What is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

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Are you moved to tears by a beautiful sunset or work of art? Do you feel overwhelmed by loud noises, crowds, or bright lights? Can you pick up on other people’s feelings just by their body language or facial expressions? Do you sometimes find yourself paralyzed by overthinking or self-doubt?

If so, you could very well be an HSP – a Highly Sensitive Person – which some researchers are calling ‘the missing personality type.’

What is a highly sensitive person (HSP)?

The term ‘highly sensitive person’ (HSP) was first defined in the early-1990s by clinical psychologist Elaine Aron

The results of her research showed that high sensitivity – also called Sensory-Processing Sensitivity (SPS) – is actually an evolved personality trait found in around 15–20% of the general population. That’s approximately 80 million people across the United States!

This trait is innate and reflects a type of survival strategy – that of being observant of everything around you before responding quickly and strongly – and has been found in over 100 species, from cats, dogs, and horses, to birds, fish, and even fruit flies!

Those who are highly sensitive have increased central nervous system (CNS) sensitivity to multiple stimuli, including environmental, physical, emotional, and social. Their heightened senses make them more acutely aware of the world around them, and they absorb and process everything at a much deeper level than non-HSPs.

The brains of HSPs are wired a little differently, resulting in stronger reactivity to internal and external stimuli (including pain, hunger, noise, temperature, and light), increased emotional sensitivity, and a complex inner world.

HSPs are typically creative, insightful, highly intuitive, and have a high capacity for empathy. However, they can also suffer from extreme sensitivity to stress and are prone to becoming easily overwhelmed, needing frequent time by themselves to relax and unwind. 

Reading the signs: are you a highly sensitive person?

While no two HSPs are exactly alike, and there is no official diagnosis, there are shared characteristics that make it possible to recognize them – especially if you spend time with them regularly. 

Here are some key signs to look out for:

Often feel over-stimulated

A highly sensitive person needs moderation in everything sensory-related to avoid becoming overstimulated. As their senses are constantly on high alert, and they absorb everything going on around them in minute detail, they can easily become overloaded. 

This means they cannot cope for very long with things like loud noises, crowded spaces, pungent smells, bright lights, social stimuli (like receiving criticism), or emotional stimuli (like other people’s feelings).

They can quickly become overwhelmed and worn out in an environment that non-HSPs find entirely normal.

Require a lot of downtime alone

Stressed young man at home

Quiet downtime is essential for HSPs to avoid feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, irritable, or anxious. It is how they recharge.

This doesn’t mean they are necessarily ‘introverts.’ The need for a lot of alone time for HSPs is because their brains are constantly working overtime, and retreating to a calm, quiet space is the only way they can calm their nervous system and fully recover from over-stimulation.

Highly intuitive and empathetic

HSPs have a high capacity for forming deep bonds with other people as they often have an immediate and profound empathetic response to the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of others. They are particularly tuned in to the feelings of those they care about most, which can make it seem like they’re psychic.

Others’ moods can affect them strongly as they notice subtle social cues that others do not. For example, on entering a room, they can immediately pick up on the mood of the people present through facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language alone.

These high levels of intuition and empathy can often leave HSPs feeling emotionally drained.

Deeply disturbed by violence

An HSP is extraordinarily sensitive to seeing (or even hearing about) violence or cruelty. Of course, most people dislike these things, but an HSP will be severely distressed and deeply disturbed by them and unable to shake off these intense feelings for days, sometimes weeks, or even months. 

As a result, they will avoid situations where they might encounter violence and meticulously moderate the content they consume, like not watching violent or scary movies and TV shows.

Deeply moved by beauty

woman in green sweatshirt standing alone with trees behind her

HSPs often have intense emotional responses to beauty, such as nature, art, music, and the human spirit – which can even bring them to tears.

They are nourished by these experiences as they help to soothe their sensitive nature and regulate their nervous system. 

HSPs find so much enjoyment, appreciation, and comfort in the beauty of life that they sometimes find it hard to comprehend how other people are not as deeply moved as they are.

Enjoy a rich and complex inner world

Since HSPs have deep thoughts and intense feelings and process things at a deeper level, they typically have a rich and nuanced inner world. This ‘inner life’ is their safe haven where they can find peace and tap into their creativity. It is equally important to them as their ‘outer life’ and can be just as stimulating.

Along with ongoing internal monologues, HSPs are likely to have vivid dreams, can easily visualize and imagine things, and often spend more time than most daydreaming. 

If you’d like to explore this trait more, why not take the ‘highly sensitive person’ personality questionnaire, known as Aron’s Highly Sensitive Persons Scale (HSPS).

Famous highly sensitive people 

If you think you’re an HSP, you’re in good company! Highly sensitive people are all around us and are some of the most creative and perceptive people you’ll meet. 

Elaine Aron believes “All HSPs are creative, by definition.”

