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Highly Sensitive Person

Research Confirms Sensitivity Is About Depth of Processing

A key trait in the highly sensitive is noticing the details of life.

Source: pexels - KATRIN BOLOVTSOVA

The trait of high sensitivity is in essence all about processing information more deeply. This noticing of details and their meaning is the basic survival trait inherited by a minority of individuals within many species, humans included. This trait allows sensitive individuals to notice opportunities and threats that others miss. Why always a minority? Why isn’t everyone highly sensitive? Because if everyone noticed everything, there would be no advantage to anyone being highly sensitive. But a few always develop this extra sensitivity.

I want to emphasize the essence of high sensitivity because it is so easily misunderstood as a weakness, a problem of being easily overwhelmed by the environment or one’s own emotions. So now and then I have to speak up about what it actually is. Indeed, I have not written a post on the research on high sensitivity since 2017; it is definitely time to return to the subject. There has been considerably more research done since then, of varying quality, but I want to highlight research on differential susceptibility, especially our susceptibility to interventions, as a perfect example of depth of processing.

Differential Susceptibility Is the Natural Result of Deep Processing

Differential susceptibility is usually discussed in the context of children and the effects of different kinds of childhoods on adults: HSPs do better than others on various measures if they had a good childhood, but worse than others if they had a poor one. But we see differential susceptibility in a different light when it affects teaching people, whatever their childhoods, how to cope in various situations. Earlier I reported on a program in the U.K. for 11-year-old girls, designed to prevent them from becoming depressed after turning 12, which often happens. One year later, the results showed that the study had successfully prevented depression only in those girls scoring in the top third of the HSP Scale. Clearly those girls had processed the information in the program more thoroughly. Since 2017, this result has been found in other cultures (Japan) for other interventions (e.g., dealing with bullying).

Another Big Step: Genetic Identification of Sensitivity

Research on the greater effect of interventions on HSPs continues, with better methods yielding clearer results. Let’s look at this study (you can find the studies I mention by entering the title into Google Scholar): “Genetic sensitivity predicts long-term psychological benefits of a relationship education program for married couples,” by Pluess et al, in the 2022 Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. In this case, rather than the HSP Scale, two genetic indicators were used to identify those who were highly sensitive. One was a set of nine genes thought from past research to predict the trait, and the other, which turned out to provide better results, was based on several thousand variants across the genome, derived from a recent, very clever “genome-wide” association study.

The paper reports two independent studies. In the first, 242 couples were randomly assigned either to receive a well-researched program for improving communication in married couples or to be in a control group. There was then an independent replication with another 183 couples. In both studies, after the intervention highly sensitive persons showed more improvement in their marital communication over time (some were followed for 16 years) than those who were not highly sensitive. That the effects increased with time suggests that the HSPs continued to process and learn from the program for years after.

A Genome-Wide Measure of Sensitivity

It is a step forward that this intervention study was able to identify sensitivity genetically rather than simply using self-report questionnaires. It makes the trait just that much more real. It is equally validating that a genome-wide approach could be used. While there are some genes thought to be associated with the trait, these results have not been very consistent. But if finding the trait using a genome-wide approach does not require testing for specific genes, how do you do it?

To answer that, in a previous study researchers focused on twin studies, because how much a trait is genetic is often determined by comparing identical twins to non-identical twins. For differences in personality traits, the contribution of genetics will always be somewhere around 50%, while the environment contributes the rest, but we really can see that genetics are involved when identical twins have even more of a trait than non-identical twins. Interestingly, even among identical twins, analyses show that identical twin pairs vary in how much they are affected by their genes versus their environment. These researchers reasoned that those identical twins more affected by their environments have genes that, by definition, make them more differentially susceptible: They are HSPs. Brilliant, yes? See Keers, R. et al., “A genome-wide test of the differential susceptibility hypothesis reveals a genetic predictor of differential response to psychological treatments for child anxiety disorders,” in the 2016 issue of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics.

In that pioneering study, Keers and his colleagues used the same genome-wide pattern of genes associated with more susceptibility or sensitivity in identical twins to identify sensitive children in general, twins or not, and it worked. The emotional problems of children identified as sensitive using these genome-wide patterns were more affected by their parents’ parenting skills. And it was clearly differential susceptibility, in that HS children identified in this way had more problems than other children if their parents’ lacked skills and fewer problems than other children when their parents had good skills.

The same study also looked at the effects of therapy on those children in the study who had anxiety disorders and found that receiving more intense therapy (individual vs. group vs. something brief taught to parents to help their kids) helped HS children, but the intensity of treatment did not matter for other children with anxiety disorders.

Another study using this genome-wide measure found it explained variations in the effects of a family intervention on children’s anxiety and depression. (See Lemery-Chalfant, et al., “Genetic moderation of the effects of the Family Check-Up intervention on children’s internalizing symptoms,” in the 2018 issue of Development and Psychopathology.) And this method of identifying HSPs was also used to study the effect of stress on depression in adults. (See Davidson et al., “Genome-wide stress sensitivity moderates the stress-depression relationship in a nationally representative sample of adults,” in 2018 Scientific Reports.)

Seeing Depth of Processing in This Research

Let’s go back to where we started: Being highly sensitive is not a weakness. It is not just about being easily overwhelmed by the environment or by one’s own emotions. Yes, we are more affected by our environment, but we can learn to manage that. Yes, we have stronger emotional reactions. We must, because that makes us more attentive to new information. (And processing a situation more may of course also lead to stronger emotional responses.) But we can learn to manage our emotions. The great news here is that interventions work so well for HSPs. Just reading the right book or article or taking a helpful course can solve those disadvantages. Yes, a painful childhood may require us to spend some time in psychotherapy straightening all that out. But we will get more from therapy than others do. We can fix the problems.

The important point is that when we look past the problems, when we look “under the hood” at the subtle inner effect of our special genes, we find this deep processing of everything. This means HSPs have a deep receptivity to what is useful–and the ability to look closely and know when something really is useful. We can see beneath the hype. We notice the details. We will try it out. We learn. Because we are highly sensitive, meaning that we process everything deeply.

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