As a sensitive child, you may have experienced great joy in the natural world—plants, pets, animals and babies of any species. You most likely also had the ability to feel more positive emotion than other, less sensitive children would have felt in the same circumstances. In your teen years and now in adulthood, you may benefit more than others would from an upgrade in circumstances. Here are several important research updates, with easy-to-understand definitions of the terms you may come across in other articles.
Science has been increasingly aware that the highly sensitive person (HSP) was vulnerable to the negative. You may fare less well than the non-sensitive in difficult circumstances. Only in the last few years have researchers looked beyond your vulnerability and begun to see your ability to do better in better circumstances.
As an HSP, you may hurt more deeply when a negative event occurs. You also have the ability to focus in, develop insight, review and reorient your perspective, and find solutions that allow you to diminish that negative effect.
As you read about the strengths you have as an HSP, you may be just a bit more willing and able to utilize those strengths. So here are four of a several dozen examples of HSP advantages from a growing number of studies.
Orphaned and abandoned infants
In the Romanian capital city of Bucharest, an orphanage was caring for 136 babies, ranging from six to thirty months. Funds were available to place only half of them in high quality foster homes. There was a concern that they would develop “indiscriminate social behavior.” That's a risk that occurs when there is no consistent, reliable caregiver with whom the child can create a lasting bond.
This same gene variant had been previously shown to make the detrimental effects from institutionalization (such as living in an orphanage) more likely. It actually provided a benefit in higher quality care (more positive circumstances).
Young girls already suffering from depression
These eleven-year-olds were given 12 one-hour training sessions based in cognitive behavioral therapy and positive psychology. Those high in sensory-processing sensitivity improved; those lower in SPS did not.
The high-SPS group also continued to further improve for the next year without any additional training, according to study authors Michael Pluess and Ilona Boniwell. (Search “Pluess and Boniwell” for the PDF.)
Sensitive adults and positive life events
Men and women high in SPS scored lower in neuroticism than those low in SPS when recent life events were positive.
In another study of women, those high in SPS scored lower in neuroticism than the low-SPS group when there was a history of positive life events. These were two of many studies reported by Michael Pluess and Jay Belsky. (Search: Pluess and Belsky, 2012,Vantage Sensitivity: Individual Differences in Response to Positive Experiences to download the PDF.)
"Difficult" babies and "negative" temperaments
Beginning in the 1950s, Jerome Kagan at Harvard described some children as “highly reactive” with “difficult” or “negative” temperaments. These babies disliked being restrained or being stuck with a pin. If you popped a balloon over their heads, they would startle and wave their arms and legs more or longer than other children.
Dr. Elaine Aron writes that by ages three or four they seemed reluctant to interact with a loud stranger in clown clothes or when they first entered a room filled with color and noise.
She felt, long before her own research is as extensive as it is now, that the youngsters were more sensitive to pain, overly stimulated, or just preferred to observe before joining in. She suspected these “inhibited” children “with the right parenting would grow up just fine.” Now, research by others in several countries is confirming her understanding.
This describes vulnerability. It is a more recent description than Kagan’s “high-reactive” babies. The theory recognizes that some are more adversely affected by difficulty. It describes the “dark side” or downside of sensitivity. It suggests nothing about the possibility of an upside.
This is similar, but it allows for developmental plasticity, for both better and worse results. One person may be affected more than others were for better in positive circumstances and for worse in negative circumstances.
This theory suggests that an individual can be disproportionately affected by positive influences. It describes the “bright side” or upside of sensitivity. It may also imply that the benefit or gain from sensitivity might be greater than any cost or detriment.
Advantage and vantage have somewhat different meanings. If you have a good poker hand, you have an “advantage.” If you are just generally lucky, it is the more all-encompassing “vantage.”
One possibility is that...
the individual propensity of vantage sensitivity may increase over time as a result of exposure to positive influences—consistent with the notion of upward spiral dynamics.
Given that such an upward and positive spiral could characterize some more than others, one might expect inter-individual differences in vantage sensitivity to become larger over time in a positive environment.
For example, individuals with high cognitive abilities (i.e., IQ) may be more likely to benefit from high quality education which then increases their cognitive abilities even further and with that the probability that they will also benefit more from future high quality education experiences.
-–Michael Pluess and Jay Belsky, Vantage Sensitivity: Individual Differences in Response to Positive Experiences, American Psychological Association, 2012 (Search: Pluess and Belsky, 2012, Vantage Sensitivity: Individual Differences in Response to Positive Experiences for the PDF.)
The authors caution that not every risk factor functions as a susceptibility or vantage sensitivity factor. There are also many other influences related to health, life experiences, or behavioral choices.
These studies identified those high in SPS using a)Aron’s highly sensitive person quiz or b) DNA evidence of gene variants believed to be linked to sensitivity like 5-HTTLPR (a serotonin transfer gene).
More on "vantage sensitivity" and the upward spiral possible for the HSP
In the same paper Pluess and Belsky wrote that
…individuals may be both highly responsive to environmental support (i.e., showing increased vantage sensitivity) and unresponsive to and protected from adversity (i.e., showing increased resilience…)
Again they offer the example of a bright child who might benefit by quality education without his or her being adversely affected by low-quality schooling. (The child might, however, be bored. And, this doesn’t mean that HSPs are brighter than others; it is simply an example. You might call it vantage intelligence.)
Author Susan Cain describes her communication with researcher Jay Belsky, a professor of human development at University of California, Davis; King Abdulaziz University, Jedda, Saudi Arabia; and Birbeck University, London, U.K.
The parents of high-reactive children are exceedingly lucky, Belsky told me. The time and effort they invest will actually make a difference. Instead of seeing kids as vulnerable to adversity, parents should see them as malleable—for worse, but also for better.’ He describes eloquently a high-reactive child’s ideal parent: someone who “can read your cues and respect your vulnerability; is warm and firm in placing demands on you without being harsh or hostile; promotes curiosity, academic achievement, delayed gratification, and self-control; and is not harsh, neglectful, or inconsistent.”
Not too many decades ago the question was whether nature or nurture was more important in human development. It seems that the answer is both are important, interacting continuously in multiple ways. It is not genes-plus-environment, but genes-by-environment, many times over.
A dynamic, changing landscape
Genetics and genomics, studies of behavior, brain function, and sensitivity are complex and rapidly evolving fields. There are only a handful of genes being studied as contributors to sensory-processing sensitivity. 5-HTTLPR is clearly related to sensitivity. More are likely and much is still to be understood about their interactions.
DRD4, related to the function of the neurotransmitter dopamine, is mentioned in multiple studies. There are now a dozen known polymorphisms (variants). It clearly has an upside and a downside. It it is still unclear to what degree it may be related to sensory-processing sensitivity.
Here’s an example of this explosion of information in research related to health but unrelated to being an HSP. According to a Yale study released in 2010, a focus on only two or three suspect genes related to asthma expanded into 250 genes now believed to be possible contributors to this disorder. This illness affects 6.5 million children in the U.S.
A trait that has both an upside and a downside, depending on circumstances, is hard to study; the two effects can appear to cancel each other other out.
Set aside research for the moment and look just at people living their lives. As an HSP coach, I think about the many reasons the benefits of being an HSP had not been noticed earlier. The highly sensitive person living out the upside of sensitivity may be invisible, largely indistinguishable from other healthy, happy, and capable individuals.
It is my hope that you will continue to read about and learn about your sensitivity to become a more effective, energized, confident and authentic HSP.