Why do people with Sensitive nervous systems become fatigued more quickly, and what does this mean for your workplace?Read Now
I want to answer two questions which go to the heart of why having a Responsive nervous system/temperament leads to particular needs, and why it matters to everyone – not just those with this temperament – that those needs are met.
These concepts are important to understand, and it’s evident that they’re not well understood yet, because workplaces, schools, and public areas continue to be over-stimulating and emotionally-fatiguing for people with this temperament (and for others who have environmental sensitivities for various reasons).
In her book, Self-Care for Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents (2021), psychologist Lindsay Gibson explains why those with more sensitive nervous systems become fatigued (seen in various forms) more quickly than others.
“[Your nervous system] is responsible not just for doing but also for not doing. There are two kinds of processes the nervous system performs: initiating action and inhibiting action. Whenever you restrain yourself from the urge to act, you are doing as much work – often more – as if you had actually said or done something.”
The Responsive temperament is characterised, in part, by a strong ‘pause-to-check’ system. This is the ‘inhibiting action’ process that Lindsay Gibson describes.
People who leap into action look like they are expending lots of energy. But people who pause, think, and problem solve… are expending even more energy. This means that people who are empath[et]ic, …reflective, and concerned about helping others are constantly draining their neurological batteries with their internal efforts….
Thank goodness for people who exert their brains to calm others and find constructive outcomes, whether it is dealing with a child or with global politics. This high level of mature behaviour is a strenuous physical workout of the nerves and neurons, working brains double-time to find the optimal blend of both inhibition and action.
The great thing is that probably everyone can do this – although not everyone does. The other great thing is that a Highly Sensitive/Responsive temperament naturally works like this – and does other important things.
Do you think we need people to do this? To restrain themselves from impulses and think more before they act? To consider, empathetically, before speaking? To find, in all situations, “the optimal blend of both inhibition and action”?
If the answer you get is the obvious one – yes, yes, absolutely! – then that’s your reason for doing something about it. For learning what Highly Sensitive people need to thrive, and implementing those elements within your workplace or school.
Because, as you can see, it’s not an extra, nice little thing to do for people, or a virtue-signalling initiative; it’s not a difficult expenditure of resources better used for other things. It’s supporting people who do more of what is desperately needed in organisations and public spaces. To think, reflect, notice ‘all the things’ and place them in context, restrain oneself and potentially others by example, act on what matters after considering all the options, and care deeply about the consequences.
There are so many things that Highly Sensitive/Responsive people do which are greatly needed in our world. That’s why we’re here. Make use of it – harness these unique strengths, and reap the rewards.
Not sure how to do that? See here and here for more. Contact me to talk about what would work best for your workplace/school: a presentation, workshop, or consultation.
Why you won't see a lot of citations in my blog posts
As mentioned in the About page for Sensitive Thrive, part of my job is to translate the knowledge about High Sensitivity, coming from research, into advice and insight relevant to helping organisational leaders understand how to help Highly Sensitive people thrive in their workplaces.
As I do this, through blog posts and information on this website, along with what I share in person, I don't usually refer directly to research studies. This is because I've synthesised the information gained from a variety of sources, often over time, and applied it to the current focus. Those sources include my own experience and insights, and the experiences of other Highly Sensitive people I've spoken with.
Research papers are also usually very specific, and rely on prior knowledge and subject expertise to interpret accurately. This is why I seek out Dr Elaine Aron's interpretations, wherever possible. As the pioneering researcher for this temperament, she has a broad and deep understanding of what it means and where to place new findings within that framework.
The role of research about High Sensitivity
There is more research being done all the time, which is excellent. While we know, largely, what constitutes the temperament and how it plays out in a person - how it feels to be Highly Sensitive and how it influences our experience, personally, and through observation of many HS people - continuing research helps others to understand, 'believe' it, and apply the findings to specific situations. It creates understanding about underlying factors, like genetics and brain processes, and effects, such as higher sensory stimulation, increased empathy, and careful decision-making.
