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What Exactly Is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

Peter learned he was an HSP in 1997. As a student of sensitivity, he has met 100s of HSPs in person and writes extensively about the trait.

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HSPs: An Introduction

I am a Highly Sensitive Person.

What's more, I am a Highly Sensitive Man.

I wasn't always openly comfortable with making such a public admission, but I've come to accept that it is simply part of who I am. And it may be part of who YOU are, as well. Skeptical? Curious? Read on!

When people think about a person who is "Highly Sensitive", the default assumption seems to be that we're talking about someone who's a fussy tender flower who gets their feelings hurt at the drop of a hat.

Whereas that kind of emotional sensitivity might be part of what makes some people an HSP, the definition explored in these pages goes far beyond that, and does not purely revolve around emotional sensitivity.

When Dr. Elaine Aron coined the term "Highly Sensitive Person" (or HSP) in 1996, she was talking about something that is a genetic physiological trait, not a "pathology" or "affliction." In short, an HSP is a person whose neural net (central nervous system) is wired a little bit differently from the rest of the world-- in such a way that they experience everything more deeply and intensely than most people. As a result, they are also more prone to being overstimulated by their environment than most people.

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The HSP Next Door: Highly Sensitive People are not that rare

HSPs are not as rare as you might think: an estimated 15-20% of the population is highly sensitive, according to Dr. Aron's research.

Being an HSP is not a "choice," in any way, and it cannot be "fixed" or "treated," anymore than the size of your feet, or the color of your eyes can be "fixed." Through the use of EEG and fMRI technology, scientists in the US, Canada, China and beyond have now actually observed that the brain of an HSP responds differently to specific stimuli than do the brains of the majority of the population. In recent years, the trait has received more scientific study, and high sensitivity is now also referred to as "Sensory Processing Sensitivity."

What follows is an fairly thorough introduction to high sensitivity as an inborn trait, describing its basic attributes as well as some of the "lookalike" medical conditions that may seem like the same thing, but actually are quite different. You will also find links to books, web sites, web groups and other resources that will help you learn more about what it means to be an HSP.

Caution! Lots of information ahead! This article is quite long, so you may wish to bookmark it now, so you have it to refer back to later. I've added lots of peaceful photos along the way to break up all the text... and for something pretty to look at while "thinking about things."

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My Own HSP Story, in Brief... or "I am a Highly Sensitive Man"

I learned that I was an HSP in 1997... quite by accident. I was looking through the travel section at a Borders bookstore in Austin, Texas when I came across a book someone had evidently "abandoned," by laying it flat on top of the otherwise neatly shelved books. I picked it up and read the title-- hoping perhaps it was the book on Ireland I was looking for.

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"The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You" by Dr. Elaine N. Aron.

Normally, I'd just have set the book aside as "off topic," but for some reason, I decided to flip through the pages. Perhaps it was fate, perhaps it was the echoes of my mother's voice saying "He's such a sensitive little boy," when I was little-- and the way those words always made me feel like I simply didn't belong on this strange ball of rock with what seemed like so many very LOUD and very VIOLENT people.

Either way, I kept looking at the book-- "skimming"-- till I found the author's "self test" for sensitivity. A few minutes later, I had answered "yes" to all but two of the 24 questions (newer versions of the book have a 27-item quiz)!

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Not sure I really WANT this "Highly Sensitive" business!

I wouldn't exactly say that I was thrilled about this "news..." which wasn't actually news to me. "Resigned" might have been a better term. As a thirty-something man, living in Texas where "men are men, and everything is larger than life," I had already struggled quite a bit in my attempts to fit into my workplace and cultural environment in general. Whether it "fit," or not, this was not a label I was looking for!

However, I bought the book even though I felt a bit sheepish about it... and over the next couple of weeks I basically devoured it several times, realizing in the process that there was no doubt at all that I was this... "Highly Sensitive Person." As I slowly advanced through the text, I kept having "aha moments," each time gaining insight into why certain aspects of my life had turned out the way they had, and why I had encountered difficulties (and confusion!) where and when I did.

My journey of discovery before, during and after learning about the trait is longer than I can fit here-- but if you're interested, I have written this separate article called How I Learned I was a Highly Sensitive Person.

ESSENTIAL Reading for all HSPs!

It has now been about twenty years since my day at the bookstore. In the interim, I set out to learn all I could about being highly sensitive.

I have gone through an entire range of feelings about the trait-- skepticism, rejection, embracing, scorn, more skepticism, acceptance-- to get to where I am today. I have journaled, blogged and written hundreds of articles about the trait-- in places ranging from Elaine Aron's own "Comfort Zone" newsletter for HSPs to several mainstream magazines. I have met well over 100 HSPs in person, and literally thousands through online groups, listservs, web sites and blogs.

