I've been asked a lot recently about the difference between being highly sensitive and being highly excitable. I've written a few posts on being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) and how it relates to excitability, but as I've spent the last year immersing myself in the two I've gotten more clarity on them both. First let's take a look at how the terms are defined.
According to Merriam-Webster...
Sensitive: receptive to sense impressions; capable of being stimulated or excited by external agents (as light, gravity, or contact); highly responsive or susceptible; easily hurt or damaged; especially easily hurt emotionally; delicately aware of the attitudes and feelings of others
Excitable: capable of being readily roused into action or a state of excitement or irritability; capable of being activated by and reacting to stimuli <excitable cells>
According to Dr. Aron’s definition, the highly sensitive person (HSP) has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.
According to a summary of Kazimierz Dabrowski's work, overexcitability is a characteristic of the nervous system involving higher than average sensitivity to stimuli (a lower threshold to stimuli) and a higher than average response to stimuli.
Pretty similar eh?
The short answer on the difference between high sensitivity and excitability is that high sensitivity focuses primarily on sensory and emotional sensitivity. Excitability includes sensory and emotional sensitivity, but it also includes intellectual, imaginative and psychomotor sensitivities. If you have a heightened sensitivity and/or intensity of experience in any of these five areas, you would fit the definition of highly excitable.
What's in name?
If you identify as a Highly Sensitive Person and that describes you quite well - you certainly don't need to go looking for new labels to add to your collection. Even though HSP falls under the definition, the term excitability might not feel quite right. If you are like me though, the concept of the HSP fits in many ways, but does not alone explain the big picture. From what I have observed, while those who identify as HSP often feel that the world is "too much" those who identify as excitable also worry that they might be "too much" for the world. This is due to the intensity not only of how they perceive the world but in how they react to it. They also struggle to find balance between the high need for self-care they have from being HSP with a strong drive and/or pressure on themselves to live up to their idealized selves and do something remarkable in the world.
Another difference I've seen is that the people I've talked to who identify as excitable, might be more likely to be High Sensation Seekers (HSS). HSS HSPs are highly sensitive to their environment, but they also seek stimulation and novelty. This combination of traits may leave you feeling like you have "one foot on the gas, one foot on the brake." I see intellectual and psychomotor excitabilities as the most likely connected to the HSS traits. If you are intellectually excitable, you may be attracted to novelty and intellectual stimulation by looking for new problems or puzzles to solve. If you have psychomotor excitability you may experience a feeling of restlessness and need to move. Some experience a tendency toward excess energy and/or hyperactivity, but it is possible to have psychomotor excitability and fatigue, which may show up in feeling "wired but tired."
So are you Highly Sensitive, Highly Excitable or Both?
If you identify as more sensitive or intense than average in the areas of senses and emotions, you are likely both. If you identify as more sensitive or intense in the areas of thought, imagination and/or body movement you might be highly excitable, but not identify as HSP unless you have the sensory and emotional components as well.