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What Is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published March 02, 2022

by Saul Mcleod, PhD


What is a highly sensitive person?

A highly sensitive person (HSP) is someone who is thought to have increased or deeper central nervous system (CNS) sensitivity to multiple stimuli, whether this be physical, emotional, environmental, or social.

The term was coined by psychologist Elaine Aron in the mid-1990s, with interest in the concept growing ever since. According to Aron’s theory, HSPs are a prevalent subgroup of the population who display increased emotional sensitivity and stronger reactivity to external and internal stimuli compared to the rest of the population.

They tend to notice more subtle stimuli in their environment and are more easily aroused by this, in addition, they also respond to a lower threshold of stimuli. HSPs may, for instance, be more sensitive to pain, hunger, lights, and noises. They are also defined as having a complex and deeper inner life. 

In literature, HSP is often referred to as sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), which is not to be confused with sensory processing disorder, a condition which affects how the brain processes sensory information. HSP is not a diagnosable condition, instead it is believed to be a personality trait that involves increased responsiveness to both positive and negative influences.

HSPs are thought to have both strengths and challenges. They may be able to pick up on small environmental changes and provide responsive care to others, which can prove useful.

However, they may also find that they can get easily overwhelmed by environmental stimuli and get easily upset, which may prove distressing to the individual.

HSP has often been considered as interchangeable with other personality factors, such as introversion and neuroticism. However, Aron maintained that HSP is a separate trait and there are little-to-no relations to other personality traits. 

How common are highly sensitive people?

Since Aron conceived the concept of what it means to be an HSP, more and more people have been identifying themselves as highly sensitive. It is believed that HSPs are not rare, and that about 15-20% of the population are thought to be an HSP.

There are also thought to be no significant differences in sex, with equal numbers of males and females being an HSP. Being an HSP is an innate trait, with biologists finding high sensitivity in over 100 species. This trait is thought to reflect a certain type of survival strategy in many species, such as being observant before acting.

Whilst a moderate percentage of the population are HSPs, there are still more people who are not. Many societies tend to be built to accommodate people who notice things a little less and are affected less deeply.

This can mean that sensitivity is valued differently in different cultures. In cultures where HSPs are not valued so much, these individuals may have lower self-esteem, especially if they are often told they are being ‘too sensitive’ or are told they need to not take everything to heart.

HSPs, in many instances, may feel as if there is something wrong with them for being highly sensitive. 

How do you know if you’re a highly sensitive person?

Highly dislike violence

Whilst it is typical to dislike violence, for HSPs, they are likely to be more distressed or deeply disturbed by violence. Even hearing about violence or cruelty can be extremely upsetting for them.

HSPs will likely make effort to avoid situations where they may witness violence such as avoiding certain movies, TV shows, or hearing stories of animal cruelty. 

Experience the emotions of others

HSPs tend to experience other people’s emotions. HSPs may enter a room and immediately be aware of the mood of the people present.

This is because HSPs are sensitive to subtleties such as facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.

Their own mood can change to mirror the people in their surroundings which can often feel emotionally exhausting. 

Often feel overstimulated

Since HSPs are very sensitive to environmental stimuli, they can become overwhelmed by sensory stimuli such as noises, bright lights, the fabric of clothes, and strong smells.

They may find it hard to concentrate if there is a lot going on in their environment. 

Often withdraw

HSPs may often require a lot of downtime, usually on their own in a place which is comforting to them.

They may feel more of a need to withdraw after a particularly stimulating day so they can recharge and lower their stimulation levels. 

Startle easily

Many HSPs have a highly sensitive ‘startle reflex’ and find that if someone sneaks up on them or there is a loud noise, they are more likely to be very startled.

This may be because, even in non-threatening situations, their CNS is very sensitive and can react as if there is a danger. 

A rich inner life

Since HSPs think and process things deeply, they often have a rich and complex inner world.

They often have deep thoughts and strong feelings to go with them, as well as having vividly realistic dreams. As a child, they may have had imaginary friends, enjoyed fantasy-based play, and daydreamed. 

