Feeling affects flow through our bodies, expressing themselves as bodily changes. Our heart rates change, blood pressure rises and falls, muscles tighten or relax, and perception narrows or expands. Our behaviors are largely responses to these internal changes occurring within our bodies. In psychology, we refer to a persons ability to recognize and respond to the occurrence of feeling affect changes in both themselves and in others as emotional sensitivity. We are emotionally sensitive; but are sensitivity varies.
Emotional sensitivity refers to a process or recognition and reactivity. Like many other psychological processes, their is a window of effectiveness. Daniel Goleman wrote in his best selling book Emotional Intelligence that “At the extremes, this means that for some people emotional awareness is overwhelming, while for others it barely exists” (2005).
Too little sensitivity and we miss large swatches of the world within and the world without. Lack of emotional sensitivity often is accompanied by maladaptive responses to experience. In extreme cases, lack of sensitivity may lead to violent crime and broken relationships. However, too much sensitivity and we overreact to inner and outer experiences. Life overloads the sensitive person with powerful emotions, sucking them into emotional storms where experience dysregulates behaviors and moods. Empath is a recent term that refers to the overly sensitive person. In psychology, a clinical prognosis for overly sensitive is a highly sensitive person (HSP).
Emotional Sensitivity refers to our level of attunement to internal and external emotions. Optimal levels of emotional sensitivity tend to motivate healthy responses to internal emotions, as well as express appropriate empathy and concerns for others.
Why We Need Emotional Sensitivity
Goleman wrote, “emotional life is richer for those who notice more” (2005). However, emotional sensitivity matters much more than just the value of experience. The rich life of emotion colors our world with pleasure and pain. But the hedonic experience is much more than feeling, pleasure and pain is the foundation of motivation—our incentive to act.
A fine tuned, well-working system responds to stimuli in a manner that benefits their survival and growth. Several years ago I referred to an emotional guidance system. The system is a model of how emotions direct behaviors. I explained, “emotions flare because they are programmed to respond. An event triggers a response; the event can be internal (a thought, a memory)—or external (an argument or an injury). Typically, an emotional reaction is a combination of external events, and internal connections tied to that event” (2020).
Alan Fruzzetti wrote, “we need emotions to survive in the world. Emotions orient us, tell us how important things are, signal us about likely consequences of actions, and allow for complexity and intensity in our relationships and other activities” (2006, location 377).
Emotional Sensitivity is a Complex Process
Emotional sensitivity is a process more than an event. Sensitivity engages both unconscious and conscious functions. Heightened biological feeling affects are more likely to puncture the veil and enter consciousness. In consciousness, feeling transform through additional cognitive activities, such as rumination.
Emotion researchers suggest that “emotional sensitivity is determined by any variable that influences people’s initial emotional response to the situation, including qualities of the stimuli that people encounter (e.g., highly arousing stimuli are likely to trigger emotions more rapidly than mildly arousing stimuli), person characteristics (e.g., highly neurotic individuals may enter negative states more quickly than less neurotic individuals), and the broader situation (e.g., during an economic crisis, threatening thoughts may spring to mind more easily)” (Koole, Van Dillon, & Shepps, 2016).
Biologically, our sensitivity is closely tied to the HPA axis which triggers a stress response in reaction to stimuli.
All these variables create an initial emotional response that an individual may or may not consciously recognize. The person than, depending on consciousness of the experience, may intervene and alter the impulse to act, redirecting behavior to serve long term goals. In psychology, we refer to this as emotional regulation.
Another avenue to regulating the emotional response, calming heightened emotions, is defense mechanisms. Through the use of unconscious mechanisms, an individual calms emotional storms, bringing them back into bearable levels within an individuals window of tolerance.
