This blog is about high sensitivity and high sensation seeking because I want you to stay informed about recent research and we just published an article on this subject by Bianca Acevedo, Art Aron, me, Tracy Cooper, and Robert Marhenke: “Sensory processing sensitivity and its relation to sensation seeking,” in the 2023 issue of Current Research in Behavioral Sciences, 4, 100100. Read the full article here.
If you are highly sensitive and not a high sensation seeker, well, what I say about having children also applies to having the high sensation seeking trait: “It’s wonderful if you do and it’s wonderful if you don’t—it’s just a different kind of wonderful.” Indeed, being myself moderately high on sensation seeking as well as being highly sensitive, sometimes I feel like I do have a child traveling with me, a bored child constantly asking, “When do we get there? What are we going to do there? What are we doing after that?” I love her, but oh what a pain she can be. So, love yourself either way, okay?
Also, there are all degrees of sensation seeking—very high, high, moderate, moderately low, low… It may be that you do have this trait, perhaps just a little bit more than not– just a little above the average–and you do not know it because your highly sensitive part has kept it under control. So do take the test on this website here. And of course, read on also if you want a glimpse into those who do have the combo even though you do not.
I am not sure of the year when I realized that highly sensitive people (HSPs) could also have the trait of high sensation seeking (HSS), but I know I rewrote the standard measure of high sensation seeking in order to it include in my book The Highly Sensitive Person in Love, which was published back in 2000. I did that because I wanted to write about what happens when one person in a relationship has a trait besides high sensitivity that the other does not, and I knew from personal experience and meeting many HSPs who were also HSS that it was a particularly important trait to include. Given how much the two traits are in conflict within a person, I saw that there also is going to be conflict when one person has this trait and the other does not.
The reason I had to revise the standard measure, published by Marvin Zuckerman, was that it had questions that involved high risk taking—doing something that could possibly seriously hurt you or doing something illegal–and I knew HSPs would not often answer yes to those sorts of questions. Therefore I had to write a version that was HSP-friendly. Sadly, after the book came out, we never got around to publishing the HSP-friendly version in an academic journal, so no other scientists were aware of it. We finally remedied that this year, with this article.
Of course, many people think that HSPs could not be high sensation seekers because behaving like that would get them overstimulated. “Aren’t those traits opposites?” But the opposite of high sensitivity is actually impulsivity—acting without thinking first. HSPs like to think everything over before they act. That is the essence of the trait. So if they want a new, exciting experience, they first have to learn all about it. High sensation seeking is not about impulsiveness or risk taking, but more about being easily bored and liking variations in one’s routine, such as taking a trip or trying new foods. Check out Tracy Cooper’s book Thrill, the High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person.
This recent HSS/HSP study was done online, which is quite standard these days, with 217 participants filling out measures of sensitivity, impulsivity, risk-taking, and two measures of sensation seeking. One of the two was the standard HSS measure, with questions about being easily bored and liking to try new things, but also questions that involve being impulsive (“When I’m feeling good I tend to get into situations that could cause me problems)” or taking risks (“I would take a risk even if it might get me hurt”). The other HSS measure was the one I wrote for my book, specifically for HSPs.
The results? On the standard measure of HSS, HSPs tended to score a bit lower than others. That was because of the impulsivity and risk-taking questions. On the measure specifically designed for them, they did not score lower than others. That is, there was no association between high sensitivity and HSS. To put it another way, the two traits are independent. Or, about fifty percent of HSPs are high sensation seekers and about 50% are not, or put yet another way, there is a 50-50 chance that you or any other HSPs is a high sensation seeker. Of course, there are degrees of HSS, so we are talking about just being on one side of the midpoint or the other.
Another interesting result was that when HSPs were experiencing negative feelings, they tended to be a bit more impulsive than those without the trait. This is called “negative urgency.” That is a good reason to stay within your comfort zone, with plenty of downtime and boundaries. You don’t want to get a bit crazy and do something impulsive just because you are overstimulated.
The Problems, and They Do Not Go Away
Having both traits can cause real inner conflict. I have written about this before here, as has Tracy in his book. Imagine there are two versions of you living inside—the HSP and the HSS. Frequently the conflict results in one part feeling regret–the HSS part can get you into situations that your HSP part really does not like. For example, your HSS part gets you to go to a party. You do and you have a terrible time. Regret. But suppose you are invited to a party and the HSP part keeps you from going. Now you worry that you may have missed out on a great time. Regret also.
How many parties have I been to and felt so glad I came? Well, not many. But some. And of course, I have had both parts end up unhappy—I go to a party and it is loud and crowded and very overstimulating, so the HSP is mad, but it’s also boring, so the HSS part is mad too!
The problem is that you cannot know if something will suit you until you try it. So you have to use your sensitivity to consider all the evidence, carefully weighing the odds about whether you should go ahead. Maybe you finally decide by simply considering whose turn it is to choose! Whether you have stayed home too much lately or gone out too much.