Deeply moved by beauty

HSPs are likely to have a deeper emotional response to beauty, such as artwork, music, and fine food.

They may have a deeper appreciation of life and find it hard to understand how other people are not as moved as they are. 

Perceptive 

As HSPs are more likely to notice subtleties in the environment, they may be seen as perceptive and insightful.

This may make them better at solving problems or able to adapt to more situations due to noticing thing that others may not. 

Strong emotional responses

HSPs have stronger emotional responses, both positively and negatively. This means they feel higher levels of joy and happiness, but easily upset at times of sadness.

They may also get angry when they are hungry or feel hurt when criticized. 

Impact of being a highly sensitive person

Being an HSP can come with both advantages and disadvantages for how it can affect someone’s life. As with any personality trait, there are strengths and challenges that come with being an HSP.

Through understanding how to manage the features of being an HSP, people can make this trait more of a strength and less of a challenge.

Below are some of the ways in which being an HSP can have an impact on life:

Social impact

HSPs may have close relationships with others. This could be because they come across as caring people as they know what needs to be done to make situations better for others.

They have the capacity to be empathetic, care deeply for others and form deep bonds. On the other hand, HSPs may demonstrate seemingly inappropriate responses to social situations such as being overly emotional or being too easily offended by people who meant no harm.

They may also have relationship issues, especially if the HSP becomes emotionally aggressive as a response to insults or criticism. 

Environmental impact 

HSPs may find great enjoyment in many stimulating environmental experiences such as art, music, and human connection. They may also seek out pleasurable stimuli such as soft fabrics, a fine meal, or being in a favorite location such as in nature.

However, they may find they become easily uncomfortable to certain environmental stimuli and avoid situations which can leave them feeling overwhelmed.

Moreover, they may seemingly overreact to daily stressors or struggle to adapt to new circumstances. 

Emotional impact

For HSPs, they can face a combination of emotional highs and emotional lows. They may be highly touched by beauty or other people’s emotions.

They may cry when watching heart-warming or sad videos. HSPs may also appreciate the small things in life and may be very grateful for the life they have.

Whilst they can be highly affected by positive emotional experiences, they may also be more deeply affected by negative experiences. 

Aron summarizes the aspects of high sensitivity through the acronym DOES:

  • D – Depth of processing. This means that things are thought through more thoroughly and how it can affect others, with lots of time needed to think about life and how the HSP feels about it.

  • O – Overstimulation. This is when HSPs get overstimulated by stimuli such as noise and lights. They may need a lot of time to recharge after being stimulated and may actively avoid unpleasant stimuli.

  • E – Emotional reactivity and empathy. Not to be confused with being an empath, HSPs can know how someone is feeling, can sense other’s moods and hate conflict. 

  • S – Sensing the subtle. HSPs are able to notice small changes in people and their environment. They can often sense when someone is upset and change their behavior to make the other person more comfortable. 

Potential pitfalls

Struggle with busy life

Whilst many people may thrive on the excitement of a busy life with hectic schedules, HSPs feel overwhelmed when they have a lot to do in a short amount of time.

Even if they know they have enough time to get everything done, the pressure of deadlines can feel overwhelmingly stressful. 

HSPs may even feel annoyed or be irritable if they have too many things to do at once.

On busy days, they may find a strong need to withdraw into bed or a darkened room where they can decompress and hide from the stimulation.

Difficulty with boundaries 

Since HSPs tend to pick up on the needs and feelings of others, especially when there are negative emotions. They with often offer to help others and can come across as very considerate, wanting to help everyone and saying yes to everything for fear of disappointing others.

Learning to set boundaries and say no to others is a challenge for them even if they feel overwhelmed by the demands of others.

The consideration of HSPs can make them a target for people to take advantage of as often the HSP will help others out to avoid confrontations and keep the peace.

HSPs may be sacrificing their own happiness and time to help others, so their own needs are being neglected as a result.

Conflicts

HSPs may be more prone to feeling stressed as a result of any conflict. They may be more likely to pick up on any cues in their relationships that feel a bit ‘off’ and have worries that their relationship is in trouble.

