The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneAugust 2004: Comfort Zone ONLINE
Reflections on Research:
HSPs Have Stronger Emotional Reactions
(I know, “Big news.”)
Plus This Year’s Most Annoying Research that Appears to Study HSPs

We have recently jumped through a hundred hoops to have the next scientific paper on HSPs accepted for publication. It is not yet in print, but I will tell you when it is. In this paper we showed three times with three different sets of data that HSPs who report having had a troubled childhood are more likely to be shy, depressed, and anxious than non-HSPs with the same degree of troubled childhood. We also demonstrated that shyness in HSPs seems to arise out of or be caused by having the negative feelings, the depression and anxiety. As usual, we also found the HSPs with a good-enough childhood were no more likely to be shy, anxious, or depressed than non-HSPs. Hence the basic trait is not one of being someone who is depressed, anxious, or shy.

graphThe difficulty that arose with the reviewers who decide on publication was that there is good evidence that people who are feeling negative emotions now are more likely to report that their past was unhappy. (Since it is difficult to know about a person’s past in other ways besides self-report, there is little research done on the impact of a troubled childhood on anything, even though we know it plays an important role.) But since we were not studying whether negative emotions are caused by an unhappy childhood, but whether they are caused by being an HSP with an unhappy childhood, it turns out that if HSPs with negative moods were more likely to report an unhappy childhood than non-HSPs with negative moods, that would work against our hypothesis. (Trust me on that. Even the reviewers were slow to see the logic of it.)

The editor thought that our case would be stronger if we could show in an experiment the actual process in the moment of HSPs being more negatively affected by a bad experience such as might happen in childhood. So we did such an experiment.

An Experiment Creating A Good Or Bad Experience

In a classroom of 160 college students we tested for who were HSPs and later on the same day, in what appeared to be a very different study, handed out questionnaires on various attitudes and aptitudes that needed to be tested out on some students. The first test was on artistic preferences, the second was on knowledge of sports history, the third was on practical reasoning ability, and the fourth was on personality. The first two and the last were the same for everyone. But without telling them, half the students in the class received a virtually impossible test of their reasoning ability, while the other half did a test that almost everyone could and did complete in the time allotted. To make this even a worse or better experience, the tests were handed out so that every other person had the hard test that could not be finished, while the person on either side, having an easier test, was done early. Of course seat mates noticed how those next to them were doing. The final test, of personality, was also a test of mood, since some of the questions asked about how they typically felt and others asked how they felt right now. As soon as all of this was done, the experiment was explained and everyone was told very clearly that their results had nothing to do with their practical reasoning ability. We also asked if anyone had guessed what was being done, and no one had.

graphThe experiment made our point beautifully. The HSPs in the class who had just found out they had lower reasoning ability than the average college student had answered on the mood questions that they were feeling very bad--much worse than the non-HSPs receiving the same news. But the HSPs felt much happier than the non-HSPs if they had just found out they were better than others. These responses had nothing to do with whether the particular HSP was generally a depressed or anxious person. Meanwhile, the non-HSPs were on the average almost completely unaffected by the feedback. The conclusion we drew was that the HSPs had been more emotionally affected by this bad experience of finding out they were below normal in reasoning, suggesting that bad experiences in childhood would have had a similar, greater effect on them. But also, of course, the HSPs who did well felt better.

Okay, HSPs Are More Emotional

This particular study has brought home to me that HSPs are in fact “more emotional” than others. Humans have to evaluate every situation for whether it is good, interesting, desirable, dangerous, sad, and so forth. If a situation has even a touch of these, it is processed further. This processing can lead to more emotion still. Hence emotion leads to processing and processing often leads to more emotion. Since HSPs process everything further, they have to be more emotional--emotion is initiating their processing and is often a consequence of their doing so much processing. By the way, being more emotional does not cause poor decision making. Most of the time emotions improve decisions--we can better appreciate the importance of something and are more likely to act.

In other words, you know what happened when the HSPs in the experiment learned about their poor showing at practical reasoning compared to other college students. They started processing: “I really had trouble with this, look at how the others did, I’m poor at practical reasoning, I’m going to get low grades, I may even flunk out, I won’t be able to follow my calling, my work will be menial drudgery, I won’t be able to attract the person I want, I might not even be able to afford to marry and have children, etc. etc. etc.” Of course they felt anxious and depressed. And if the feedback had been accurate, it might have caused them to get some tutoring or change their life plans--something the non-HSPs might not have bothered to do.

However, what I wish we could have done was wait to see how the feedback affected them after a few days. We couldn’t because it would have been unethical to leave half of those students thinking even for a few hours that they were stupid when they weren’t. But I’ll wager that the HSPs would have gotten over it, thanks to further processing, since the feedback was in fact false. Of course their ability to do this would be affected by their self-esteem and upbringing. Meanwhile, I think most of the non-HSPs would have begun to feel worse as they finally began to digest what the results meant.

That HSPs are more emotional was brought home to me in another way when I began asking groups of HSPs whether they thought they cried more easily than other people. In every group almost every person raised their hand, regardless of whether or not they had had a troubled childhood. Of course, they also thought they felt joy more deeply than others. Once again, it is a package deal. I think I have not emphasized our emotionality because I thought it would cause us to seem more vulnerable or irrational, but I realize that to remedy such a prejudice I will have to rethink how we view emotions as well as how we view HSPs.

This Year’s Most Annoying Research That Seems to Study HSPs

As you know, I love to debunk certain articles that appear to be about HSPs and spread a negative message about us. It’s not just that I’m being argumentative. I don’t want any of you reading articles like these and feeling bad about yourself, so I want you to learn how to critique them on your own.