The more emotional sensitivity we have, the more likely stimuli will create enough disturbance of our homeostatic balance that we will employ defensive or regulatory strategies to rebalance our system. Goleman adds “for any given emotion, people can differ in how easily it triggers, how long it lasts, how intense it becomes” (2005, Kindle location 4,320). Emotional sensitivity are the cause of these differences. Goleman explains “enhanced emotional sensitivity means that for such people the least provocation unleashes emotional storms, whether heavenly or hellish, while those at the other extreme barely experience any feeling even under the most dire circumstances” (location 1,157).
When emotions quickly arouse, and exceed our individual affect tolerance, life may quickly get out of hand.
Sensitivity to Internal Affect
Some people are greatly attuned to the happenings within their own bodies. They sense the changes and react or shutdown. Sensitivity to internal affect provides an opportunity to effectively regulate emotions. When highly attuned to internal states, we can help give feeling affect meaning, labeling the experience with helpful meaning. In Psychology, we refer to this as emotion differentiation. This is “the process of putting feelings into words with a high degree of complexity (Murphy, 2021).
Laurence Heller Ph.D. and Aline LaPierre Psy.D. wrote in their fascinating book Healing Developmental Trauma that “naming an experience brings sensations and emotions into consciousness.” They continue “warn that “without words to mentalize physical experience, unnamed, overwhelming emotions and sensations remain lodged in the body and its organs and are expressed as psychosomatic symptoms—a somatic encapsulation of unarticulated states” (2012, location 4060).
Lisa Feldman Barrett would argue that naming an experience is the process of creating emotion from the sensation. Barrett pointedly teaches that “conceptual combination plus words equals the power to create reality” (2018, p. 106). Basically, sensitivity to internal emotional reaction, when we can bring the flow of feeling affect into consciousness, becomes the gateway to creating a meaningful reality from our experience.
If we don’t consciously recognize, or don’t feel experience (such as in Alexithymia), or behavioral responses will lack important information for making decisions.
Emotional Sensitivity to Others
When a person experiences emotion, they typically exhibit several observable changes. The changes in blood flow, tightening or loosening of muscles, a variety of posture changes, eye movements, along with tone and rhythm of speech all project information about internal processes. Emotionally sensitive people are extremely adept at reading these signals, and adjusting their communication to fit the situation.
A mother gently moves with a child, swaying in kind attunement to the babies emotions. An attuned mother can then move with the child through the process of bringing the child back to an emotionally stable state. In psychology, we refer to this process as dyadic regulation.
Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley wrote about the early dyadic experiences, suggesting that the “reciprocal process of positive emotional exchanges is the foundation not only for attachment, but also for the development of empathy and the constructive ability for emotional sensitivity in intimate relationships” (2014, location 3,518). Positive early experiences of parental attunement to a child’s emotions is a primary factor in a child’s development of life long security. According to attachment theory, the secure environment of an emotionally validating parent creates a secure base that a child comfortably retreats to in moments of distress.
Sensitivity to other peoples emotions is an essential skill for relationships. Goleman wrote, “if they are adept at attuning to people’s moods, or can easily bring others under the sway of their own, then their interactions will go more smoothly at the emotional level” (2005).
A highly sensitive person (HSP) is a neurodivergent individual who is thought to have an increased or deeper central nervous system sensitivity to physical, emotional, or social stimuli.
Personality Differences and Emotional Sensitivity
Emotional sensitivity is strongly related to personality types. An interesting finding that contradicts conventional wisdom is that high emotional sensitivity may play out in counter intuitive ways. We may envision the highly sensitive person as being highly expressive, perhaps, even explosive or with great swings of emotional lability. In fact, highly sensitive people often have more subdues personalities. They may seem a bit aloof or introverted.
The outward display is not the emotional sensitivity but a defensive strategy to regulate a heightened sensitivity to emotion. Jerome Kagan, formerly a psychology professor at Harvard University explains, “that children who are overly sensitive and fearful grow into shy and timorous adults.” He describes them as “behaviorally inhibited” (Goleman. 2005). The shyness is a protective strategy to limit emotionally stimulating reactions. Goleman expands on this, explaining “the timid children seem to come into life with a neural circuitry that makes them more reactive to even mild stress—from birth, their hearts beat faster than other infants’ in response to strange or novel situations” (2005).