The more that's known, through research about this temperament, the more we'll be able to provide conditions within societies which support, rather than let down, Highly Sensitive / Responsive people. My hope, and that of many who work on this, is that our societies will then benefit far more from the vital gifts that Responsive people offer, and that they will also be better able to thrive themselves, no longer hindered by conditions set to the needs of Non- or Low-Sensitive, Un-Responsive people.
As I write often, we need each other: the Responsive and Un-Responsive. Each group has gifts to share, arising from our differing temperaments. One shouldn't be elevated over the other, because that leads to missing out on the essential services of the other.
Published articles and summaries of research to refer to
Let me, then, share a few of the original research findings and their interpretations by Dr Aron, for those of you interested in the supporting evidence more explicitly. You can also search, at any time, on a scientific or psychological research database for word combinations such as High Sensitivity, Sensory Processing Sensitivity, Responsive and Unresponsive personalities, vantage sensitivity and differential susceptibility.
Here's a sampling of articles and summaries I've used so far in my work, and which you can refer to if needed:
I hope you'll find this sampling of articles and summaries useful in your work, and also that it will help reassure you of the legitimacy and accuracy of what I report. I look forward to working together, and helping your organisation harness the needed gifts offered by Highly Sensitive / Responsive people.
What is path dependence?
Path dependence develops when organisations act based on existing parameters, which were established in the past and have become ‘locked in’ by “self-reinforcing processes” (Morgan & Barden, A Beautiful Constraint, 2015, p. 37).
For example (and one you've probably heard about), the fact that railway tracks in the USA determined the width of the rocket-booster fuel engines designed for the first Space Shuttle, because that’s how they needed to be transported to Florida – and the width mattered, because they were coming from Utah and going through mountain tunnels. The engines had to fit within the tunnels – just wider than the tracks. The width of the railway tracks was based on tramlines in England, which were fitted to the width of horse-and-cart paths built along Roman roads, which were 4 feet, 8.5 inches. (If you're reading that and keep thinking of There Was an Old Woman who Swallowed a Fly, then you're not alone.)
And if you’re interested (or skeptical), here's a good explanation of how it happened:
Very early on, the British Monarchy insisted on a 4 foot 8.5 wheel spacing [for carts] because they wanted to promote and ensure maximum trade and commerce throughout the kingdom. They decreed that every wagon and ox cart had to have a wheel spacing of 4 feet, 8.5 inches. They needed this width to match the spacing of the ruts in English roads. They knew that if any wagon or cart had wheel spacing different then 4 feet 8.5 inches its axles would get caught up in the ruts and break and the wagon would be destroyed….
What's the problem with path dependence?
The answer is pretty clear from the fascinating example of the Space Shuttle above, but knowing more about how it happens and why and when you need to guard against it is important. It's not just something that happens in such amazing situations as the example I shared - it's almost certainly a feature in your organisation and workplace.
Path dependence happens because something that’s been done in the past has worked, so similar things in the future are modeled on them, or use the same parameters and assumptions. This is helpful and necessary when habits allow for efficiency and reduced energy. It becomes a problem when the habits, and the parameters they’re based on, have become outdated, when new information is available, and when new challenges arise (as is so obvious in the Space Shuttle example). In these cases, path dependence limits productivity and efficiency, and ignores new thinking and possibilities. Habits are very helpful, until they become ruts you’re stuck in.
For more insight into path dependence, including how to overcome it (steps to take), chapter 2 in Adam Morgan and Mark Barden’s A Beautiful Constraint is both insightful and practical.
How do Highly Responsive people help guard against the dangers of path dependence?
