What Is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

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What Is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

A highly sensitive person (HSP) is a term for those who are thought to have an increased or deeper central nervous system sensitivity to physical, emotional, or social stimuli. Some refer to this as having sensory processing sensitivity, or SPS for short.

While highly sensitive people are sometimes negatively described as being “too sensitive," it is a personality trait that brings both strengths and challenges.

These terms were first coined by psychologists Elaine Aron and Arthur Aron in the mid-1990s and interest in the concept has continued to grow tremendously since then.

How Do You Know?

Have you ever been told that you’re “too sensitive” or that you “shouldn’t think so much,” particularly by people who strike you as too insensitive or who you believe should think a little more? You may be what is known as a “highly sensitive person,” or HSP.

It is important to remember that being an HSP does not mean that you have a diagnosable condition. It is a personality trait that involves increased responsiveness to both positive and negative influences.

High sensitivity applies across a few different categories. There are several traits or characteristics common to HSPs, according to the researchers who identified this personality trait:

  • Avoiding violent movies or TV shows because they feel too intense and leave you feeling unsettled
  • Being deeply moved by beauty, either expressed in art, nature, or the human spirit, or sometimes even a good commercial
  • Being overwhelmed by sensory stimuli like noisy crowds, bright lights, or uncomfortable clothing
  • Feeling a need for downtime (not just a preference), especially when you have hectic days; needing to retreat to a dark, quiet room
  • Having a rich and complex inner life, complete with deep thoughts and strong feelings that go with it

For a more thorough or official identification, the Arons developed a personality questionnaire to help people identify themselves as HSPs. It is known as Aron’s Highly Sensitive Persons Scale (HSPS).

How Common Are HSPs?

Highly sensitive people are thought to make up roughly 20% of the general population. High sensitivity and introversion also share similarities but are distinct personality traits; however, there may be some overlap between the two.

Sensory processing sensitivity is also sometimes confused with a condition called sensory processing disorder, although the two are believed to be distinct.

It is less common to be a highly sensitive person, and society tends to be built around people who notice a little less and are affected a little less deeply.

Highly sensitive people may benefit from finding ways to cope with the stresses they often face. This is true for those who recognize themselves as highly sensitive as well as those who have a loved one who is more sensitive than the average person.

Impact of Being a HSP

Being an HSP comes with both advantages and challenges. It is possible to be too easily offended by people who mean no harm or who are trying their best to be kind. It is also possible to overreact to daily stressors or relationship issues, particularly if you become emotionally aggressive as a response.

However, being an HSP doesn’t necessarily mean that you imagine negative motives when they are not there. It is more that you perceive them more easily. Or, you may be affected more deeply by negative experiences, which is not necessarily a weakness.

Some of the ways that being an HSP might impact your life include:

  • You might avoid situations that leave you feeling overwhelmed. Highly sensitive people may be more affected by certain situations such as tension, violence, and conflict, which may lead them to avoid things that make them feel uncomfortable.
  • You might be highly touched by beauty or emotionality. Highly sensitive people tend to feel deeply moved by the beauty they see around them. They may cry while watching particularly heartwarming videos and can really empathize with the feelings of others, both negative and positive.
  • You may have close relationships with others. They care deeply about their friends and tend to form deep bonds with the right people.
  • You may be grateful for the life you have. Highly sensitive people appreciate a fine wine, a good meal, or a beautiful song on a level that most people can't access. They may feel more existential angst, but they also may feel more gratitude for what they have in life, knowing that it is possibly fleeting and nothing is certain.

If you know how to manage the unique features of being an HSP, you can make it more of a strength and less of a challenge in your life. To do this, it helps to understand what you’re dealing with, whether you are doing this for yourself or trying to build a deeper understanding of someone in your life who may be highly sensitive.

For HSPs, lows may be lower, but highs have the potential to be higher as well.

Potential Pitfalls

Not surprisingly, highly sensitive people tend to get more stressed when faced with difficult situations. They may also be stressed by things that may roll off of other people’s backs.