My intent with this article-- and here on this site-- is to share some of what I have learned... so others who are new to learning about the trait may have an easier time getting comfortable with the idea that they are an HSP. This page is also intended as a resource for those who are not HSPs, themselves, but are aware that they have a highly sensitive person in their life.

Unsure? Read this review first

If you're not sure whether to get the book, why not read my book review of "The Highly Sensitive Person" on letterpile before you decide?

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Learning more: Dr. Elaine Aron's self-test for Sensitivity

So how do decide whether you are actually a Highly Sensitive Person?

There is a short sensitivity self-test on Dr. Elaine Aron's web site which is FREE and only takes about five minutes to complete. It might seem a bit subjective, but it will give you a fairly clear picture of the characteristics of the HSP trait, and where you fit into the picture. Over the years, it has become the de facto test to measure sensitivity. Hopefully it will offer you some new insight into yourself!

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In More Detail: Some Basic HSP Characteristics

So how do you know if you're an HSP?

Well, the core of the trait revolves around experiencing your surroundings and inner life very deeply. As a result, highly sensitive people tend to become easily overstimulated by their environment and intense feelings. There's a common misconception that the trait is just about emotional sensitivity, but that's not true-- there's much more to it than that. Here are some common characteristics of a highly sensitive person-- in no particular order:

HSPs are often very sensitive to noise, and tend to startle very easily.

HSPs are typically deeply moved by art and music.

HSPs often find it difficult to work and concentrate when being watched or evaluated.

HSPs tend to be easily blinded by bright lights; often disturbed by the noise of fluorescent lighting.

HSPs are often more affected by medications than most people, and can get good results from below-average dosages.

HSPs are usually very sensitive to pain-- both in the physical and emotional sense.

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HSPs are often deeply disturbed by violence in movies and on TV, and will actively avoid them.

Many HSPs are introverts (about 70-75%), although a few are extraverts.

HSPs are often highly conscientious individuals, but can also struggle with perfectionism.

HSPs don't tend to perform well in very competitive environments-- by nature, they tend to prefer "cooperation" over "competition."

HSPs often find it difficult to deal with sudden unplanned changes.

HSPs tend to want to retreat to a quiet space to be alone when there is too much noise and activity around them.

Many HSPs are very sensitive to stimulants like caffeine and relaxants like alcohol.

HSPs tend to have highly idealistic natures and might be described as "dreamers."

HSPs tend to be deeply empathic and will "pick up emotions" from those around them.

HSPs often report having psychic or extrasensory experiences.

HSPs are often aware of tiny subtleties in their environment and tend to have exceptional powers of observation.

HSPs tend to have very rich and complex inner lives and are often labeled as "daydreamers."

HSPs are often drawn to the arts and music, and many work in creative fields.

HSPs tend to be unusually cautious when approaching new and unknown situations.

HSPs are almost often highly intuitive, sometimes to the point of seeming almost "psychic."

Although highly sensitive people tend to share many of these characteristics, it's important to keep in mind that HSPs are unique and individual people-- just like anyone else in the world. When you meet another HSP, they will not necessarily be "just like you."

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What do you think? Are YOU a Highly Sensitive Person?

So now you've been introduced to just a little bit of what it means to be highly sensitive. Of course, it's a pretty complex concept, and there's much more to come... but before we move on, here's a brief quiz-- you're also welcome to leave a comment; there's a space for that at the very end of the article.

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OK, so I'm probably an HSP... NOW what?

For many, learning that there is an actual name and scientific basis for the "strange feelings" they have had all their lives can be a major life-altering epiphany. And it can take a little time to get used to the idea.

But what should you do with this information? What can you do with it?

The best advice I can offer is "learn all you can!" When it comes to being an HSP-- which is a fairly complex concept-- knowledge is definitely power. The more you understand about the trait and how it affects you, the better you will be able to decide how and if changing-- or "rearranging"-- parts of your life will make your days easier to navigate. Learning will also enable you to discern which things are not part of high sensitivity.

As of this writing, there are quite a few books available on the subject of high sensitivity. The books listed in this article are just a few of the titles most recommended by the HSPs who have read them.

A little work with Google will offer up literally millions of results for web sites and articles published online. Thousands more are added every year, as "high sensitivity" becomes more and more of a household concept. Below, you will find a list of links to the most significant HSP sites on the web. They offer much excellent information-- regardless of whether you have just learned that you're an HSP, or have already been learning about the trait for many years.

Trying to "ignore" your sensitivity is really not a good approach. You will feel the effects of the trait, regardless of whether you acknowledge it, or not. However, there is nothing to be "cured."

As you move through this article, I will be sharing what I feel to be some of the more significant and helpful books relating to the HSP trait.

if you are interested in gaining a deeper understanding what it means to be an HSP, you would definitely benefit from checking these out-- I have all of them in my personal library and feel confident in recommending them, based on how much they helped me on my own journey of discovery.

Yes, pieces of this information can be found online, on various web sites... but the books do offer far greater depth.