People with Responsive temperaments naturally look at things differently. They take in more information than others, and process it more deeply, making more connections between more pieces of data. (See, for example, Wired to Create, by Scott Kaufmann & Carolyn Gregoire, 2016: 125-27). This makes them aware of more and able to place it in relevant context. Meaning, they’re not looking at things the same way – or even looking at the same things. They ask questions, wonder why things are being done this way, consider how they can be done better, and make suggestions for them to be done that way. Or, if they have the authority (or are frustrated enough), they’ll start doing things that way.
Responsive people aren't thinking along the same paths, because they're open to difference - it's the deliberate focus of their nervous systems. They:
This is disruptive - to the status quo. People like doing things the way they’ve been doing them. It’s safe and doesn’t require new thinking. We need path dependence in some ways. But when it matters – when new challenges come, or a way to improve arises – organisations need change-makers - disruptive thinkers – to question and to find new alternatives. Transformative alternatives.
This is what Highly Sensitive people do – their temperament is made for it.
How can organisations harness this?
What do Responsive children need to thrive in their school environment?
Let's have a look at school from a young sensitive child's perspective. Most of the children I see tell me that school is 'very loud', 'children hurt each other', 'teachers shout' and they are not allowed to 'be quiet'. They also complain that school clothing can be itchy, the floor is hard, the classroom smells funny and people expect them to say things before they are ready. They also dislike people looking at them or making them the centre of attention (even the extravert HSCs) and get very concerned if another child is upset. The walls are full of overstimulating colours and people talk through all the lessons.
This is a quotation from Barbara Allen's site, Growing Unlimited. Barbara is a British psychologist who works particularly with Highly Sensitive people, including children.
It illustrates some of the problems that arise for Highly Sensitive children at school; things which might not be much of a problem for non-Sensitive children, or which affect the HS children much more.
They are not problem children. They're not fussy, they're not trying to be difficult, and they won't be okay if they just stop worrying about whatever it is.
Highly Sensitive children are insightful, courageous, compassionate and empathetic, intelligent, self-motivated, creative, and thoughtful. As they spend so much of their childhood at school, this environment has a huge, constant effect on them. It's at least partially up to teachers and school leaders whether that effect is positive or negative.
Don’t be overwhelmed here, or anything, but it really is extra-important to help these children get the right messages and the right sort of support. And do you know why it’s extra-important for these children particularly?
Because Highly Sensitive people, children and adults, are more responsive to everything – that is what the temperament means: we’re highly responsive. So Highly Sensitive – Responsive – children respond more intensely to all the input they receive – positive and negative.
This doesn’t mean that teachers or school leaders need to always be on alert and making sure the student is only receiving positive input from their environment. That’s impossible and unneccessary. Highly Sensitive children can be very resilient and are naturally self-regulating. What they need from others – those who have some level of power over their environment – is the conditions which allow them to do this. They will take care of the rest.
So how can teachers and schools help their Highly Sensitive students to thrive? Below, I’ll explain a bit about what these children need, why you might see certain behaviours from them, and how to support them so they can have a positive school experience. There’s a lot to consider, so I’ll just explain a few of each in this post.
Needs of Highly Sensitive children at school
Highly Sensitive children need lower and more gentle lighting, and respond positively to natural light (all children do, but HS children do even more – like I said, this is due to their higher responsivity to everything)
Schools are generally pretty noisy places. Classrooms can be very noisy, if there’s a critical mass of children who are loud, or who don’t listen well to instructions, or are deliberately rebellious to rules and inconsiderate of others. Then there's the noise (and other stress) that comes from having children with developmental disabilities in regular classrooms. (On one hand, it's a kind and generous mission, potentially helpful to those with these disabilities; on the other, it's extremely disruptive to the learning and wellbeing of other children, including those with a Sensitive/Responsive temperament. A balance really needs to be found, so that all gain benefits as far as possible).
High noise levels also result from group work , if the teacher encourages or allows it, doesn’t regulate it well, or children don’t understand how to do it effectively (which is probably often the case – group work is hard to get right, even for adults. But it’s popular and encouraged as an educational strategy).
