What Is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
A highly sensitive person (HSP) is someone who is 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.
The term highly sensitive person was first coined by psychologists Elaine Aron and Arthur Aron in the mid-1990s. Elaine Aron published her book, "The Highly Sensitive Person," in 1996, and interest in the concept has continued to grow since then.
How Do You Know If You're an HSP?
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 a highly sensitive person, or HSP.
It is important to remember that there is no official highly sensitive person diagnosis, and being an HSP does not mean that you have a mental illness. High sensitivity 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 them
The Arons also developed a highly sensitive person test, or 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.2
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.
What Causes High Sensitivity?
What makes a person highly sensitive likely depends on a variety of factors such as evolution, environment, genetics, and early childhood experiences.
High sensitivity exists in at least 100 other species aside from humans. Research suggests that high sensitivity is an evolutionary trait that increases the likelihood of survival because HSPs are on the lookout for potential predators or dangerous situations.2 Of course, constantly being on guard when there aren't any immediate threats often results in anxiety.
Research also shows that a lack of parental warmth growing up may cause a child to develop high sensitivity and carry this trait into adulthood. The same goes for negative early childhood experiences.3 If you experienced trauma as a child, you may be more likely to become an HSP as an adult.
Genetics may contribute to high sensitivity. Specifically, the dopamine system may play a role. It affects personality and may make some people more prone than others to becoming highly sensitive.3 High sensitivity is also hereditary.
There is a higher chance that you will be highly sensitive if high sensitivity runs in your family.
In addition, a person's genes may evolve in response to negative early experiences, making them more susceptible to becoming an HSP.
Similar Conditions and Traits
People often confuse high sensitivity with other personality traits or mental health conditions.
Introversion: Both highly sensitive people and introverts can become overwhelmed when faced with too many stimuli.4 But introverts are overwhelmed specifically by social stimuli, like large crowds or parties. HSPs can become overwhelmed by social stimuli too; however, HSPs are sensitive to all different types of sensory stimuli, such as bright lights and loud music.5
Sensory processing disorder (SPD): It's true that someone with SPD and someone who is highly sensitive can be averse to sensory input. The difference is that SPD can cause decreased motor function,6 which is not a characteristic of HSPs. In addition, SPD can cause under-responsiveness to sensory stimuli, whereas it's characteristic of HSPs to over-respond.
Autism: High sensitivity is not a form of autism. Again, while HSPs are overwhelmed by sensory information, individuals with autism may experience either hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness) to sensory information.7Balasco L, Provenzano G, Bozzi Y. Sensory abnormalities in autism spectrum disorders: A focus on the tactile domain, from genetic mouse models to the clinic. Front Psychiatry. 2020;10:1016. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2019.01016
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): HSPs may also be mistaken as having attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While both HSPs and people with ADHD exhibit over-responsiveness to stimuli, people with ADHD also exhibit cognitive symptoms that HSPs do not such as difficulty focusing or paying attention.8
While high sensitivity is often confused with other mental health conditions, it's important to remember that high sensitivity can occur alongside other mental health conditions. For instance, a person can have ADHD and be an HSP, or have SPD and also be an HSP.
Impact of Being an 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.
You may have close relationships with others. HSPs care deeply about their friends and tend to form deep bonds with people. Again, the empathy that a highly sensitive person brings to the table is a powerful tool for being a supportive friend and loved one.
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.
A major benefit of being an HSP is the ability to empathize. Empathy is a tool that can promote strong relationships and a deeply fulfilling emotional life. Of course, it's important to differentiate between your feelings and others' feelings.9
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.
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:
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.
Sometimes, people assume that experiencing an uncomfortable emotion (like sadness or anxiety, is a sign of weakness). This is not true.
In fact, allowing yourself to fully experience an uncomfortable emotion is a sign of strength, not weakness. It’s easier to push your feelings aside or pretend they don’t exist rather than work through them.
There are lots of ways to work through tough feelings—some are healthier than others. In this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast, I share how to stay mentally strong when you’re experiencing uncomfortable feelings. I explain how to recognize the difference between thoughts, feelings, and behavior (something people often get confused about in my therapy office) and how to manage painful feelings in a healthy way.
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.
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.
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 unpleasant smells in one’s environment may be felt more strongly and make relaxation more elusive for an HSP.
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.
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.
Coping With Stress As an HSP
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. 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.
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.