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Sensory processing sensitivity

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Sensory processing sensitivity, defined by Aron and Aron (1997), refers to the extent to which individuals detect and respond to faint or numerous stimuli in the environment (see also Dunn, 2001). That is, some individuals detect even subtle stimuli in their surroundings as well as process this information. For example, they are especially sensitive to pain, loud noises, violent movies, caffeine, and hunger as well as feel overwhelmed by the demands that other individuals impose.

This sensitivity is often associated with negative psychological outcomes, such as general anxiety and depression (e.g., Liss, Timmel, Baxley, & Killingsworth, 2005) as well as social anxiety (e.g., Hofmann & Bitran, 2007) and limitations in communication (Liss, Mailloux, & Erchull, 2008). Accordingly, somewhat paradoxically, individuals who report sensory processing sensitivity are often less attuned, rather than more attuned, to interpersonal subtleties.


Nevertheless, some of these negative outcomes tend to transpire only when individuals were reared in unsupportive or unpredictable parental environments (Aron, Aron, & Davies, 2005). For example, sensory processing sensitivity is associated with depression, but only when levels of parental care are limited (Liss, Timmel, Baxley, & Killingsworth, 2005).

Other adverse outcomes do not seem to be dependent on the parental environment in which individuals were raised. Sensory processing sensitivity seems to be related to anxiety, regardless of parental care or overprotection (Liss, Timmel, Baxley, & Killingsworth, 2005).

Underlying mechanisms

Withdrawal and alexithymia

To compensate for the intense levels of stimulation they experience, individuals who report elevated levels of sensory processing sensitivity might tend to withdraw their attention from this stimulation or even avoid contexts that can feel overwhelming-such as social settings. Because of this withdrawal of attention from their subjective experiences, their awareness of their emotions and intuitions is limited. Consistent with this premise, these individuals do report elevated levels of alexithymia, which is the inability to label private emotions effectively (Liss, Mailloux, & Erchull, 2008). Likewise, alexithymia is associated with sensitivity to touch and pain (Sivik, 1993).

Because they do not label their private emotions, they do not understand the sources of their feelings and do not develop mechanisms to regulate these affective states. They cannot, therefore, readily regulate feelings of anxiety or distress.

This withdraw from social settings might also undermine their communication skills. Consistent with this proposition, individuals who report elevated levels of sensory processing sensitivity do exhibit autistic behaviors-limited communication and social skills as well as undue attention to detail (Liss, Mailloux, & Erchull, 2008).

Conceivably, a supportive parental environment, however, might enable individuals to withstand this intense stimulation, curbing their need to withdraw (Aron, Aron, & Davies, 2005).

Measures and factors

The Highly Sensitive Person Scale is often used to measure sensory processing sensitivity (Aron & Aron, 1997). Aron and Aron (1997) conceptualized sensory processing sensitivity as a single factor. Smolewska, McCabe, and Woody (2006), however, uncovered three factors, using exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses. The first factor is ease of excitation-the tendency to feel overwhelmed in response to demands. A typical question is "Do you get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time?" The second factor is low sensory threshold, which refers to the sensitivity of individuals to unpleasant stimuli. A sample item is "Are you made uncomfortable by loud noises?" The third factor is aesthetic sensitivity, which reflects an awareness of aesthetic experiences. An example item is "Do you have a rich, complex inner life".

Liss, Mailloux, and Erchull (2008) applied this three factor solution, revealing Cronbach's alpha values of .76, .60, and .73 for the three subscales respectively. Smolewska, McCabe, and Woody (2006) also showed the three factors differentially correlated with measures of the five factor model and reinforcement sensitivity, providing more evidence for the three factor solution.

Liss, Mailloux, and Erchull (2008), however, suggested that ease of excitation and low sensory threshold might represent one factor only, whereas aesthetic experiences might represent another factor. First, that ease of excitation and low sensory threshold seem to be associated with negative psychological factors, such as communication and depression, whereas aesthetic experiences do not always demonstrate these negative associations. Indeed, aesthetic experiences seems to be positively related to communication, as measured by the Autism Spectrum Quotient (e.g., "People often tell me I go on and on about the same thing). Second, ease of excitation and low sensory threshold seem to be highly correlated with each other, usually exceeding a correlation of .60.


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Aron, E. N. (2002). The highly sensitive child. New York: Random House.

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Aron, E. N., Aron, A., & Davies, K. (2005). Adult shyness: The interaction of temperamental sensitivity and an adverse childhood environment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 181-197.

Dunn, W. (2001). The sensations of everyday life: Empirical, theoretical, and pragmatic considerations. Journal of Occupational Therapy, 55, 608-620.

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Liss, M., Saulnier, C., Fein, D., & Kinsbourne, M. (2006). Sensory and attention abnormalities in autistic spectrum disorders. Autism, 10, 155-172.

Liss, M., Timmel, L., Baxley, K., & Killingsworth, P. (2005). Sensory processing sensitivity and its relation to parental bonding, anxiety, and depression. Personality and Individual Differences, 39, 1429-1439.

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Sivik, T. (1993). Alexithymia and hypersensitivity to touch and palpation. Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science, 28, 130-136.

Smolewska, K. A., McCabe, S. B., & Woody, E. Z. (2006). A psychometric evaluation of the Highly Sensitive Person Scale: The components of sensory-processing sensitivity and their relation to the BIS/BAS and Big Five". Personality and Individual Differences, 40, 1269-1279.

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Last Update: 6/15/2016