Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

HSP

Verified by World Mental Healthcare Association

Highly sensitive people experience the world differently, often feeling emotions more deeply and noticing subtle nuances others may miss. It’s a unique perspective that comes with both challenges and gifts.

What Is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) is defined as an innate personality and neurobiological trait in which a person becomes extremely sensitive to subtle stimuli and is easily aroused by external stimuli.

A person with a particularly high measure of SPS is considered a highly sensitive person (HSP). Hypersensitivity, however, has been traditionally viewed as a trait associated with negative psychological outcomes—despite its many benefits.

The terms “SPS” and “HSP” 1 Bas, S., Kaandorp, M., de Kleijn, Z. P. M., Braaksma, W. J. E., Bakx, A. W. E. A., & Greven, C. U. (2021). Experiences of Adults High in the Personality Trait Sensory Processing Sensitivity: A Qualitative Study. Journal of clinical medicine, 10(21), 4912. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm10214912 were coined in the mid-1990s by psychologists Elaine and Arthur Aron to describe people with:

  • Increased sensitivity to the central nervous system
  • Deeper cognitive processing of stimuli
  • Extreme sensitivity to negative and positive environmental information
  • Caution and low risk-taking behavior

Traits Of Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

As per research 2 Drndarević, N., Protić, S., & Mestre, J. M. (2021). Sensory-Processing Sensitivity and Pathways to Depression and Aggression: The Mediating Role of Trait Emotional Intelligence and Decision-Making Style-A Pilot Study. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(24), 13202. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph182413202 common highly sensitive person traits are as follows:

  1. Highly observant
  2. Easily overwhelmed
  3. Extremely sensitive to stimuli
  4. Experiencing emotions with great intensity
  5. Intuitive
  6. Thoughtful
  7. Compassionate
  8. Empathetic
  9. Conscientious
  10. Loyal
  11. Creative and highly sensitive to aesthetics
  12. Introverted, withdrawn, and avoidant
  13. Extremely perceptive and insightful
Myths vs Facts about Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs)

HSP And Sensory Overload

Hypersensitivity affects about 15–20% of the global population 3 Rizzo-Sierra, C. V., Leon-S, M. E., & Leon-Sarmiento, F. E. (2012). Higher sensory processing sensitivity, introversion and ectomorphism: New biomarkers for human creativity in developing rural areas. Journal of neurosciences in rural practice, 3(2), 159–162. https://doi.org/10.4103/0976-3147.98314 . HSPs tend to react strongly to external stimuli and, hence, they can feel extremely overwhelmed when overstimulated. Because of a sensory overload, they have heightened sensitivity to:

  • Pain
  • Hunger
  • Certain substances like caffeine
  • Loud noises
  • Crowded places
  • Strong smells
  • Different textures, etc.

What Causes A Person To Be Highly Sensitive?

Research 4 Greven, C. U., Lionetti, F., Booth, C., Aron, E. N., Fox, E., Schendan, H. E., Pluess, M., Bruining, H., Acevedo, B., Bijttebier, P., & Homberg, J. (2019). Sensory Processing Sensitivity in the context of Environmental Sensitivity: A critical review and development of research agenda. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 98, 287–305. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.01.009 attributes the development of highly sensitive person symptoms to the following factors:

  • Genetics
  • Imbalanced brain chemicals (like dysfunctional dopamine transmission)
  • A person’s general personality
  • Negative early childhood experiences (like bullying)
  • Untreated trauma
  • Parental abuse, neglect, and abandonment

Read More About Genetics Here

The Impact Of Being An HSP

Being an HSP comes with both advantages and challenges. The benefits of being highly sensitive are far-ranging. People with highly sensitive personality traits are more likely to harness their creativity and innovative abilities. They are deeply touched by beauty and are more prone to practicing gratitude.

