I’ve heard it a million times. You’re too sensitive. You’re being over-sensitive. You’re making too big of a deal about it. You need to get some thick skin.
It is one of those extremely subjective things, sensitivity. Too little and you are branded as an uncaring jerk. Too much, and you are unable to withstand “normal” behavior.
Psychology Today says the scientific term is “sensory-processing sensitivity” (SPS). Being highly sensitive is not a learned behavior. Those of us with SPS are born that way. Sometimes shy as kids but labelled as introverted in adulthood (roughly 70% of highly sensitive people), those who are more sensitive than others.
In the article “21 Signs That You’re a Highly Sensitive Person” by Jenn Granneman, “highly sensitive people are more aware of subtleties and process information deeply.” Relevant adjectives include: creative, insightful and empathetic. A few downsides: being more likely to feel stressed, depressed, burned out and overwhelmed. The list of 21 signs certainly could make you feel overwhelmed.
Scientific evidence shows a highly sensitive person’s brain is definitively wired differently and the nervous system is highly sensitive with a lower threshold for action.[i] This results in increased emotional reactivity, a lower threshold for sensory information and an increased awareness of subtleties. If it sounds a bit like sensory processing disorder, it is. HSPs have a hyperactive insula, which explains a heightened awareness of their inner emotional states and bodily sensations.
What is an insula and how does it play a part in making someone highly sensitive? The insular cortex is bilaterally located deep within the brain and is roughly divided into two sections and a mid-section. A 2017 article published on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website, “The Insula: An Underestimated Brain Area in Clinical Neuroscience, Psychiatry, and Neurology.” sites the insula as “re-emerging as an important brain area not only in the physiological understanding of the brain, but also in pathological contexts in clinical research.” In other words, this little section of the brain could be a big player in how we function every single day. The authors “underscore its pathological roles in psychiatric and neurological disorders that have long been underestimated.”[ii] Emotion, cognition and behavior…possibly all influenced by the insula. Never underestimate the power of the little guy.
The limited study of the insula is not enough to fully explain the issues of highly sensitive people. Even if we did completely understand it, how do we cope with what HSP feels like? The next article will talk about common symptoms and signs and how to integrate positive coping strategies into your life.