Analysis: research has found that highly sensitive people are more prone to adopt pro-environmental actions and behaviors - Dr Annalisa Setti is Lecturer in Cognitive Psychology at the School of Applied Psychology at UCC/ERI and a Visiting Researcher at the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing at TCD.
Do people often tell you that you are 'too sensitive'? If you are one of those people who feels exhausted after spending a lot of time in a crowded shopping centre; startles easily with a sudden loud noise, and captures quickly the mood of the room, you may be a Highly Sensitive Person. Although we all need to take in the sounds, lights, smells, and the variety of inputs from the environment, to be able to understand what is going on and act in the world, some of us are particularly sensitive and responsive to these inputs.
High Sensory Processing Sensitivity characterizes 25 to 30% of the population and can be assessed with scientifically validated scales. It is thought to be partly genetically determined, and can be found across different species. In fact, many species include more cautious individuals, who notice the subtleties of the environment and carefully evaluate it before acting, as well as more outgoing ones, more prone to quickly explore their surroundings. Both personalities serve their purpose in society.
he high sensitivity trait is different from introversion, as one can be highly sensitive and extroverted. It is characterised by higher activation in brain areas associated with sensory integration, awareness and empathy, emotions and decision making in response to both positive and negative environmental stimulation. Highly sensitive people tend to be more easily overwhelmed by the busy-ness of our lifestyle, and they respond with enhanced emotional reactivity. To avoid overstimulation, they are potentially more at risk of withdrawal, anxiety and depression.
However, it is not all doom and gloom. There are good sides to high sensitivity; highly sensitive people are able to notice what others don't in a given situation, either in work or at home, and act accordingly. They are reflective and therefore good decision makers.
With the climate crisis and the urgency of action at the forefront of the individual and political agenda, our research in UCC, in collaboration with Queen Mary University of London and University of Chieti shows that highly sensitive people could play a crucial role in moving towards a more sustainable living. Given their tendency to be overwhelmed by busy urban environments, highly sensitive people are particularly connected with nature, where they can find restoration and stress relief This is not unique to highly sensitive people, as the benefits of nature for our wellbeing are well known.
Building on a previous qualitative study from Australia, showing that highly sensitive people reported connecting with nature as a way to improve their well-being, we conducted a series of surveys with larger samples of participants. In three separate studies with a total of over 1000 people, we found that nature connectedness increases with higher sensitivity. We found that nature connectedness increases with higher sensitivity. We utilized the Connectedness to Nature Scale, a validated instrument asking people to report whether they feel part of the natural world.
Highly sensitive people are also more prone to experience Awe, the sense of 'feeling small’ and admiration for the natural world. When experiencing awe, the person feels smaller, as though their everyday concerns are less important, which can counteract our tendency to feel entitled, as humans, to exploit natural resources.
In a study with over 800 participants, we showed that highly sensitive people are more prone to adopt pro-environmental behaviors such as recycling, turning off appliances when not in use, take public transport and engaging in environmental stewardship as citizens. We also found that this is linked with their connectedness with nature and their tendency to experience awe.
"Highly sensitive people are well placed to be ambassadors of pro-environmental behaviors as it in line with how they experience the world"
Being careful decision makers, highly sensitive people also tend to consider the long term consequences of their actions, which in turn fosters pro-environmental behaviour. Therefore, highly sensitive people are well placed to be ambassadors of pro-environmental behaviors as it in line with the way they experience the world. They may not be those who take to the streets to protest, because the noise and crowdedness are something they may want to avoid, but they are those who lead by example and talk about the benefits of being part of nature as something they experience in their own life.
Highly sensitive people can be the quiet change-makers in our society. If you feel you could be one, you can discover more about the positives of your trait, and if you are not, you can cultivate your connectedness with nature and your ability to experience awe. Everyone can find their own path: activating your senses when in nature; paying attention to the positive emotions evoked by our favorite natural environments; noticing the beauty of nature. You can also treasure your friends or family who may be highly sensitive. They will not go bungee jumping with you, but you will enrich each other’s life with a different perspective.