Some teachers – and principals/vice-principals – have loud voices, or use a loud voice in the classroom. Whether constant or intermittent, this can affect HS children negatively.
Being highly responsive to all stimuli, loud noises are especially startling, and a class teacher with a loud voice (constant loud level) is wearing on their nervous system. Without going into further detail about it, these contribute more to the negative stimuli a HS child is absorbing than you might think. A principal doing this and then joking about it, or being calm afterwards, for example, doesn’t change the negative effect it has. A teacher using a loud voice to do the same thing – towards other students – is also unhelpful, no matter that it wasn’t directed towards the HS child. Directing it at them, of course, is even worse.
Break times are, of course, noisy. This can be really difficult for HS children, who are already experiencing heightened stimulation from previous classes – academic and social. Whether positive or negative, this stimulation is already having its effect. Break times can raise this to a level they’re then unable to manage.
Behaviours and results you might see in Highly Sensitive children who are over-stimulated or overwhelmed:
These are not regular behaviours from Highly Sensitive children. They are a result of unhelpful conditions at school. With more helpful environmental factors, these children will be among the best and most committed students, conscientious, engaged, curious, involved, kind and helpful towards other students, intelligent and mature, and highly resilient. They are internally-motivated, able to think creatively, insightful, wise seemingly beyond their years, and just really pleasant and inspiring to be around – if they can get the conditions they need.
It is such a shame – perhaps a tragedy – that so many children do not experience this side of their wonderful Highly Sensitive nature, and that the world misses out on it, too. As I keep saying, all they really need is a few adjustments that those with power over the environments they live in can effect, and some on-going attention in specific ways from the adults who are most influential in their lives, such as school teachers.
So what can you do to reach this point? I share a few tips below, relating to the needs I've explained above (there are more of both, which I'll make available in a guide to download at a later point).
Supporting Highly Sensitive children at school: what school leaders and teachers can do.
* Managing lighting, whether the light itself or the positioning of the children, will have more of a helpful effect than you can probably imagine. This is one of the easiest things to do, and should have rewarding results.
I'm creating a more comprehensive guide for schools and teachers about these topics, which will cover more aspects (beyond the sensory, and more about that as well), share ideas for responding to the needs of Highly Sensitive children at school, and also help you determine who might have this temperament within your school or classes.
If you want to be notified when this comes out, send me a message here, and I'll put you on my list and send you an e-mail with the download link.
Also send me a message with questions or thoughts you might have about these topics. I'm very interested in discussing them and offering any insights I have for you (as well as hearing yours).
In the meantime, have a look at my FAQ page for answers to questions that I've already provided.
How can you tell whether someone has a Responsive (Highly Sensitive) temperament?
If you'd like to know how to pick out who in your workplace has this temperament, here are some clues - things you might notice in a person.
Whether you notice these things depends on your perceptiveness, as well; so you might not be aware of all of them. You need to know a person well enough to pick up on a lot of these indicators.
If you've noticed a few of these factors in colleagues, then it's likely they have a Highly Sensitive temperament. If you've noticed most or all of them in a person - as you're reading, someone comes strongly to mind - then it's highly likely they're HS/Responsive.
What next? It depends why you want to know. Just being aware that they act this way because they have a temperament which influences their experience of the world can help you to interact more effectively with them. You can realise that when they take longer to complete a task than you would have, it's not because they're slow or unskilled or not aware of other factors, but because they're doing a really good job of it. When they don't want to join in the talk about the latest violent show, it's not because they're unsociable or aloof, but because they're disturbed by it, and haven't watched it.
If you're a team leader, manager, or executive, being aware of who in your team is Responsive/HS will help you assign the right work to the right people, to be understanding of different needs, and to use the skills that these HS people demonstrate.