This one, sent to me by a concerned HSP, appeared in the New York Times and was subsequently reprinted in many local papers. The headline in one, the Sacramento Bee, was “Stress found riskier for shy people.” The article began as most do, by getting our attention with some emotion (fear, in this case) and appealing to all sorts of authorities to make it more credible. It explained that “Since the ancient Greeks, physicians have noted that certain personality types appear more vulnerable to diseases.” Then we are told about 54 men in the early stages of HIV, studied by the Biological Psychiatry Department of the University of California at Los Angeles. Sickness and death associated with personality by the Greeks, every physician since, and now by top scientists. Good start.

Then, like most news articles about scientific experiments, we get a very poor summary of the results. “The researchers assessed their subjects’ personalities through questionnaires.” Well, which questionnaires? Going to the internet to try to find out, I found the original news release from U.C.L.A., titled “Shyness can be deadly.” That’s when I got mad. Finally I found the article, and that’s when I got madder still! The reference is “Psychological Risk Factors for HIV Pathogenesis: Mediation by the Autonomic Nervous System,” by S. Cole, M. Kemeny, J. Fahey, J. Zack, and B. Naliboff, in Biological Psychiatry, 2003, Vol. 54, 1444-1456.

How did they measure personality? They wanted to study Kagan’s idea of innate inhibition, but this is difficult to measure in adults, of course, since many infants with the trait do not grow up shy or socially introverted. This is because, as the research I have done keeps demonstrating, the actual genetic trait is something close to high sensitivity, and that does not become shyness, introversion, or inhibition unless children do not receive an appropriate upbringing. Not knowing any of this, the researchers measured what they thought was a genetic trait by averaging together measures of introversion (never a reliable measure) social avoidance (specifically, social apprehensiveness and intimacy apprehension), emotional inexpressivity (which included restricted emotional range, hardly a measure of innate sensitivity), and cynical mistrust/hostility. Talk about mixing innate characteristics with problem traits created by personal history, and the personal history of those with HIV could be on the average a bit of a factor. By the way, buried in the paper is this bit of information: “Aspects of social inhibition uncorrelated with hostility did not significantly predict HIV outcomes” (p. 1453). Since hostility is not a trait associated with HSPs, they were definitely not measuring innate sensitivity.

They thought they were doing fine because they also measured the response of these “shy” men to actual stressors, to demonstrate their innate physiological sensitivity. The stressors were unpredictable noise, being rushed on a timed verbal mathematics task, plus having to breathe at a regular rate and stand up. The first two do sound like being an HSP, but being distressed by noise and having to rush on a mathematics task is also a sign of having been under a lot of stress during one’s life (heightened reactivity of the nervous system is a symptom of PTSD, for example).

Then the subjects were treated for HIV for a year. Those who scored highest on the stress response and on “social inhibition” went on to be “hit harder by the disease, carrying a viral load 10 times as great as the others when the study began,” according to quotes from the press release and interviews with the researchers. No surprise, since “During the AIDS epidemic, researchers found that introverted people got sick and died sooner than extroverted people,” said Bruce Naliboff, co-author and a clinical professor at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and Veterans Affairs Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. Clearly no one thought much about what causes introversion in a person--genetics or bad social experiences. “Our study pinpoints the biological mechanism that connects personality and disease.” Why did they conclude that? Because “Shy persons didn’t adapt to the beeps as fast as other people,” Cole, the other researcher, said. “Their heightened nervous system response indicated that the sound was more irritating to them.” And Naliboff adds, “It looks as though sensitive people are simply wired to respond to stress more strongly than resilient people. How someone reacts to stress seems to be more important than the stress itself in explaining why one person gets sick and one person doesn’t.”

Their bottom line? Sensitive people “got far less benefits from the treatment.” Does this mean that it would be a great waste of money to treat HSPs who have a serious infection? Better to spend money trying to correct the genetic defect that makes them so sensitive and shy?

Although that sounds like the logical conclusion from the study, it is not at all. First they did not study sensitive people, but troubled people, some of whom were perhaps sensitive. That is not wiring, or all wiring, as was implied. Second, even if HSPs were wired to respond to stress more strongly, the stressor itself is very important. Early stress is what we are most vulnerable to and determines the reaction to later stress. HSPs can often deal with stress even better than non-HSPs. We can reason about it, process it, and get some perspective on it. Maybe it isn’t as stressful as it seems. Maybe this is just part of the human condition, a challenge to be faced. True, we can’t do that as well without receiving the right foundation in childhood, or help with healing early wounds later on. But that does not make us intrinsically at risk in adulthood for stress and poor health.

Well, you have our study on shyness, above. HSPs are not ALL chronically shy and socially inhibited. (In fact, absolutely everyone is shy in some situations.) They are chronically shy if they have had a troubled childhood. And there is a ton of research showing that a troubled childhood leads to poorer health in adulthood whether you are an HSP or not. Further, there are even two studies showing that children and adolescents who are highly sensitive, partly measured as having more reactive immune systems, do have more infections if they are under stress at home and at school. But if they are not, those reactive immune systems actually result in fewer illnesses.

Well, it’s better to laugh at these studies than get angry. So next time someone says, “it’s riskier for your health if you are shy and sensitive,” you can say, “It’s even riskier for your health if you continue to spread such misunderstandings about sensitive people because the HSP Police [Mafia, or whatever you like] will come and get you. After all, we are born killers.” And for that silly bit of research reporting, see the February 2003 issue, which is Volume 8, Issue 1.

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