They may also misinterpret signals in social situations as being a sign of conflict or anger. Another person in a social situation may have meant no offense and come from a place of kindness, however the HSP may misjudge this negatively which can cause tension. 

Social comparison

HSPs may compare themselves to others in social situations. They might not understand why other people are not reacting as strongly or deeply as they are, which could result in making comparisons such as believing there is something wrong with them.

They may believe they are being ‘too sensitive’ or that other people are being insensitive. If a relationship ends, they may find they are more upset than the other person.

They may ruminate over what happened and feel that things could have been resolved, whereas the other person may believe nothing more could have been done.

Energy drains

HSPs may find that, throughout the day, there are many stressors, which may be small for most people, but affect them deeply. They may find it hard to relax or concentrate on a task if there is harsh lighting, strong smells, or too much noise.

They may not be able to tolerate being hungry and this can even make them irritable or angry. They are also more sensitive to pain so this may also make it difficult to complete tasks.

They may experience short temper and headaches because of being over-stimulated, leaving them feeling drained. This can be a problem when it causes issues at school or work. 

Self-critical 

HSPs tend to be their own worst critic and will be overly critical and ruminate about many small things that they did. They are often perfectionists and if they make mistakes, they can recall these for a long time afterwards, feeling more embarrassed by them than others would.

They also may not like being watched and evaluated, especially when doing something challenging, for fear of making mistakes.

They may give themselves a lot of negative self-talk and try to avoid any mistakes at all. 

Attractive to narcissists 

AS HSPs are always wanting to please others and tend to have a caring nature, this can make them more attractive to narcissists, who may want to exploit their sensitivity.

HSPs may be more susceptible to gaslighting, especially if a narcissist tells them they are overreacting, being too sensitive, or that they need to not take everything so seriously.

The HSP may be more likely to believe the narcissist and be shamed for their sensitivity.

The HSP may be stuck in a cycle of trying to please the narcissist. Their sensitivity, which is often seen as a weak trait to others, can be weaponized by the narcissist. 

FAQs:

How is high sensitivity measured?

Aron developed a personality questionnaire to help people identify whether they have HSP traits. This is known as Aron’s Highly Sensitive Persons Scale (HSPS).

Some example questions on this scale include: ‘I am easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input’, ‘I startle easily’, and ‘I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows.’  

How can I deal with someone who is an HSP?

It is important to accept that being a HSP is a part of a person’s temperament and likely cannot change.

Ensure the person has space to feel safe if they have become overwhelmed, encourage self-care activities, and search for the strengths in their sensitivity to foster the relationship and help the person thrive.

Try not to criticize them for being sensitive, do not rush them to complete tasks, and try not to overload them with information. 

Is a HSP always introverted? 

HSPs are often lablled as shy since they tend to look and consider before entering new situations.

However, being an HSP is thought to be innate, whilst shyness is learnt. Aron suggests that around 30% of HSPs are extroverts, so whilst a lot of HSPs are introverted, a large proportion are not. 

Are HSPs the same as empaths?

Whilst HSPs and empaths may share similar traits, such as having a low threshold for stimulation and a need for time alone, empaths have the capacity to internalize the feelings and pain of others.

Empaths can have trouble distinguishing someone else’s discomfort from their own and the way they absorb emotions typically makes them very caring and understanding people.

Whereas an HSP will be more quickly overstimulated and can feel emotionally drained from being around others in a poorer mood. 

Is HSP a mental illness?

According to Aron, being an HSP is not a mental health disorder. Rather, it is defined like other aspects of personality, that being a trait that exists in everyone to varying degrees. 

Is HSP a form of autism?

There are some similarities between HSP and autism. They both involves extreme sensitivity to the environment, get overwhelmed by emotional stimuli, and both come with advantages of creativity and noticing connections that others may miss.

Despite this, they are different. Those with autism have ‘social difficulties’ whereas this is not a trait of HSPs, who are highly responsive to social cues.