But if you want to go further - if you want to really harness the strengths and potential of those who are Highly Sensitive in your workplace; if you want to use those strengths to transform the effectiveness of your team and the innovation and foresight of your organisation; if you want to make sure that these team members are thriving at work, not just surviving - then here's what you can do:
What do you have to lose? Knowing this, and acting on it, will only have a positive effect. No harm will come of it, you will not waste resources, and so much good can result if you do act.
Photo credits: 1 - Bruce Mars, Unsplash; 3 - Anete Lusina, Pexels
What is different about people with a Responsive (Highly Sensitive) temperament?
What is so fundamentally different between Responsive (a.k.a. Highly Sensitive) and Unresponsive temperaments? Why do people who are Responsive in temperament, in fact, need anything different - in the way their workplace (or classroom) is set up, or how managers (or teachers) approach working with them?
Let me explain (you can also read my posts about gifts of sensitivity, brain differences, benefits of thriving HS people in workplaces and why you need them on your team, and other differences)- the differences, and the consequences.
The main differences
These are the basic drivers of differences between sensitive and non-sensitive/ responsive and unresponsive temperaments.
This results in:
1. Greater awareness
- what’s going on around them
- what might happen soon
- how things are interacting and are likely to interact to produce results
2. Increased insight/perceptiveness
- how things come together to make sense
- emotional states of other people, and what those might lead to
- what has led to current situations
- how to resolve the problems in those situations
- how to avoid potential problems
- how to get desired results
- a desire to do what one is doing very well
- (due to) understanding why doing something well is important, and the consequences of not
- self-motivated, because they see the reasons for doing or not doing something – can perceive consequences, meaning, etc.
- aware of others’ emotional states, what might have led to them, and how to approach them
- awareness of the experience of others
- awareness of how a person might have arrived at a conclusion
- can place another person’s position on a matter within their map of reality
- awareness of many things means more connections to be made
- deep processing leads to many connections
- those connections result in creative – different – ideas
It also means:
1. Responsive people are overwhelmed by too much data at once
- they have a great capacity to absorb information, but because they are taking in so much, it needs time to process; too much at once overwhelms their system
2. The deep processing their nervous system does needs time, and sufficient calm and quiet.
- thinking on the spot in unfamiliar situations isn’t one of their gifts
- coming up with wise and valuable insights when that information has had the time and space to be processed is one of their gifts
3. Without this time and space to process the large amount of data they take in, the above desirable results are minimised (or halted, depending on the severity of the lack of time and space).
Importance of understanding this:
With conditions which nurture/support the way their temperament works, HS/Responsive people can give forth all of their gifts, as listed above.
With conditions which counter the way their temperament works, their responsiveness is unable to be effective. It turns, instead, into a liability, and they suffer deeply for it.
1. Provide as many ‘right’ conditions as possible. Result:
This is not a threat; it's an opportunity – an invitation to something better. The excellence we can create together – Sensitive and non-Sensitive/ Responsive and Unresponsive.
The role that neurotransmitters play: serotonin and dopamine
I wrote, recently, about serotonin and sensitivity - how a variation of the serotonin transporter gene leads to better decision making, and that the same percentage of people have this gene variation as have a Responsive temperament.
The link hasn't been definitively found yet - I'm not sure it's even been looked for. But it does make sense, when you take into account the many points of data already known about this temperament - like the greater tendency to pause before acting, to make decisions more carefully, and the increased sensitivity to good and bad environments - which correspond with what this serotonin variation does.
There's an even stronger link between the other famous neurotransmitter - dopamine - and sensitivity. You're probably familiar with dopamine as 'the reward chemical', and know that it influences our desire to work towards an expected good.
Our temperaments - and personalities - influence what we consider rewarding; what we're motivated towards and away from.
A Responsive temperament predisposes a person to move towards situations in which they will be able to use their gifts well, and away from those where they won't. For example, they will instinctively seek calm environments and avoid crowded places. You're far less likely to find them at a late-night club than on an overnight hike with friends.
