High sensitivity and high sensation seeking

Both high sensitivity and high sensation seeking are still relatively unknown in the UK; I regularly get clients who have only just become aware of the term 'high sensitivity', even if they have already made some adjustments to handle life in a way that works better for them. In this article, I intend to share a little about the traits and what you can do if this resonates with you, a partner, relative or friend.

High sensitivity is largely still under the radar, so let me start with a definition:

What is high sensitivity?

Those who are highly sensitive have a well-developed nervous system, and this will show through in various ways, not least in sapping your energy. It is tiring being highly-sensitive due to the amount you process every minute, hour, day, and maybe even during your dreams. A misconception is that highly sensitive people are introverts; about 30% of HSPs are extraverts who will recharge by putting themselves 'out there', with the potential of reaching a point of overwhelm and the need for downtime.

Carl Jung technically first used the phrase “particularly sensitive people” back in 1913, yet it wasn’t until the work of Dr Elaine Aron in the 1980s, culminating in her first book, “The Highly Sensitive Person” in 1997, that knowledge of the trait reached a wider audience.

What are the key characteristics of a highly sensitive person?

Scientifically known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), High Sensitivity is present in roughly 20-25% of the global population as a whole - that’s every fourth to fifth child or adult across the world. Research has also established that the trait is also present in over 100 species of animals. More recent research has backed up Dr Aron’s findings; neuroscientists have established that more areas light up in the brain of an HSP subjected to the same stimulus, yet there is much still unknown about the trait. At the time of writing, 85 studies linked to high sensitivity are being carried out.

Dr Aron created the acronym DOES standing for: Depth of processing, Overarousability, Emotional intensity, and Sensory sensitivity.

These four aspects will be present in a highly sensitive person, though, like many things, they are on a spectrum; no two HSPs will be alike. Some HSPs will be more sensitive to their environment, whereas others may become over-aroused more easily. 

Depth of processing

You may think deeply about the meaning of life: why are you here? What do you want from life? You are less interested in small talk or gossip, and more up for serious discussion straight away. Due to the intensity of thought going on inside your mind, you may take your time over a decision, resulting in higher accuracy as opposed to a snap decision that may need to be tweaked. You may be good at assimilating lots of different sources of information at once and coming to an unusual, inspiring conclusion or solution. At some level, you will be creative and artistic; this doesn’t mean you will be the next Alanis Morissette (a high profile HSP), though you are likely to have some natural creative ability and gain pleasure from your music, poetry, painting etc.

Overarousability

Basically, this equates to more stimulation than you can handle at a specific moment in time, and there is some overlap with Sensory sensitivity (see below); the pressure of making a tight deadline or too many people for the space, e.g. a very crowded train carriage. Other factors concerning your environment may come into play. With awareness of your needs, you may choose to leave a party early when you reach your level of stimulation, or you may decline to attend altogether feeling the need for some downtime on a specific day.

Emotional intensity

You may experience deeper, stronger emotions for a longer period of time. It is easy to see this from a negative stance, yet this will be true for both positive and negative ones - in short, higher highs and lower lows. Empathy falls under the E of DOES too. Taking this a step further, you may pick up on other’s moods and feelings and have a level of intuition that gives you an insight into friends and colleagues.

Sensory Sensitivity

Having some overlap with Overarousability, you may notice the subtleties that others would not use the five senses, and act accordingly depending on your tolerance: using a fragrance free route already in place in some airports to avoid strong perfumes; appreciating a mild-flavoured tea; avoiding violent films and TV programmes; choosing the quiet zone on a train; being mindful of the texture of clothing fabric next to your skin.

If you are questioning yourself, or you find that some of this content relates to you as a possible HSP - or feel that one of you children is highly sensitive - it may be worth reading more about the subject. You can start deepening your awareness via a test available on Dr Elaine Aron’s website (see below). There are two separate tests you can take; one is specific for adults, and another can be taken by parents on behalf of their children.

The test can only reveal so much, according to how much you already know or discovered.

Discovering being an HSP or parenting an HSC can be magical and overwhelming at the same time, with all the nuances towards an amazing life journey. Have a go with the test(s), read more if you need to, or just start exploring and get in touch with a therapist if you feel like is time to reflect in a different supported environment.

Finding out that you are highly sensitive can bring up a variety of emotions; often there is a relief that it is OK and normal to be highly sensitive, perhaps dispelling some doubts you had about yourself. In some families, fitting in may have been difficult and you may have been told you were “too sensitive” as a child and carried this lack of understanding forward into adulthood and the workplace.

As an HSP, self-care is paramount, as is the awareness of your immediate environment. Finally, meeting other HSPs in a social group can offer support and help with self-acceptance.

High sensation seeking

If high sensitivity is largely under the radar, then High Sensation Seeking is the stealth equivalent; you might identify with some of the characteristics, yet may not be familiar with the term.

Marvin Zuckerman is credited with the research in developing knowledge about High Sensation Seeking. HSS can be present with or without high sensitivity; roughly 30% of highly sensitive people are also high sensation seekers. The popular misconception is that high sensation seekers are all extroverts; some are definitely not, yet accurate figures are not currently available.

What are the key characteristics of a high sensation seeker?

You don’t need to be high in each aspect, but the following are likely to be present at some level:

First off - thrill and adventure-seeking.

This might reflect in a desire to participate in what might be considered dangerous sports; driving fast; enjoying going on roller coasters etc.

Secondly is the need for novelty and new experiences. This can be as simple as reading a new book, enjoying going to a new restaurant, or travelling to a new destination.

Thirdly, there is disinhibition. This may show as activities outside societal norms - for example, recreational drug-taking.

Finally, susceptibility to boredom. This is the enemy of the HSS and the only one of the four aspects that don’t seem to lessen with age.

If you recognise some of these traits, you can take the high sensation seeking test.

What if you are both highly sensitive and high sensation seeking?

Dr. Aron has aptly described this as “driving with one foot on the throttle and the other on the brake”. Dr Tracy Cooper, a leading authority on High Sensation Seeking, describes it thus: “High Sensation Seeking is forever pushing us forward with boredom the stick, whilst High Sensitivity slows us down and allows us to appreciate our experiences”.

Balancing the two successfully requires self-awareness and self-compassion for the times you don’t get it right. Working with a counsellor experienced in these areas can help you on your journey.

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