What Is ‘Aesthetic Sensitivity,’ and Why Is It So Important for HSPs?

A highly sensitive woman painting

Are you deeply moved by art, music, and beauty? You might be an ‘aesthetic’ HSP — and the more you nourish it, the better. 

My mom warned me that listening to music so loudly would damage my hearing. 

But I was 16 and I didn’t care. I was lucky enough to have my very own old raggedy car to drive myself to school and I wanted — no, needed — to blast my music as loud as I could in order to stand every precious second of the commute. As a highly sensitive introvert, it was my way of readying myself for another overstimulating day at school. 

This meant that not only was I a highly sensitive person — who was very affected by my environment and could get overwhelmed easily — but I was also an introvert, someone who recharged when alone. So my car drives were perfect.

The only thing that kept me from window-shattering decibels was my unwavering conscientiousness as an HSP — I didn’t want to annoy the adjacent drivers. Highly sensitive people often avoid loud noise, but I needed to feel the music deep in my soul and have it reverberate throughout my body. 

I won’t reveal my embarrassing taste-in-music back then, except to say that it was most definitely not the sugary pop songs that topped the charts during my teenage years. In true highly sensitive fashion, I could only blast music I deeply connected with.

This all-encompassing connection to the arts is more than just an adolescent phase for sensitive people. Our sensitivity to the arts is a magic portal to the gifts of the trait. 

What Is ‘Aesthetic Sensitivity’? 

When Dr. Elaine Aron began her research on the trait of high sensitivity, she and her colleagues focused on identifying sensitivity to one’s environment as a unitary construct. Since then, our understanding of what impacts sensitivity levels has expanded. One way researchers measure it now is by looking at three sensitivity subscales: ease of excitation, low sensory threshold, and aesthetic sensitivity. 

Ease of excitation refers to how prone someone is to feel overwhelmed by any stimuli, whether internal or external. A person’s low sensory threshold refers to their tendency to become easily overstimulated by external sensory stimuli, such as loud noises or bright lights. Finally, aesthetic sensitivity refers to one’s appreciation of, and connection with, the arts. 

I find it interesting — and fitting — that our connection with the arts warranted its own subcategory within sensitivity. Many artists are thought to be highly sensitive, such as Vincent van Gogh and Frida Kahlo. It certainly tracks that, along with our deep processing, emotional reactivity, and sensitivity to subtle stimuli would also be aesthetic sensitivity; researchers simply identify it as “being deeply moved by the arts and music.” 

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Why Aesthetic Sensitivity Is Important in Regard to HSPs

When measuring these three subcategories of sensitivity, researchers discovered an important distinction. While a person’s ease of excitation, and low sensory threshold, are associated with negatively perceived experiences, like anxiety and depression, aesthetic sensitivity is associated with positively perceived experiences, like positive emotionality and openness. 

In addition, these three subcategories have been measured to activate two main systems in the brain — our behavioral activation system and behavioral inhibition system. As Dr. Aron explains in her book, The Highly Sensitive Person, our behavioral inhibition system alerts us to potential threats and urges caution. Aron refers to it as our “pause-to-check” system. Researchers, too, found that HSPs’ ease of excitation and low sensory threshold prompts this response.

Aesthetic sensitivity, on the other hand, lends itself to the behavioral activation system, making us curious and encouraging novelty and discovery. 

So while much of what makes us highly sensitive can be challenging (though I believe there is beauty in it all), our deep connection to the arts is something that studies show betters our lives as HSPs. 

Even though I’ve never considered myself to be much of an artist or an art connoisseur, this resonates with me and my sensitive sensibilities. I love how it feels to experience the arts deeply, even when they capture life’s more difficult realities. In fact, I gravitate more toward artistic expressions of life’s shadows, because they help me feel not quite so alone in my intense experience of them. 

Susan Cain, too, evidences this in her book, Bittersweet, saying: “People whose favorite songs are happy listen to them about 175 times on average. But those who favor ‘bittersweet’ songs listen almost 800 times, according to a study by University of Michigan professors Fred Conrad & Jason Corey, and they report a ‘deeper connection’ to the music than those whose favorites made them happy. They tell researchers that they associate sad songs with profound beauty, deep connection, transcendence, nostalgia, and common humanity — the so-called sublime emotions.” 

This is the study Cain referenced, and I find it fascinating.

Does the above sound like you? It was certainly me at sixteen, and remains true today, too. And, overall, calming music is so soothing for HSPs.

It seems connecting deeply with the arts is more than a “quirk” of being highly sensitive. I’m taken by the word “transcendence” in Cain’s description. Perhaps our aesthetic sensitivity is so connected to our well-being because it allows us to transcend our often-overwhelming (and irritating) experience of this world and connect with a deeper reality.

So how can we nourish our aesthetic sensitivity? Exposing ourselves to more art isn’t just a luxurious self-care hack — it’s essential for your well-being as an HSP. Here are five ways to encourage your aesthetic sensitivity.

