021, from
  3. Sarah Corsby, @themindgeek on Instagram | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4
  4. Dr. Elaine Aron’s website: The Highly Sensitive Person
  5. Self tests on Dr. Elaine Aron’s website: Self-Tests – The Highly Sensitive Person (not to be treated as a professional diagnosis)

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