When you strike it rich doing something new and exciting, however, remember to give credit to the HSS part. Perhaps the best outdoor experience of my life was a thirteen-day oar-boat trip through the Grand Canyon, from Glen Canyon Dam to Lake Mead. When the chance was offered, the HSS insisted on it. Of course, the others in the group, HSS and not HSPs, were going mostly for the Class 5 (most dangerous) rapids. I was going to see the beauty, and I will never forget the stunning natural carvings of the pink and black Vishnu Schist at the deepest part of the Canyon. Nor will I forget the total of 15 minutes of Class 5 rapids spread over all those days. That part was simply terrifying for the HSP. Not to mention that we slept on the sand by the river and sometimes were bit by fire ants. The weather was too hot, the water too cold, and it was all so hard. I stepped on a rock and cut my foot, and the first aid given in order to be sure I did not get an infection had me literally shrieking, embarrassed as I was. But no part of me, no part, including the HSP, regrets that adventure.
Being Fair to Your HSS Part
Frankly, it seems now that we have endless advice for keeping the HSP in us happy—downtime, boundaries, the right sort of work and lifestyle. But I have only recently accepted that I must keep the HSS part of me happy too. I had always seen it as frivolous, demanding, wanting to travel when that is not good for the environment, and overall just a waste of time. Not getting work done. Or not belonging in a peaceful, deep, reflective person. But I find that when I ignore the HSS part, it just causes trouble. I fee bored, flat. Really flat.
The problem has been so easily solved, for me. You might do it another way. But I make sure I have new things in my life. I make sure that I have at least one interesting thing coming up during the week, and that I have one interesting book to read, and, yes, one TV show I like (there really are not many of those). Doing that, I am so much happier. There also needs to be a bigger thing coming up later in the year, like a trip for a few days or weeks. The HSS part keeps it all in mind, savoring whatever’s new. Too much going on, too much coming up–I am not happy. But nothing coming up? I am just as unhappy.
I finally realize that I will be trying to balance my two sides for the rest of my life. In fact, getting older has created new challenges. It’s more difficult to find something new for the HSS part. Over the years I have seen most of the movies and read most of the books that have appealed to me, which were never many, and I do not like watching a movie or reading a book twice. I have traveled to every place of interest within a day’s drive and to most of the places throughout the world that my highly sensitive part considers safe. I like to hike, but we have done all the nearby hikes. We like to kayak on the nearby Russian River, but we have done it so many times that I know every sandbar.
Another problem with getting older, one that the HSS part refuses to acknowledge, is that it gets less safe or comfortable to do some things. I had to give up horseback riding after a fall that resulted in a concussion because getting another concussion at my age often leads to dementia. The HSP in me said, “NO thanks. I value my brain more than riding horses.” I ache more than I used to after long hikes. Long downhill hikes I no longer do at all—something goes wrong in one knee. Air travel long distances only works for me if we can save up enough “miles” to go business class. What a baby!
One of my grandsons, an HSP/HSS, is crazy about sailing. I always loved sailing too–to me it is a lot like riding horses–but I never had a chance to sail until my grandson fell in love with it. After he had taken enough lessons, my son got him the twenty-foot “Flicka” sailboat that he had been begging for. Everyone else in the extended family gets seasick except me and him. So now we two sail together.
But both of us want to sail to new places, which means longer trips, and my back protests the longer sitting. Exploring new places also means sailing even farther and anchoring out overnight. That requires sleeping on the boat with all of its challenges for an older person. The routines that keep me healthy and the HSP happy are quite disrupted by all of this. At my grandson’s age he has no problem, of course, and my HSS part wants to be just like him. He plans to sail around the world when he is eighteen. The HSS in me is screaming like an angry little girl, “I want to go with him!” But it cannot be.
For me, the main solution is staying creative—making or writing something original is part of being high in HSS. So I am writing a book on something entirely different from high sensitivity, not because I lost interest in HSPs, but I feel like I have said all I can say. I do keep up with the research, because it is new.
I also use my creativity to find new activities for the HSS. I keep searching for what I still have not done, seen, felt, etcetera that would neither be scary nor boring. That narrow line. Sometimes I simply do the same thing in a different way. Hike the same trail by moonlight or in the rain. Or bring someone along, allowing me to see everything freshly through their eyes. I keep in touch with new offerings of the things I know I love. Plays, concerts, the ballet, and even the museum—they all have new seasons.
As for aging eliminating some things, I make the HSS accept it. For me the only solution is graceful acceptance. I do not bemoan it to others or let the HSS part blame the HSP part. Aging is part of life. Enough said.
Finally, I try to think of these two parts as a team, each with their strengths. Really, aren’t they better together? All that adventure and curiosity from the HSS part, and all of D.O.E.S. from the HSP, especially the Depth of processing, the Empathy and strong Emotion, and Sensitivity to the Subtle.) If I think about being one without the other, that would not be me, would it? All this is me. We have to be the temperament we were born with and learn to love it all. About this we do not have to make a choice.