5 Ways to Encourage Your Aesthetic Sensitivity

1. Curate your social media feeds for positivity instead of negativity.

Many of our social media algorithms have fallen prey to the news addiction that has plagued our culture over the past few years. We need to take back our feeds to break the doom-scrolling cycle and use social media for good.

Cain seems to understand this, as she now regularly shares all manner of artistic inspirations on her social media channels. I love how artists like Morgan Harper Nichols, too, are transforming the Instagram square into a portal to the deeper reality that bewitches HSPs. 

So, paring down your news intake — while increasing your artistic follows — can make those algorithms start working for your aesthetic sensitivity rather than against it. 

2. Regardless of whether or not you call yourself an “artist,” honor your creative abilities and interests.

Years ago, a dear friend and accomplished graphic designer assured me that everyone is creative in one way or another. “Yeah, easy for you to say,” I thought as I unsuccessfully tried to hide my cynicism. I did not consider myself to possess a creative bone in my body. 

But I have since come around to her way of thinking and have begun to honor my own creative stirrings. After all, highly sensitive people are naturally creative — I just had to believe (and embrace) it!

During the height of the pandemic, I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic. In it, she encourages everyone to create, and also prescribes that we expand our creative endeavors beyond our perceived skillset. (And who knows? It may help us find our purpose, too!)

Maybe the COVID-19 lockdown stir-craziness lowered my inhibitions, but I impulsively decided to follow Gilbert’s advice. I borrowed my kindergartener’s Crayola watercolors set and dabbled with its bright, kid-friendly colors. My painting was as juvenile as the watercolors I used, but it was fun and felt like a true indulgence for my long-neglected creative side. The art itself wasn’t a masterpiece, but the art of creating made me happy. 

So what creative stirrings have you let fall by the wayside? Consider dusting them off and giving them the time they deserve. Your well-being will thank you, trust me.

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3. Explore your own flavor of “artist dates.” 

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is a great read for all HSPs, no matter their perceived artistic inclinations. Cameron urges readers to “enchant” one’s consciousness, to “woo” it into wonder through what she calls “artist dates.” 

Sensitive people, including those without much artistic calling (I count myself among you!), can consider any experience that stirs that deep connection with your aesthetic awareness as an artist date. 

Though not exactly what Cameron might qualify as one, this concept has helped me steal away spare moments throughout my day to indulge my aesthetic sensitivity. I might take the 15 minutes I spend in the school carpool line to journal, which helps HSPs make sense of our emotions. Or I may practice my painting. Or I may really sink into whatever music is currently speaking to me (at a respectable volume, of course).

Artist dates need not cost anything either, as Cameron argues that even window-shopping can inspire your inner artist. But HSPs’ positive relationships to their aesthetic sensitivity is also permission to budget for artist date splurges, like tickets to your favorite musical or art exhibition when it comes to town. 

4. Sink into your favorite works of art like your well-being depends on it — because it does!

If you’re like me, Cain’s statistic I mentioned above accurately describes your relationship to your favorite artistic expressions of the “sublime emotions.” HSPs might feel “othered” by our relationship with the arts because we don’t know many other people who cling to songs, movies, or books the way we do. This used to embarrass me, but now I see that these creative works are faithful companions to my deeply-processing mind.  

I liken sensitivity to “sinking” into life’s experiences. Sinking into art that speaks to you — even for the 800th time — benefits your sensitive spirit. Others might not get it, but that’s just life as an HSP. Don’t discount your desire to relive these meaningful works of art again and again. Your aesthetic sensitivity longs for the depths, so let yourself sink.

5. But… know when to come up for air, too.

There’s a line between nourishing your sensitivities with art that captures your emotionality and sinking too far into the depths of human despair. So while we may be so drawn to melancholia that we could live forever in its grasp, that doesn’t mean we should. 

It’s important to know the limits of your sensitivity and when to avoid overconsumption, which leads to overstimulation… which is just another term for overwhelm, an HSP’s Achilles’ heel

And remember: Just because it’s art doesn’t mean it’s for you. Sometimes artistic works are meant to jolt people awake to the realities of life. HSPs tend to be wide awake to life’s difficulties as it is — we don’t necessarily need to expose ourselves to that which disturbs our sensitive spirits. There is a time to look into the depths of the human experience and a time when our sensitivity does plenty for us already. So know your limits and honor them.

As an HSP who spent most of her life denying her sensitivity, understanding the importance of nourishing my aesthetic sensitivity has been incredibly healing and, as the research indicates, has made me a more expansive person. I no longer see my deep connection with the arts as frivolous; I honor it as essential.

Whatever your artistic interests, they are worth prioritizing for your own well-being. (And if you’re a teenager, take it from me: nurture your love of the arts and protect your hearing!)

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