High Sensitivity is an innate trait that is most recognized through an individuals sensitivity to over stimulation, deep inner processing, emotional stimuli, and sensory reactivity. This is a normal trait that affects 20% of the general population. This trait can be experienced as distressing and impair life when the trait is not understood or managed well, and may develop into anxiety, mood, personality or somatoform disorders. Other issues may sometimes be confused with high sensitivity. or may co-occur with the HS trait.
Seven issues that get confused with the Highly Sensitive Trait are mentioned briefly here:
1. Autism Spectrum Disorder
2. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
3. Sensory Processing Disorder
4. Substance Use Disorders
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Being Highly Sensitive and having an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are not the same, even though it may seem that the sensitivity to sensory stimulation in ASD is related. With ASD, there may be hyper- (increased) or hypo (reduced) reactivity toward some specific sensory input (eg certain sounds, textures, smells, light, pain, temperature etc) and this may involve restricted, repetitive movements. Whereas HSP’s tend to tolerate increased sensory input for a time, but then need to reduce the stimulation to re-charge. With ASD there tends to be difficulty with theory of mind, empathy, and understanding social cues and expressions, whereas HSP’s tend to be deep processors with extensive theory of mind, and process social cues and empathy thoroughly. With ASD there tends to be an high threshold for pain, whereas with an HSP there tends to be a low threshold for pain. With ASD there may be difficulty with imagination and varying interests, whereas HSP’s tend to be highly creative with highly diverse interests. With ASD there may be lacking social skills and awareness, whereas with HSP’s there may be excellent social skills and insightful awareness.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
There are numerous differences between the highly sensitive person and those with ADHD. ADHD exhibits attention difficulties, avoid tasks due to poor executive function, disorganisation, incomplete projects, impulsivity and risk taking consistently. The highly sensitive person only has difficulties with attention when overstimulated, does not experience hyperactivity or impulsivity as they tend to be cautious, perfectionists, avoid tasks due to overstimulation about performance, and yet may also be motivated to complete projects due to stress.
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)
Being Highly Sensitive is not the same as having a Sensory Processing Disorder. SPD occurs when the nervous system is receiving messages from the senses and not turning them into the appropriate motor or behavioural response. This impacts the ability to carry out functioning in everyday life. Highly sensitive people can adapt to sensory overload and respond appropriately.
SPD is sometimes confused with SPS - "Sensory Processing Sensitivity". SPS is the research name for "Highly Sensitive", they are one and the same thing. SPS is a trait associated with greater sensitivity and responsiveness to the environment and to social stimuli.
Substance Use Disorders (SUD)
Most Highly Sensitive people, even when high sensation seekers, tend to avoid impulsive and risky behaviours that may cause harm to their health, however some highly sensitive people indulge mind-altering substances to soothe and comfort emotions, avoid responsibilities and seek relief from overstimulation. The HSP that becomes addicted may experience added distress and inner conflict over their choices as they are generally very aware of the consequences of their choices.
High Sensitivity is related to neuroticism when a person with high sensitivity is experiencing negative emotion due to a troubled childhood. Therefore neuroticism and high sensitivity only relate when emotional distress is evident.
It is often assumed that all highly sensitive people are introverts. Dr Elaine Aron’s research has found that 70% of highly sensitive people are introverts and 30% are extroverts. Therefore introversion and high sensitivity generally go together, but not always.
Highly sensitive people may become shy when they are experiencing negative emotions due to having experienced an unfortunate event or difficult childhood, although most highly sensitive people are not shy. A person can be both highly sensitive and shy, or just highly sensitive.
The highly sensitive trait may also co-occur with Substance Use Disorders, Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders, Sleep Disorders, Adjustment Disorders, and Eating Disorders.
Disclaimer: the information on this site is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice.