Are HSPs More Prone To Addiction?

The world of Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) is ultra-vivid, extra-dimensional, and uber-overstimulating. HSPs’ radar is essentially set on perennial intake. Their brains are constantly processing. It makes sense to wonder how that same neurological predisposition responds to constant stimuli. Are HSPs more prone to addiction? The question may have far-reaching implications for this narrow slice (15-20%) of the population. And for their friends and family.

What is High Sensitivity?

People who rank high on sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) are known as Highly Sensitive People (HSPs). They have no choice in their neurological makeup and reactivity. Their brains are literally different – more developed, activated, and responsive in specific areas.

As with anything in life, it’s the response to stimuli – and especially to triggers – that is veiled in choice.

But standing at the fork in the road doesn’t exclude the influence of innate tendencies. Will the traveler bear left or bear right?

The probability may be rooted in more than a mere roll of the dice.

The question: Are HSPs more prone to addiction? doesn’t drop out of the air.

It seeks to connect the very nature and vulnerabilities of high sensitivity with the motivations for and physiological changes from alcohol/drug use.

The Highly Sensitive Person “takes it all in.” To the non-HSP, this heightened awareness of details in 360-degree surround sound may seem like an irritating personality defect – like, “Enough! Shut it off already!”

If only the HSP could.

Unfortunately, choice plays no role in perception for those with high sensitivity. They will perceive and process the negative as readily as they will the positive.

And therein lies both the rub and the potential key to treatment and management for HSPs who fall down the rabbit hole of addiction.

In many ways, HSPs, by definition, seem like a perfect fit for addictive behavior. After all, addiction rises from the desire to escape what is too stressful, too painful, too stimulating. And the HSP’s existence is easily summed up in that one word: too.

Effects of Substances

In order to understand the potential relationship between high sensitivity and addiction, it’s imperative to understand the effects of drugs on the brain.

Some drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, work by mimicking the brain’s own chemicals. They don’t, however, stimulate neurons in the same way as the brain’s natural neurotransmitters.

Other drugs, such as amphetamine or cocaine, work by increasing or decreasing the release of natural neurotransmitters from the brain’s neurons.

Regardless of the process, normal circuitry and communication in the brain is disrupted. The brain’s reward center, the area that feels the anxiety of withdrawal, and the area responsible for impulse control become imbalanced. 

The brain wants its dopamine fix, and its patience and tolerance for natural means of acquiring it wear thin. The reach for a drink (or other drug of choice), then, becomes the shortest distance between two screaming points. 

And so the habit forms.

The dopamine chase reinforces behavior without forethought to consequence.

Is there scientific evidence?

Surprisingly, there is little to no scientific evidence (yet) of a direct link between high sensitivity and addiction.

And yet, all the indicators are there, like pieces of a puzzle just waiting to be assembled into one big “aha” picture.

Thankfully, however, a team of European scientists have come together specifically to find an answer to the question: Are HSPs more prone to addiction?

The project, called the EANID “STANDUP” Project, also seeks to determine whether supportive environmental factors can buffer overstimulation and reduce drug use in individuals high on SPS.

Why is that relevant to high sensitivity?

Because HSPs are reactive to positive/supportive stimuli as much as they are to negative/triggering stimuli. 

This differential susceptibility explains why HSPs fare based on the type of support they receive (or don’t receive) during childhood. 

Highly sensitive children raised in a supportive environment fare better than children without the trait.

And, sadly, highly sensitive children raised in an unsupportive environment struggle more than children without the trait.

And it all makes sense, doesn’t it? 

Everything about the highly sensitive life is about intensification, magnification, absence of filters.

When those qualities are embraced as unique gifts, high sensitivity becomes a springboard to self-confidence and creative accomplishment.  A superpower.

When they are rejected, the HSP draws inward to find refuge from confrontation, disapproval, and shame.

And it’s here, in this abyss of displacement, this place of hiding from “not fitting in,” that the HSP is most vulnerable.

Add in environmental stimulation and societal expectations in a digital age, and you have a perfect storm.

Approval or disapproval will not change the natural makeup of the HSP’s brain. Nor will it change the HSP’s responsiveness to both external and internal environmental stimuli.

It can, however, change the course of expression. 

And, in cases of addiction or predisposition to addiction, recognition and acceptance of the trait of high sensitivity can make all the difference in the world.

So, are HSPs more prone to addiction? (Read one HSP’s opinion and experience with alcohol here.)

The science behind a definite answer may still be lacking. But it wasn’t that long ago that science hadn’t yet caught up to what roughly a fifth of the population intuitively knew: that they were different. 

Dr. Elaine Aron changed that.

Perhaps, just as there is a prevalence of eating disorders among HSPs, there is also a higher risk of addiction among them.

When your life is defined by “too muchness,” would it be surprising?

Dr. Elayne Daniels is a private practice psychologist and coach in the Boston area whose specialties include helping Highly Sensitive People thrive. Contact her here for more information.

Dr. Elayne Daniels

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