What does this mean for Responsiveness/High Sensitivity?
So, how do we know that the Responsive/Highly Sensitive temperament is innate? And why does that matter for schools, workplaces, and other public places?
Many dopamine alleles (alleles represent variations in a gene) have been found to be associated with High Sensitivity/Responsiveness. A set of 10 of these alleles actually predict a medium-to-high chance of being Highly Sensitive.
These 10 dopamine alleles, like the one we looked at for serotonin, are related to doing better than others in good conditions and worse than others in poor conditions. (This is what's known as differential susceptibility - illustrated by the orchid/dandelion theory).
This is one of the ways we know that Responsiveness is innate: the high correlation of this set of 10 dopamine alleles with this temperament implies that Responsiveness comes much closer to being a genetically-inherited set of traits than any personality trait. (Personality traits are also very heritable, but associated genes haven't been found, as they have for Responsiveness/High Sensitivity).
Why does this matter for the workplace?
Therefore, what do we learn?
That, "it's innate, and it has its advantages" (Elaine Aron).
The value here, for workplaces, schools, and more, is that Highly Sensitive people can't 'get over' the differences which arise from their temperament. It's not something they can, or need to, change.
Just like an un-Responsive or non-Sensitive temperament, a Highly Sensitive or Responsive temperament brings both advantages and disadvantages . They come hand-in-hand.
If a Responsive person can be highly creative, insightful, conscientious, and empathetic; if they can perceive more than others and make more careful decisions, then they also, necessarily, become overwhelmed when there's too much data, without space to process it. They are, correspondingly, more negatively affected by too-bright lights, loud noises, time pressure, and close observation.
You can't get the good without the conditions required for producing it. You can't have a person who's more aware of the nuances without that person also being more affected by them.
If you want the benefits that high Responsiveness brings, you need the conditions which produce them, or allow them to arise.
This is the reason for all the advice I share, all the recommendations for changing workplace environments that I give. The changes you'll make aren't just a nice service to society; they're smart and concerted actions towards harnessing the real potential - all the actual benefits, currently perhaps hidden - of those who have this Responsive temperament. Of providing the conditions which will help them to thrive, not just survive.
Without those changes, your workplace will continue to miss out on the advantages of having thriving Responsive people. Those who are in your team will continue to languish, and the disadvantages of their temperament will keep being a liability - for them and you. A tragedy, and a lost opportunity.
Yet, you have an alternative: harness their strengths, and benefit exponentially.
Which will you choose?
Choose to harness the advantages.
Highly Sensitive people provide an essential service.
The reason they are Highly Sensitive - the reason they are highly aware and deeply process - is so they can provide this service.
We know it's for this reason, because High Sensitivity - Responsiveness - is found consistently at this rate of 15-20% among humans and many animal species. In evolutionary terms, it's 'been selected for'.
What is that essential service?
That 1 in 5 people perceive more and process it in a way that makes more connections between more data. That they use this to provide insight, warnings of danger, pinpoint opportunities, notice the unseen aspects and invisible people, practise and teach others empathy, pause to reflect before acting - avoiding dangers and making better decisions - and provide beautiful, insightful and ennobling works of art: poetry, paintings, stories, music, and more.
The people who do this - the Highly Sensitive/Responsive among us - bring these abilities to all their endeavours. This is the service they provide.
Quite simply, Highly Sensitive people make the world a better place.
Help make it a better place for them.
Tamara - Sensitive Thrive is my consulting business. I believe that the world needs Highly Sensitive people who are flourishing. We need their hope, insight, wisdom, and awareness of beauty and possibility. My vision is to help create a culture where this temperament is known, understood and valued; where organisations seek Highly Sensitive people to work for them, because they know what they can do. Where HS people feel like they fit in their workplaces, because those workplaces also fit them. A world where HS people belong, thrive, and flourish, and the world is better for it.