From artists and musicians to actors, social reformers, and inventors – the sensitivity of HSPs can be their superpower and help them to inspire and heal others. 

Famous personalities known as HSPs include Alanis Morissette, Frida Kahlo, Jane Goodall, Princess Diana, Martin Luther King Jr, Bruce Springsteen, Albert Einstein, Nicole Kidman, and Kanye West!

Similar personality traits and conditions

People with high sensitivity are often misunderstood and/or mislabeled. The most common things they’ll hear from non-HSPs include: “You’re such an introvert,” “You’re so shy,” “You overthink everything,” “You’re overreacting – just relax,” and “You’re being way too sensitive.” 

They can also be misdiagnosed as having a mental health condition or disorder, for example, autism, introversion, bipolar, sensory processing disorder (SPD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or depression.

It’s important to remember that high sensitivity is a personality trait and not a disorder. So, while high sensitivity can co-occur with one or more of the above disorders – for example, a person who has autism or ADHD may also be an HSP – they are not the same thing.

Coping strategies for HSPs to avoid overwhelm

While living with high sensitivity can prove challenging in many ways, with psycho-education, the proper support, self-care routines, and a recognition of one’s own strengths and weaknesses, HSPs can learn to find balance and thrive.

Here are our eight top tips to help you minimize overwhelm, nourish yourself, and feel supported:

1. Avoid stressors

Image of unshaven young man wearing eyeglasses looking out window

While avoiding all stressors in everyday life is impossible, you can control your exposure to many of them. For example, if you know scary movies or large crowds cause you significant stress and feelings of overwhelm, you can make plans to avoid them.

You could also benefit from using a range of personal devices, such as sunglasses, noise-canceling headphones, or earplugs, to help minimize sensory input when it can’t be avoided entirely.

2. Learn to say no

It can be challenging for HSPs to create healthy boundaries with others and to reduce their ‘people-pleasing’ tendencies. However, you must practice self-compassion and learn to say no to protect your own peace and happiness. Be clear with yourself about what you can achieve each day, and set firm boundaries with others to avoid overwhelm.

3. Create a soothing space of your own

It’s essential as an HSP to have a quiet place to retreat, where you can calm your nervous system, relax, and recharge. Ideally, this will be in your own home, but it can work equally well if you have a local park, beach, or other natural environment that you find peaceful and soothing for your soul. 

Be sure to plan your decompression time so that however busy your schedule is, you know you have time built in to take refuge somewhere quiet and relaxing to recover.

4. Get enough quality sleep

Sleeping well contributes to a healthy mental health

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a minimum of seven hours of sleep per night for adults over 18 years. However, for highly sensitive people, this can be a challenge because their brains are regularly on overdrive, interfering with getting to sleep and staying asleep.

Practicing good sleep hygiene is important, and you may benefit from some ASMR too.

5. Eat a healthy, balanced diet

Eating a healthy balanced diet is crucial for your overall health and mental well-being – and will help you better manage stress and emotional overwhelm. This includes avoiding processed foods, eating more fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, including a lean protein in every meal, and limiting caffeine, sugar, and alcohol.

Slow, relaxed, mindful eating is also essential to balance your sensitive nervous system and achieve optimal digestion, nourishment, and metabolic power.

6. Exercise regularly

HSPs need a healthy outlet they can turn to, to cope with their physical and emotional challenges and avoid feeling emotionally drained by daily pressures. Physical activities that you can do alone or with a friend – like walking a nature trail, dancing, gardening, or swimming – will reduce physical tension while also giving you time to process your thoughts.

Include holistic practices like yoga or tai chi that will help to regulate an over-stimulated nervous system, bring your awareness into your body, and restore balance to your mind, body, and soul.

7. Keep a journal

Start a creativity journal

Daily journaling is an excellent way for HSPs to manage stress, as it helps them to process emotions and gain clarity of thought. You can try different methods to see which works best for you, including gratitude journals, planning journals, and emotional release journals.

You can also explore combining your journaling with a relaxing activity for extra impact. For example, brew a pot of your favorite tea, cuddle with your pet, or play soothing music in the background. This will help to make your journal time special and something to look forward to after a long, stimulating day.

8. Try talk therapy

As high sensitivity is a personality trait rather than a mental health disorder, no specific treatment is recommended. However, it’s important to be aware that HSPs are more susceptible to conditions such as anxiety and depression and may find it helpful to talk to a counselor or therapist.

Talk therapy is an ideal option as it gives you time and space to process your emotions, can provide valuable psycho-education, and will help you develop healthy coping strategies for a more robust self-care routine.

If you think you’d benefit from taking this step, please contact us today for a free and confidential talk with one of our trained clinicians. Our Holistic Wellness Program might be just what you need to achieve balance and restore your well-being – mind, body, and soul.

About Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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