Sensitivity is Not Reactivity

Sensitivity is not reactivity. Sensitivity is the ability to perceive stimuli. Reactivity is about responsiveness to stimuli. The two are not the same, nor do they always go hand in hand. Let’s take a look at them separately to see what I mean.

Sensitivity

As with all things, there an be too much or too little sensitivity. There is also a sweet spot that is just right. When someone is very sensitive, they notice things more readily than other people. For instance, the buzzing of a fly could be absolutely unbearable. Sunlight could seem really intense. Smells, changes in temperature, food texture or flavors might seem really noticeable to sensitive people. This person could have a really hard time coping with the environment because she’s frequently overstimulated.

People with low levels of sensitivity might not pick up social cues like when someone they are speaking with is bored or wants to leave. This person may not know when she is tired or hungry so she doesn’t have the greatest self care routine. She may have not have preferences for clothing or food because she doesn’t see a lot of differences between one thing and the next. This person could have a hard time with relationships, social interactions, job advancement.

When sensitivity is high, you’re overwhelmed by stimulus. It can be distracting. You’re constantly dealing with smells, thoughts, and noises. It takes a lot of energy to stay present and focused when you’re feeling bombarded by things. On the other hand, when sensitivity is low, you miss a lot of things that help you to connect and make sense of the world. The sweet spot is when there is neither too little nor too much.

Reactivity

Highly reactive people are those who have responses that are stronger and longer lasting than the average person. Here are some examples: A man has to get a shot. He works himself up into a panic, screams when the needle goes in, and frightens people in the waiting room. Then he talks about it for the next three days.

A girl gets the lead in the high school play. She is leaps for joy, hugs everyone around her, plasters it on social media, and doesn’t stop talking about it for days.

Those with low reactivity tend to respond to stimuli in ways that are weaker and shorter than the general population. Here are some examples. A man’s wife is excited about finding out that they are having a baby. He responds by saying, “That’s good. Can you pick up some milk on your way home?” His expression rarely changes. It would matter if the house were on fire or his wife were announcing that she was leaving him.

A woman lives beside a train station. She sleeps soundly every night. The noise of the train or the people passing by never bothers her. She can sleep, eat, watch tv, and read regardless of what is going on outside her window.

People are pretty predictable. When they stray outside the expected ranges and are either overly reactive or under reactive, it can create some problems both for them and those around them. It makes things unpredictable and potentially unsatisfying. Fortunately, there are solutions.

Being outside the sweet spot of sensitivity and/or reactivity can be biological. If your diet is not healthy, you have high levels of heavy metals, or you have an unhealthy lifestyle, this can make your brain work in less than optimal ways. You can correct this through dietary and lifestyle changes (such as sleep, exercise, meditation, etc).

If you come from a chaotic background, you may have been so busy trying to survive that you didn’t have time to develop healthy social cues. Experiencing trauma can also result in emotional blunting that makes you less reactive. You can learn to be better regulated and to feel more.

If you have ever been told that you are “too sensitive” or “extra,” you don’t have to live with that. You don’t have to lose people because they think that you’re cold, uncaring, dramatic, or hard to deal with. You don’t have accept that this is just the way you are. This is fixable. Let’s talk about how to put this behind you.

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