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Connecting the Dots between Sensitivity and Physical Health: the role of Psychological Stress

19th February 2024 - By Jordan Buren & Dr Grant Benham

About the authors

Jordan Buren is a PhD student at the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley. She works on physiological measures of stress reactivity and recovery in female populations. Her research interests include stress, health, and how sensory processing sensitivity influences the experience of stress.

Grant Benham is a Professor of Health Psychology. His research focuses on the physical health consequences of stress and inadequate sleep as well as the role of individual differences in mediating and moderating these relationships.


In our study on sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), health, and perceived stress, we observed that perceived stress acts as a mediator between SPS and poor physical health, particularly in a predominantly Hispanic population. This suggests that prioritizing stress reduction may enhance the impact of SPS on physical health.


Within the broad research area of sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), a limited number of studies have examined the relationship between SPS and physical health (1-2). There are fewer studies still examining factors that might explain any observed association between the two.

Given previous research linking SPS to greater perceived stress and the well-established link between psychological stress and physical health, we examined perceived stress as a potential mechanism through which SPS may impact physical health.

The Study

Our study (3) involved a large group of 923 undergraduates who filled out demographic questions and a number of standardized measures via an online survey. Measures included the 27-item Highly Sensitive Person Scale, a well-established measure of stress (the Perceived Stress Scale), and two separate measures of self-reported health (the Cohen-Hoberman Inventory of Physical Symptoms and the Physical Health Questionnaire).

Additionally, to minimize concerns that the observed relationships may simply be driven by levels of negative affect, we included a measure of negative affect (from the International Positive and Negative Affect Schedule—Short Form) and controlled for this in our analyses.

More than two-thirds of the students were female and most identified as Hispanic (93%). Most of the group were young adults, though ages ranged from 18 to 50 years (average age = 20.6 years).

The SPS-Health Relationship

Replicating prior research on the basic SPS-health relationship, we found that a higher overall SPS score was associated with poorer physical health, based on two separate physical health measures.

Recognizing the evolving understanding of the factor structure of the SPS measure, we used statistical modelling techniques to confirm the number of subfactors to more carefully examine the nature of the SPS-health relationship.

In keeping with the three‐factor solution initially proposed by Smolewska et al. (4), the resultant three factors were labelled Ease of Excitation (EOE), Aesthetic Sensitivity (AES), and Low Sensory Threshold (LST). As expected, EOE and LST emerged as better predictors of poorer health than did AES.

The Role of Stress as a Connecting Mechanism

Given that SPS is considered an inherited trait, it is important to identify modifiable factors that might be targeted for intervention. We found that perceived psychological stress served as a mechanism connecting SPS to physical health.

Statistical analyses showed that this mediation was present for the overall SPS score and also when examining EOE and LST factors separately.


Although our study found that higher SPS is associated with poorer physical health, the fact that this may be driven in part by increased stress provides room for hope. Our results tentatively suggest that the association between SPS and poor health is not absolute — interventions to reduce stress could potentially offset the detected effect.

It’s also important to recognize that our findings are based on associations and are further limited by self-report measures. Future research will benefit from longitudinal approaches that collect data over time and from the integration of more objective health measures (5).

Lastly, while our findings support the notion that SPS increases vulnerability to poor health, we also appreciate that the true picture is more complex. Research on the SPS-health relationship will benefit from expanded perspectives, such as that of vantage sensitivity (6) and from consideration of evolving measures of SPS, such as the Sensory Processing Sensitivity Questionnaire (7).


  1. Benham, G. (2006). The highly sensitive person: Stress and physical symptom reports. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(7), 1433–1440.
  2. Greven, C. U., Lionetti, F., Booth, C., Aron, E. N., Fox, E., Schendan, H. E., Pluess, M., Bruining, H., Acevedo, B., Bijttebier, P., & Homberg, J. (2019). Sensory processing sensitivity in the context of environmental sensitivity: A critical review and development of research agenda. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 98, 287–305.
  3. Kenemore, J., Chavez, J., & Benham, G. (2023). The pathway from sensory processing sensitivity to physical health: Stress as a mediator. Stress and Health, 39(5), 1148–1156.
  4. Smolewska, K. A., McCabe, S. B., & Woody, E. Z. (2006). A psychometric evaluation of the Highly Sensitive Person Scale: The components of sensory‐processing sensitivity and their relation to the BIS/BAS and “Big Five. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(6), 1269–1279.
  5. Iimura, S. and S. Takasugi (2022). “Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Japanese Adults.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 19(16).
  6. Pluess, M., et al. (2023). “People differ in their sensitivity to the environment: An integrated theory, measurement and empirical evidence.” Journal of Research in Personality 104.
  7. De Gucht, V., et al. (2022). “The Different Faces of (High) Sensitivity, Toward a More Comprehensive Measurement Instrument. Development and Validation of the Sensory Processing Sensitivity Questionnaire (SPSQ).” Journal of Personality Assessment 104(6): 784-799.