HSPs make for the most empathetic and emotionally intelligent people in the world who tend to put themselves into others’ shoes, attune themselves to others’ needs, and help others with the utmost kindness. In fact, the secret powers of highly sensitive person lie in his/her self-awareness and social awareness.

However, despite their strengths, HSPs are prone to sensory-processing sensitivity 5 Benham, G. (2006). The Highly Sensitive Person: Stress and physical symptom reports. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(7), 1433–1440. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2005.11.021 , self-perceived stress, and physical health symptoms (such as cardiovascular conditions, etc.). They tend to be overwhelmed by uncomfortable situations related to tension, violence, and conflict; however, in some cases, they are high sensation seekers (HSSs) 6 Xu, S., Luo, L., Xiao, Z., Zhao, K., Wang, H., Wang, C., & Rao, H. (2019). High sensation seeking is associated with behavioral and neural insensitivity to increased negative outcomes during decision-making under uncertainty. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 19(6), 1352–1363. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13415-019-00751-x who enjoy risk and excitement.

They are hypervigilant about their own strengths and weaknesses and are likely to develop extremely self-loathing tendencies. Highly sensitive people are known to react negatively to complicated circumstances like:

  • Potential pitfalls and personal failures
  • Social stress stemming from fulfilling societal expectations and social comparisons
  • Hectic personal and/or work-life schedules
  • Daily distractions

Read More About Gratitude Here

Mental Health And HSP

A highly sensitive person, due to hypersensitivity, is not particularly psychologically resilient or adept to managing stressful situations. With the lines blurred between anxiety and introversion, highly sensitive people (HSPs) are more vulnerable to mental health conditions 7 Eşkisu, M., Ağırkan, M., Çelik, O., Yalçın, R. Ü., & Haspolat, N. K. (2021). Do the Highly Sensitive People Tend to have Psychological Problems Because of Low Emotion Regulation and Dysfunctional Attitudes? Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10942-021-00436-w . Studies affirm that being highly sensitive is often a key contributor to:

  • Job burnout [Read more]
  • Depression [Read more]
  • Anxiety disorders [Read more]
  • Social withdrawal
  • Chronic overthinking
  • Overstimulation and extreme emotionality 8 Aron, E. N., & Aron, A. (1997). Sensory-processing sensitivity and its relation to introversion and emotionality. Journal of personality and social psychology, 73(2), 345–368. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-3514.73.2.345
  • Low self-esteem [Read more]
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD 9 Panagiotidi, M., Overton, P. G., & Stafford, T. (2020). The relationship between sensory processing sensitivity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder traits: A spectrum approach. Psychiatry research, 293, 113477. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2020.113477 ) [Read more]
  • Schizoaffective disorders
  • Stress disorders 10 Acevedo, B., Aron, E., Pospos, S., & Jessen, D. (2018). The functional highly sensitive brain: a review of the brain circuits underlying sensory processing sensitivity and seemingly related disorders. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 373(1744), 20170161. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0161 , especially post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) [Read more]
  • Sleep disorders [Read more]
  • Self-harm and suicidal tendencies [Read more]

Is High Sensitivity A Mental Health Disorder?

High sensitivity is not considered a mental health condition and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not list it as a disorder that requires diagnosis.

Instead, high sensitivity or sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS) 11 Yano, K., Kase, T., & Oishi, K. (2019). The effects of sensory-processing sensitivity and sense of coherence on depressive symptoms in university students. Health psychology open, 6(2), 2055102919871638. https://doi.org/10.1177/2055102919871638 is categorized as a temperamental or innate personality trait that involves an increased sensitivity of the central nervous system as well as a deeper processing of stimuli.

Because it is a trait rooted in a differently wired neurological system, it is sometimes considered a neurobiological inadequacy or divergence—if not an impairment. While it is not an independent condition in itself, it may coexist with or be misdiagnosed as a mental health disorder (such as ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, autism, or cyclothymia).

