Are bipolars by definition Highly Sensitive People?

Photo credit:  Renett Stowe

Highly Sensitive People
According to the dictionary,  highly sensitive means:  readily affected by various agents.

Wikipedia says that a highly sensitive person (HSP) is someone having the innate trait of high psychological sensitivity (or innate sensitiveness as Carl Jung originally coined it). According to Elaine N. Aron and colleagues as well as other researchers, highly sensitive people, who comprise about a fifth of the population, may process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly due to a biological difference in their nervous systems.

While the concept clearly isn’t new,  the interpretation and it’s consequences for daily life have been studied by Eileen Aron Ph.D. since 1991. She has written several books on the subject and continues to do research together with her husband Arthur Aron.  She calls it Sensory-Processing Sensitivity (SPS) as that is the trait’s scientific term.

Some of the characteristics of SPS :

  1. You tend to be easily startled, and often overwhelmed by loud sensory inputs.
  2. You tend to be cautious and highly conscientious.
  3. You are easily shaken up and distressed by changes, and don’t do well in “multitasking” situations.
  4. You are often negatively affected by loud noises, strong scents and smells, or bright lights.
  5. You tend to be “cooperative,” rather than “competitive.”
  6. You get easily rattled in stressful situations.
  7. You are often deeply empathic and frequently “pick up moods” from other people.
  8. Even when extraverted, you tend to be introspective, have a rich inner life, and need a lot of time alone.
  9. You are disproportionately drawn to the arts and music, and tend to be very easily moved to tears by expressions of beauty and intensity, as well as images of horror and violence. (Source)

To find out if you are a HSP you take a self-test which is based on empirical research,  by answering questions related to characteristics such as above.  At a certain score you are considered a HSP.  Congratulations! 😉

While I have no question that HSPs exist since I know quite a number of people,  (including myself),  being highly sensitive in different ways,  I do wonder what exactly the cause is for experiencing these traits.

  • Are you born that way?  SPS is a ‘biological difference in the nervous system’,  what does that mean?  There is no medical test to prove it…  (and yes,  in some ways I have the same questions about bipolar – but that is for another post.)
  • Have circumstances made you that way?  For example your upbringing,  social position,  education,  job,  etc.  But while I know a friend of mine is a HSP,  his brother is not. So what is the deal with that?
  • What about the consequences of sustained trauma acting as highly sensitive traits?  Such as hyper-vigilance (having to protect yourself from further trauma),  or being sensitive to what others feel (because you have learned to take care of your parents’ needs or else there were consequences).
  • Can SPS be part of an illness?  Of course my first thoughts go to bipolar disorder!  Since I have both,  I really don’t know,  but I do wonder…

So,  help me out please?  Any thoughts,  experiences,  opinions?


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5 responses to “Are bipolars by definition Highly Sensitive People?

  1. Chris

    Thanks for this! I just read an article in Psychology Today (August 2011) “A (Gentle) Guide to the Highly Sensitive Person”, and since I was diagnosed as bipolar last summer, I have been wondering about the relationship between the two. I’ll be taking the Self Test you linked in shortly, and certainly meet the 9 SPS characteristics you list above.

    I am wondering which might come first, the bipolar or the SPS. Certainly I’ve had friends and family telling me I was sensitive for quite some time. I had no real clue about the bipolar category until being in a psychiatrists office last summer in the middle of a manic episode. I wonder if this could really all just be the same kind of thing. The medical/psychological people might put different labels on it, but while I greatly appreciate the help of these people and will keep using it, it seems just a few steps above leeches and blood letting ;).

    • hi Chris!
      Love your response, thanks so much for coming by and adding to the post!

      Maybe it is not so much a question as to what comes first, but the fact both coexist. It is not strange to get a bipolar diagnosis later in life (I was 38 I believe, while I have BD at least since I was 15). While it is important to know what is going on, I believe it is most important how we respond to it. Cuz thát is going to decide our quality of life, I think.

      I will be following up on this post on that matter. I love the link you gave!! Thanks for that!

      My opinion on ‘us’ (bipolars/mentally ill) is that we can rule the world (just think of Churchill, Lincoln, and others) See this recent post by Tom Wootton (hope the link works, I’ll check)

      Hope to see you again 😉 I love to engage and exchange thoughts!!

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