The HSP brain also shows higher than typical levels of activity in areas related to calmness, hormonal balance, self-control, and self-reflective thinking.

This contrasts to autistic brains which was found to be less active in those brain regions related to calmness, emotion, and sociability. 

Highly sensitive person tips for a happier life

Although there may be times when things can get overwhelming and stressful due to being highly sensitive, being sensitive should not be viewed as a negative trait.

The highs of life can bring more joyful experiences and happiness than someone who is not an HSP. Finding ways to cope with the stress when it does come can be helpful for those with sensitive personalities.

There are some tips that HSPs can utilize to make help limit the negative experience and fuel the positives:

  • Knowing the triggers – through trying to find out what is causing stress and feelings of being overwhelmed, HSPs can learn to avoid these.

    Whilst some stressors cannot always be avoided in every instance, a lot can be controlled for. For instance, if a person knows that violent movies make them feel stressed, these should be easy to avoid. 

  • Add positivity – if the HSP knows that they are going to have a highly-stimulating day, which they cannot avoid, they can make sure they dedicate some time to doing an activity that they enjoy, so that the stress does not become overwhelming.

    This can even include simple rest breaks of not doing anything, so that the person has time to recharge. 

  • Learn to say no – whilst it may feel unnatural to create boundaries with others, it is important to say no sometimes if the person’s own happiness and peace is being sacrificed for others’ needs.

    Deciding what can reasonably be done and what cannot be done can help with choosing what to do for others. It is likely that other people do not realize that the HSP is feeling overwhelmed from their demands and would not want them to suffer because of their own actions. 

  • Set up a relaxing atmosphere – when things get inevitably too hectic, it can be really beneficial for the HSP to have a place that they can retreat to when they need to relax.

    This place can be at home, in a bedroom, or at a park. As long as the place is somewhere where the HSP can truly relax and recharge when things become too stimulating. 

  • Use sensitivity as an advantage – if the HSP finds pleasure in art or nice smells for instance, they can make sure to spend some time partaking in activities that they find pleasurable, so they are making the most of their sensitivity. 

  • Educate others – explaining to others about HSPs and what this mean can help them to understand what is too stimulating, and so they can make a conscious effort to make their presence or the environment more comfortable for the person. 

  • Break things down – when given a long list of tasks to complete, it may be helpful to break these down into manageable bits. This could include writing a to-do list and dedicating a set amount of time for each one so the person can work out what they can reasonably get done in the time they have.

  • Being kind to the self - being highly sensitive may mean that the HSP is overly critical of themselves and their actions. However, the negative self-talk can be invalidating and is not helpful nor supportive.

    The HSP should remember that they are not responsible for everyone else’s happiness, and if someone is upset, they should not blame themselves if they did not directly cause the sadness.

    It is not possible to make everyone happy all the time and the feelings and emotions of others cannot always be controlled. 

Fact Checking
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About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

How to reference this article:

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, March 02). What Is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)? Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/highly-sensitive-persons-traits.html

Sources

Aron, E. N., & Aron, A. (1997). Sensory-processing sensitivity and its relation to introversion and emotionality. Journal of personality and social psychology, 73(2), 345.

Dyer, S. (2010, February 1). The Highly Sensitive Person: An Interview with Elaine Aron. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6DezjkilrSY&ab_channel=ShariDyer

Fraga, J. (2019, April 18). Being a Highly Sensitive Person Is a Scientific Personality Trait. Here’s What It Feels Like. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/what-its-like-highly-sensitive-person-hsp

Granneman, J. (2019, December 13). 21 Signs You’re a Highly Sensitive Person. Highly Sensitive Refuge.https://highlysensitiverefuge.com/highly-sensitive-person-signs/

Psychology Today Staff. (n.d.). Highly Sensitive Person, Psychology Today. Retrieved 2022, January 21, from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/basics/highly-sensitive-person

Scott, E. (2020, September 18). What Is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)? Very Well Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/highly-sensitive-persons-traits-that-create-more-stress-4126393#toc-potential-pitfalls

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