Recognizing A Highly Sensitive Person

The telltale signs of a highly sensitive person are apparent in the way an individual conducts himself/herself in person and around others. While high sensitivity is not a diagnosable mental health condition, understanding certain overwhelming character traits (that have been medically approved) can be helpful for a highly sensitive person.

While there is an absence of a highly sensitive person diagnosis, certain clinical assessments are available to identify the signs of a highly sensitive person.

The most prominent amongst these is the Highly Sensitive Person Scale (HSPS) 12 Grimen, H. L., & Diseth, Å. (2016). Sensory Processing Sensitivity. Comprehensive Psychology, 5, 216522281666007. https://doi.org/10.1177/2165222816660077 , a questionnaire devised by psychologists Elaine and Arthur Aron in 1997. In fact, it was the first highly sensitive person test used to measure the attributes, characteristics, and prevalence of sensory processing sensitivity (SPS).

HSPs vs Non HSPs

Take Highly Sensitive Person Test Here

Medically Addressing High Sensitivity

There is no official treatment procedure for highly sensitive people. However, medical interventions can help people with highly sensitive personality traits harness the incredible strengths and advantages to be found in being highly sensitive. These processes can help overcome inhibitions and develop effective coping strategies for HSPs.

For instance, cognitive–behavioral therapy (CBT) and art therapy are considered two of the most effective forms of therapy for highly sensitive person (HSP). These can directly improve attentional, emotional, motoric, communication, and/or social difficulties faced by an HSP on a daily basis.

Most medical practitioners do not recommend pharmacological interventions for high sensitivity as HSPs tend to be more sensitive to medications than 80% of the population 13 Camarata, S., Miller, L. J., & Wallace, M. T. (2020). Evaluating Sensory Integration/Sensory Processing Treatment: Issues and Analysis. Frontiers in integrative neuroscience, 14, 556660. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnint.2020.556660 .

Mental Health Tips For Highly Sensitive People

Consider the following measures to help you cope with being an HSP:

  1. Create a safe, comfortable, and soothing environment at home in which you can retreat after a day’s hard work.
  2. Identify your triggers like slasher movies or toxic colleagues at work. Avoid or try to work around these triggers.
  3. Investigate current stressors and consider putting up barriers against them. Formulate a practical stress management plan that helps you in emergency situations.
  4. Consider creating a crisp and balanced schedule with proper sleep and exercise. Take mini-retreats, when necessary.
  5. Add positivity by incorporating opportunities for positive experiences in your schedule like spending time with your loved ones.
  6. Create a strong support system with whom you can communicate openly.
  7. Avail relaxation and mindfulness training like meditation, yoga, etc.
  8. Remember your gifts like empathy, social perceptiveness, etc. and work to strengthen them.
  9. Learn to say no to overwhelming situations or demands. Create boundaries and maintain them with conviction.
  10. If needed, consult a therapist. Stick to the treatment regime.

Takeaway

Being a highly sensitive person (HSP) comes with certain advantages and disadvantages. However, understanding your character traits and advocating for your needs and sound mental health can be an essential step toward living better, feeling empowered, and leading a satisfactory life.

At A Glance

  1. Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) is a personality trait involving extremely sensitive processing of physical, social, and emotional stimuli.
  2. An individual with a particularly high measure of SPS is considered to be “hypersensitive” or a highly sensitive person (HSP).
  3. HSPs are highly intuitive, creative, and socially aware.
  4. Common mental health conditions of high sensitivity people include depression and anxiety.
  5. Highly sensitive people can manage their traits easily with psychotherapies and self-help coping strategies.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. Who are some famous highly sensitive people (HSP)?

Albert Einstein, Nicole Kidman, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland, and Martin Luther King Jr. are considered some famous highly sensitive people.

2. What personality type is most likely to be a highly sensitive person (HSP)?

Introverted and Intuitive Architects (INTJs) and Logicians (INTPs) may also have some overlapping qualities with highly sensitive people (HSP).