Karr-Morse and Wiley describe the heightened emotions may be caused from unprocessed trauma. They wrote “internal ‘noise’ from unresolved emotional dramas can undermine learning, even for children of high intelligence.” Karr-Morse and Wiley continue, “these are the children who, anticipating fearful experiences and with no secure base, will hang back. They will show little interest in exploration and will be reticent or frightened in new situations” (2014).
A primary defensive response to repeated and complex trauma is desensitizing to emotion. Unfortunately, desensitizing is rarely achieved against only select stimuli. Desensitization usually occurs across the board. According to neuroscientist Jean Decety at the University of Chicago, “desensitization to our own or to other people’s pain tends to lead to an overall blunting of emotional sensitivity” (Van der Kolk, 2015, Kindle location 4,139).
Harsh environments can disrupt and complicate normal functioning. Diane Fosha wrote, “positive emotions (e.g., pleasure, joy, tenderness), particular traits, qualities, ways of being that are either highly positive or at least benign (e.g., gentleness, independence, emotional sensitivity, intelligence, generosity) can become sources of great emotional pain when, for historical-dynamic reasons…” (2000,
Typically, personality is neither biologically or experientially defined but a combination of both. Our biological givens react within our environmental surroundings. In a complex interactions between the two genes are activated or remain silent in a process known as epigenetics. Our personalities also influence our environments. An emotional sensitive child that is highly reactive to stimuli is likely to evoke a different parental response. These interactions further shape the child’s personality. In psychology, we refer to this as reciprocal determinism.
Elizabeth Scott, PhD. wrote “a person highly sensitive likely depends on a variety of factors such as evolution, environment, genetics, and early childhood experiences” (2022). We are complex.
Developing Greater Emotional Sensitivity
Our emotional sensitivity is not set in stone, yet, it is amazingly resistant to change. Medication and therapy may help. Neuroplasticity allows for changes in brain structures that impact emotional sensitivity. One study found that Yoga helped increase emotional sensitivity of university students. The found that a yoga instructor’s course enhanced “understanding threshold of emotional arousal, empathy, improving inter-personal relations and communicability of emotions” (2014).
A Few Closing Remarks by Psychology Fanatic
Barrett, Lisa Feldman (2018) How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Mariner Books; Illustrated edition.
Fosha, Diane (2000). The Transforming Power Of Affect: A Model For Accelerated Change. Basic Books; Later Printing edition.
Fruzzetti, Alan E. (2006). The High-Conflict Couple: A Dialectical Behavior Therapy Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy, and Validation. New Harbinger Publications; 1st edition.
Ganpat, T., Dash, S., & Ramarao, N. (2014). Yoga therapy for promoting emotional sensitivity in University students. Journal of Education and Health Promotion,3,
Goleman, Daniel (2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Random House Publishing Group; 10th Anniversary edition.
Heller, L., LaPierre A. (2012) Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition
Karr-Morse, Robin; Wiley, and Meredith S. (2014). Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence. Atlantic Monthly Press; 1st edition
Koole, Sander L.; Van Dillon, Lotte F.; Shepps, Gal (2016). The Self regulation of Emotion. In Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications. Editors Kathleen D. Vohs and Roy F. Baumeister. The Guilford Press; 3rd edition
Murphy, T. Franklin (2020). Emotional Guidance System. Psychology Fanatic. Published 4-10-2020. Accessed 4-24-2023.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2021). Emotion Differentiation. Psychology Fanatic. Published 9-21-2021. Accessed 4-24-2023
Scott, Elizabeth (2022). What Is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)? VeryWellMind. Published 11-07-2022. Accessed 4-24-2023.
Van der Kolk, Bessel (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Publishing Group; Reprint edition.