Recent research by social psychologist Elaine Aron and her team describes a set of human characteristics which she calls "high sensitivity." Her research suggests that approximately 15-20% of the human (and for that matter animals) have evolved to be markedly more responsive to their environment. It is not that these "highly sensitive people" (HSPs) are gifted with super-hearing or hyper-acute vision but rather, that they have nervous systems and minds which permit more stimulation to enter without automatically and unconsciously shutting it out, and further, that they then cognitively process the stimulation that they receive in more detail than others do.
What do we mean by "stimulation?
Stimulation comes in on all sensory channels: sights, sounds, smells, vibrations, touch.
HSP's typically respond strongly and quickly reach their natural level of tolerance in loud, bright or chaotic environments.
- Managing this kind of overstimulation could be treated as a "technical problem" of reducing environmental intensity or leaving it when possible.
Five kinds of over-stimulation which can contribute to depression
(1) Chronic environmental overstimulation.
Unfortunately "leaving" an over-stimulating environment is not always possible.
- A sensitive child may not leave a busy classroom...
- A worker may not always have the luxury of leaving an intolerable workplace...
- A loving, sensitive mother cannot abandon her children when they are "over-stimulating "
Animal models have shown that when a creature comes to believe that it is unable to flee a tormenting environment it develops feelings of "learned helplessness" and becomes hopeless and depressed (Seligman,1967).
Over-stimulation is an unpleasant, aversive experience for everyone.
HSPs who are chronically over-stimulated and feel incapable of exercising control over their environment may be at higher risk for developing feelings of helplessness, hopelessness... and then depression.
(2) Internal bodily stimulation
HSPs are closely tuned in to information and signals from their bodies. Internal sensations of hunger, thirst, over-heating, physical tiredness, insufficient rest... all are very compelling and evident to them. As a result, HSP's sometimes become overly concerned about their health or frailty and may make urgent demands on their environment for attention or support.
This heightened awareness of their human vulnerability may contribute to feelings of anxiety and a sense of vulnerability which again contributes to the growth of depressive feelings.
(3) A rich and stimulating inner life.
Another set of stimuli arises in the form of fantasies, dreams and internal reflections... all those, anxious, critical or magical thoughts, which float around in the background of our usual conscious thinking are more easily accessible, more credible and interesting to most HSP's.
This detailed cognition about anxiety-producing possibilities is undertaken in order to anticipate and avert potential problems... but it can easily become overwhelming and contribute to feelings of fragility and inadequacy and lead again towards helpless, hopeless depression.
(4) Interpersonal over-stimulation
Other human beings are highly stimulating to be around!
All human beings are constantly signaling their emotional states to one another through tone of voice, posture, gestures and eye contact. It is a natural human ability to respond empathically to these signals... to understand and"feel together" with those around us.
HSPs with their porous stimulation barriers and detailed cognitive processing are skilled conscious and unconscious interpersonal signal readers. As a result they are often unknowingly buffeted and captured by the emotional states of those around them...or even by the plight of people on the news or in fictional representations. They may experience these resonances very strongly.
If an HSP is living closely with a depressed or mentally ill person or in a depressing environment, they may find it very difficult not to become depressed themselves.
(5) Chemically related depressive responses
Since HSPs are very attuned to their bodies, they notice the physical changes which occur in response to very low levels of environmental contaminants or very low doses of medications.
Side effects which might be minor in others may be very prominent in sensitive individuals.
Some medications may have depression as a side-effect:
- Hypertension and cholesterol medications can sometimes cause depression symptoms, as can some medications for cardiac disease because these medications affect the brain as well as the rest of the body.
- Oral contraceptives and hormone replacement medications also may affect mood.
- Anti-anxiety drugs, and mood stabilizers which are intended to reduce anxious tension also carry the risk of depression as a side effect.
- Strong prescription acne medication is known to cause depression in some individuals.
A vicious circle...
The intersection of these factors may create a "perfect storm" for some HSPs. Sensitivity to their own responses leads to feelings of fragility which in turn convince the individual that they cannot change or influence their environment. Anxious the cognition also contributes to the feeling of helpless, hopelessness that leads to depression. Contamination by the depression or anxiety of others around them may add to their bleak view
Feeling empowered helps...
Fortunately, studies have also suggested that sensitivity works both ways. Sensitive individuals are also particularly able to enjoy pleasurable stimulation, and benefit powerfully from the love, support and interest of those around them.
HSPs often benefit quickly from psychotherapeutic support which helps them re-frame their experience towards an equally detailed but more positive and empowered perspective on themselves, their capabilities and their potential to control their environment effectively.
High sensitivity is part of the normal spectrum of human responsiveness. It comes bearing gifts of perceptiveness, intuition, conscientiousness and empathy for others... qualities which are of inestimable value to human society. Unexplored and untreated depression in HSPs robs us all of the benefits of their special gifts.
If you or someone you care about is highly sensitive and struggling with depression it may be time to act...to reach out for help and support.