3. Is being an HSP a mental illness?

HSP is not a clinically recognized mental health disorder or condition. It is rather a personality trait.

4. What do highly sensitive people struggle with?

Highly sensitive people struggle with high sensitivity, adapting to social situations, and may easily become uncomfortable in response to light, sound, or certain physical sensations.

5. Are HSPs the same as empaths?

Most HSPs are empaths and vice-versa. But it is not always the case.

References:

  • 1
    Bas, S., Kaandorp, M., de Kleijn, Z. P. M., Braaksma, W. J. E., Bakx, A. W. E. A., & Greven, C. U. (2021). Experiences of Adults High in the Personality Trait Sensory Processing Sensitivity: A Qualitative Study. Journal of clinical medicine, 10(21), 4912. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm10214912
  • 2
    Drndarević, N., Protić, S., & Mestre, J. M. (2021). Sensory-Processing Sensitivity and Pathways to Depression and Aggression: The Mediating Role of Trait Emotional Intelligence and Decision-Making Style-A Pilot Study. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(24), 13202. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph182413202
  • 3
    Rizzo-Sierra, C. V., Leon-S, M. E., & Leon-Sarmiento, F. E. (2012). Higher sensory processing sensitivity, introversion and ectomorphism: New biomarkers for human creativity in developing rural areas. Journal of neurosciences in rural practice, 3(2), 159–162. https://doi.org/10.4103/0976-3147.98314
  • 4
    Greven, C. U., Lionetti, F., Booth, C., Aron, E. N., Fox, E., Schendan, H. E., Pluess, M., Bruining, H., Acevedo, B., Bijttebier, P., & Homberg, J. (2019). Sensory Processing Sensitivity in the context of Environmental Sensitivity: A critical review and development of research agenda. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 98, 287–305. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.01.009
  • 5
    Benham, G. (2006). The Highly Sensitive Person: Stress and physical symptom reports. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(7), 1433–1440. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2005.11.021
  • 6
    Xu, S., Luo, L., Xiao, Z., Zhao, K., Wang, H., Wang, C., & Rao, H. (2019). High sensation seeking is associated with behavioral and neural insensitivity to increased negative outcomes during decision-making under uncertainty. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 19(6), 1352–1363. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13415-019-00751-x
  • 7
    Eşkisu, M., Ağırkan, M., Çelik, O., Yalçın, R. Ü., & Haspolat, N. K. (2021). Do the Highly Sensitive People Tend to have Psychological Problems Because of Low Emotion Regulation and Dysfunctional Attitudes? Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10942-021-00436-w
  • 8
    Aron, E. N., & Aron, A. (1997). Sensory-processing sensitivity and its relation to introversion and emotionality. Journal of personality and social psychology, 73(2), 345–368. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-3514.73.2.345
  • 9
    Panagiotidi, M., Overton, P. G., & Stafford, T. (2020). The relationship between sensory processing sensitivity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder traits: A spectrum approach. Psychiatry research, 293, 113477. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2020.113477
  • 10
    Acevedo, B., Aron, E., Pospos, S., & Jessen, D. (2018). The functional highly sensitive brain: a review of the brain circuits underlying sensory processing sensitivity and seemingly related disorders. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 373(1744), 20170161. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0161
  • 11
    Yano, K., Kase, T., & Oishi, K. (2019). The effects of sensory-processing sensitivity and sense of coherence on depressive symptoms in university students. Health psychology open, 6(2), 2055102919871638. https://doi.org/10.1177/2055102919871638
  • 12
    Grimen, H. L., & Diseth, Å. (2016). Sensory Processing Sensitivity. Comprehensive Psychology, 5, 216522281666007. https://doi.org/10.1177/2165222816660077
  • 13
    Camarata, S., Miller, L. J., & Wallace, M. T. (2020). Evaluating Sensory Integration/Sensory Processing Treatment: Issues and Analysis. Frontiers in integrative neuroscience, 14, 556660. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnint.2020.556660
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