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The link between HSPs and mental health problems

A DfE Community Learning | Mental Health Research site 2015-17

In the course of meeting, talking to, giving IAG and teaching learners/research volunteers as part of the national CLMHP in London Ealing, I have come across many adults who have said, without prompting, that they are ‘very sensitive’ to their environment, noise, other people’s feelings and behaviour towards them. Some have said that, in their opinion, this trait, which in the world where extroversion has become an ideal, has probably contributed to them often feeling overlooked, overwhelmed, anxious and depressed.

I was intrigued by this ‘discovery’, as I recognised a lot of things that the volunteers have told me in myself. During my schooling both in and outside the UK I studied psychology as one of the key subjects and was always very curious about the concepts of introversion and extroversion and how these traits affect the individuals, their choices of profession and life paths. So I decided to dig deeper.

My journey of exploration started in January 2017, where I came across a few books written by Elaine N. Aron, most importantly her first book on the subject, ‘The Highly Sensitive Person – How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You’, which was first published in the UK in 1999 by HarperCollinsPublishers. Aron, a psychotherapist, a well-known research psychologist and HSP herself, has pioneered the research into HSPs with her own 5-year study., during which she discovered that people differed considerably in how much their nervous system was aroused, i.e. stimulated in the same situation, under the same circumstances. She is of the opinion that the difference is largely inherited. If you are highly sensitive, you’ll experience higher levels of stimulation, e.g. you’ll hear sounds and notice lights, odours, clutter and chaos and be affected by them to some extent whilst most of the other individuals in the vicinity may be blissfully unaware of these.

Although sooner or later everyone encounters stressful life experiences, Dr Aron has discovered that the HSPs react more to them by being ‘overstimulated’, which often leads to fear and anxiety. This, in turn can lead to feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and being flawed.

In the Western world, where the extroverts are ‘mighty likeable fellows’, i.e. ‘warriors’ who rule the roost, HSPs get mislabelled as ‘shy’, ‘quiet’, ‘inhibited’ and ‘awkward’. However, in countries such as Japan, China and Sweden, the HSPs are more valued and expected to perform better in the workplace, and, apparently, they often do.

Like the fire department, Aron elaborates, the HSPs react to both real and false ‘alarms’, as many don’t have control over the constant stimulation, which we receive from others and our environment.

She has also discovered that most (but not all) HSPs are introverted, and also:

  • more right-brained (less linear and more creative)
  • more affected by stimulants like caffeine
  • better at spotting and avoiding errors
  • especially good at tasks requiring vigilance, accuracy, speed and detection of minor differences
  • able to concentrate deeply
  • deeply aware and affected by other people’s moods and emotions

As it happens, I then stumbled upon and read (almost in one sitting ) Susan Cain’s take on introversion as relating to high sensitivity and resulting over-vigilance and anxiety in her book ‘Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’. Inspired by Aron’s work on HSPs, Cain does not argue simplistically, but persuasively and with evidence. In Chapter 4 (‘Is Temperament Destiny?’) she discusses the influence of both Nature and Nurture on us and claims that our biology is very much part of our true self and that whether we are introverted or extroverted drives us in life and defines who our friends and which careers we choose. She argues that, although most introverts have a strong predisposition to anxiety and repression due to the fact that our neurodiversity makes us see, hear and feel what most people don’t and keeps us ‘on’ almost all the time, it’s how we learn to ‘protect’ ourselves from the constant influx of information, feelings and ‘vibes’ that will determine whether we experience mental health problems and how we deal with them if we do. That’s when she brings in the importance of free will, which, of course, requires a level of self-awareness.

In her preface, she quotes Allen Shawn:

“A species in which everyone was General Patton would not succeed, any more than would a race in which everyone was Vincent van Gogh. The planet needs the warm-hearted, the hard-hearted, the cold-hearted and the weak hearted….”

Judging by the amount I’ve written, it’s obvious this is a topic close to my heart and I’ll read some more on it.

If you are interested, get the books I’ve mentioned and visit Aron’s website http://hsperson.com, where you’ll find detailed findings of her rigorous and lengthy research.

I’d also recommend a YouTube video ‘The gentle power of highly sensitive people | Elena Herdieckerhoff | TEDxIHEParis’. Here is the link:


Now, when learners/volunteers complain about their sensitivity, I tell them to view it as a special gift to be utilised, and that, without people like them, we wouldn’t have the Theory of Relativity, Chopin’s nocturnes, Peter Pan, Orwell’s 1984, Google and Harry Potter.

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