Social stress is perceived as more taxing to most people than other types of stress. This kind of stress can be particularly difficult for someone who can perceive many different ways that things could go wrong in a conflict, for example, or can perceive hostility or tension where others may not notice it. Specific things that can be significantly stressful for the highly sensitive include:

Hectic Schedules

Not everyone loves being too busy, but some people thrive on the excitement and exhilaration of a busy life. HPSs, on the other hand, feel overwhelmed and rattled when they have a lot to do in a short amount of time, even if they technically have enough time to get everything done if they rush. The need to juggle the uncertainty of maybe not being able to make it all work and the pressure of such situations feels overwhelmingly stressful.

Expectations of Others

Highly sensitive people tend to pick up on the needs and feelings of others. They hate letting people down. Learning to say no is a challenge and a necessity for HSPs because they can feel crushed by the demands of others, particularly because they can feel their friends’ disappointment if HSPs need to say no.

Highly sensitive people tend to be their own worst critics. They feel responsible for the happiness of others, or at least acutely aware of it when there are negative emotions floating around.

Conflicts

HSPs may be more prone to being stressed by conflict. They may be more aware of trouble brewing in a relationship, including when things just feel a little “off” with someone who may not be communicating that there is a problem. This can also lead to misinterpreting unrelated signals as signs of conflict or anger.

Social Comparison

Highly sensitive people can be prone to the stress of social comparison as well. They may feel the negative feelings of the other person as well as their own feelings, and they may experience them more strongly and deeply than others.

They may be more aware of the possibility of improvement and upset when potentially good outcomes give way to more negative outcomes through the course of a deteriorating conflict.

They may also be more upset when they realize that a relationship is over, feeling that things could have been resolved, whereas someone else may feel there is nothing that could be done and walks away.

The highly sensitive may feel the loss of a relationship more acutely as well and engage in rumination.

Tolerations

Life coaches refer to those daily energy drains that we all have as ​tolerations, as in “things we tolerate” that create stress and aren’t strictly necessary. Distractions may feel more frustrating for the HSP who is trying to concentrate, for example, or foul smells in one’s house may be felt more strongly and make relaxation more elusive for an HSP in a messy home.

Highly sensitive people are more easily startled by surprises. They get “hangry” when hungry—they don’t tolerate it well. In this way, life’s daily stressors often add up to more frustration for the highly sensitive.

Personal Failures

Because HSPs are their own worst critics, they are more prone to rumination and self-doubt. They may remember for quite a while if they make an embarrassing mistake, and feel more embarrassed about it than the average person would.

They don’t like being watched and evaluated when they are attempting something challenging, and can even mess up because of the stress of being watched. They are more often perfectionists, but may also be more aware of the ways that this stress is not inevitable and of how it is affecting them.

Tips/Tricks

Finding ways to cope with life's stress can be particularly helpful if you tend to have a more sensitive personality. Much of your stress relief plan as a highly sensitive person can involve insulating yourself from too many stimuli. Put a barrier between you and sensory stimuli that feel overwhelming. And above all, know what triggers stress in you, and learn to avoid these things.

  • Add positivity by creating positive experiences in your schedule to insulate you from additional stress you may encounter.
  • Avoid stressors like slasher movies and people who sap your positive energy, make heavy demands on you, or make you feel bad about yourself.
  • Learn to say no to overwhelming demands and feel OK with it, and create a perimeter in your life.
  • Set up a safe space. Let your home be a soothing environment.

A Word From Verywell

Being a highly sensitive person means you are more likely to feel things deeply, whether those things are positive or negative. While the highs can be joyous, the lows can present challenges that can affect your stress levels, relationships, and ability to cope. Make a plan for how you will manage your feelings in difficult situations to ensure that you don't become overwhelmed.

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Article Sources
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  2. Acevedo BP, Aron EN, Aron A, Sangster MD, Collins N, Brown LL. The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others' emotionsBrain Behav. 2014;4(4):580-594. doi:10.1002/brb3.242

  3. Aron EN, Aron A. Sensory-processing sensitivity and its relation to introversion and emotionalityJ Pers Soc Psychol. 1997;73(2):345-368. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.73.2.345

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