Hypersensitive? It doesn't have to be an all bad personal trait

Judith Kleinfeld

My friend Janet is super sensitive to slights. She is often accused of "making a mountain out of a molehill" when she broods about what her friends consider trivial. Their gentle criticism sends Janet even deeper into the dumps.

But she has a strong side. She is sensitive to other people's moods and needs and makes a wonderful friend.

In the most recent issue of Psychology Today, news editor Andrea Bartz summarizes the research on "The Highly Sensitive Person" ("Sense and Sensibility," July-August, 2011).

She highlights serious scientific research -- the work of psychologists like Elaine Aron, Arthur Aron and their colleagues on what they call "sensory-processing sensitivity."

This is not simply shyness, introversion, or neurosis. It's a particular facet of personality, which can give people strengths when they learn how to manage it, and get them into serious trouble when they do not.

Are you a hypersensitive person? Elaine and Arthur Aron have developed a research-based test with questions like these:

• Are you made uncomfortable by loud noises?

• Does your nervous system sometime feel so frazzled that you just have to get off by yourself?

• Do changes in your life shake you up?

• Do you notice and enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, works of art?

Hypersensitivity has its good and bad sides. At its worst, hypersensitivity can create debilitating anxiety and depression. It's a problem when it interferes with your life.

At its best, Aron argues, hypersensitive people experience the world around them in sensitive and rich ways.

Hypersensitive people may be born this way, but their environment also makes a big difference. They suffer more than less sensitive children, for example, when their parents aren't attuned to their temperament.

Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan, a teacher of mine, studied children who were especially shy (related to hypersensitivity). In a room full of toys, most children began running around, banging drums, and playing with the other children.

But about 10 percent to 20 percent of the preschoolers stood at the side and watched the others play, often staying close to their mothers. With sensitive and encouraging parenting, Kagan found, many shy children did not turn out to be shy adults.

Scientists now think that hypersensitivity, sometimes expressed as shyness, comes from a highly sensitive brain structure.

"Brain imaging studies suggest real differences in the brains of HSPs versus everyone else," writes Bartz. "Cortical areas linked to attention and processing perceptual data show higher activation in response to all kinds of stimuli.

"Further, the possibility of rewards sparks an outsize response in the reward circuit, and fear related regions are particularly stirred by stress."

We don't really know how many people in the population are hypersensitive. Aron puts the number at about 15 percent to 20 percent.

Most of us are sensitive to criticism and rejection. But hypersensitive people can be overly sensitive, fearful, prone to dramatics, ruminating over minor problems and slights. They get into trouble with serious social, psychological and health problems unless they figure out how to control it.

Aron has put her research to practical uses, for example, writing "The Highly Sensitive Person's Workbook" to help highly sensitive people manage their lives. She recommends common therapeutic techniques: Understand how your particular nervous system works. Figure out how hypersensitivity might be limiting you. Figure out how to turn your sensitivity to your advantage.

If you are offered a job promotion that would bring too much stress, for example, don't worry about turning it down.

Aron believes hypersensitivity can be a good thing and not interfere with happiness and success. Such people, she says, are often highly attuned to other people, experience beauty with intensity, and notice things that others may miss.

When I studied Aron's methods in her research articles, I thought she was making the benefits of hypersensitivity too positive. Still it's good to recognize your areas of sensitivity and figure out what you might want to change.

Too sensitive or wonderfully responsive to nuances of taste, sound, beauty and the feelings of others? The same person can be either or both.

Judith Kleinfeld holds a doctorate from Harvard and is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Judith Kleinfeld