Nothing listed here has not been "field tested" by myself and numerous other HSPs!

Important HSP Web Sites: A short list of some of the most visited web sites for-- and about-- the Highly Sensitive Person.

  • Dr. Elaine Aron's web site
    Author of the landmark book "The Highly Sensitive Person," Dr. Aron's web site has a self-test for sensitivity, information about her books and workshops, as well as the complete archives of her "Comfort Zone" newsletter for HSPs.
  • The HSP Notes blog and web site
    Home of the web's oldest "all HSP topics" blog, published non-stop since 2002. Extensive archive of articles about hundreds of HSP-related topics, as well as a wealth of links to other HSP sites.
  • HighlySensitive.org
    Part of Douglas Eby's Talent Development Resources network, this site about high sensitivity includes lots of information about the HSP trait, gathered many expert sources, as well as articles about well known public figures who are highly sensitive.
  • HSP Gathering Retreats
    HSP Therapist and Coach Jacquelyn Strickland's page about "HSP Gathering Retreats." Now in their 12th year, these are periodic 4-day experiential events with workshops, activities and social events for HSPs.
  • Healing for Highly Sensitive People
    Author and researcher Dr. Ted Zeff's web site, with tips for HSP living, resource links and synopses of Zeff's books about various aspects of high sensitivity.
  • The National Centre for High Sensitivity
    Based in the UK, the National Centre for High Sensitivity was founded in 2010, and serves as an information resource and meeting organizer for HSPs living in Great Britain.
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A Useful book for Daily HSP Life

HSP Wellness in Daily Life: It's not about "curing" something, it's about managing your life consciously

When first learning about high sensitivity, many people start off with questions like "What can I do to cure this?" or "It's good to learn about this... now how do I get RID of it?"

One of the most important things to always keep in mind is that high sensitivity is neither a "flaw" nor some kind of "condition" or "syndrome" you can somehow treat and "get over." In fact, you can't change your sensitivity... any more than you can change your eye color or your shoe size. It's also not a "handicap;" it's simply a way for a person's central nervous system to be "wired."

To someone who's suffering the effects of frequent overstimulation, that may not be the news you want to hear. But there really is nothing to be "cured."

HSP Wellness in day-to-day life is about seeking balance and managing your "personal resources" wisely. With deeper understanding of their sensitivities, most HSPs learn to live rich and fulfilling lives that make use of their natural creative talents. They learn which situations will cause overstimulation, and "how much" they can handle, and when to leave before getting overwound. As an HSP, there is very little I can't do that "other people" can do... it's just that my approach to doing these things might be a little different.

According to Elaine Aron, quality sleep is also an essential part of HSP wellness. She recommends 8-9 hours of sleep a night, and emphasizes the importance of a "slow wind down" at night, so we don't go to bed with our minds racing, leading to poor sleep or even insomnia.

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Authentic living

"Living authentically" is a very important part of HSP Wellness. The path to an authentic life is not always easy for a highly sensitive person, because it typically requires us to abandon old thinking about what and who we "should" be and what we "should" do. Often our ideas about who we are and what we can do have been placed in our hearts and minds by other people... not by us. A large number of those who learn they are highly sensitive go through a-- sometimes lengthy-- process of "reinventing themselves."

Last, but not least, special attention needs to be paid to a highly sensitive person's need for "Alone Time."

Overstimulation comes to HSPs in many different ways. Sometimes they are environmental. Personally, I am very sensitive to loud, sudden or pervasive noise from my surroundings. Some can be more affected by bright lights, or maybe by acrid or artificial smells. Yet others are sensitive to touch, and to the textures of objects and clothing around them. Sometimes it's all of the above.

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Deeper Understanding of the HSP trait

Alone Time: The key to managing overstimulation for HSPs

We live in a busy and chaotic world, filled with demands, things to do, work, family, kids, TV news, scary movies, parties, obligations and much much more. This holds true for everyone-- doesn't matter whether you're highly sensitive, or not.

However, as an HSP, you experience all these "inputs" more intensely.

You might think of it in terms of this analogy: A "standard" radio might be able to pick up 25 stations. Well, an "HSP radio" picks up 100 stations! This doesn't mean that both kinds of radios don't "work properly," however it is FAR more work-- and hence far more exhausting-- to be picking up 100 stations all the time.

In a nutshell, this is why HSPs tend to get "overstimulated," or overwhelmed by their surroundings more quickly than their non-HSP counterparts.

The single most important "antidote" to overstimulation is alone time. ALL HSPs-- regardless of whether they are introverts or extraverts depend on taking some time alone on a regular basis to "recharge their batteries." This can take the form of anything from a five minute break to a couple of hours... however, it is essential to an HSP's overall well-being and sense of feeling balanced.

As an HSP, the best thing you can do-- in terms of pro-active self-care-- is to make sure you take some time to yourself every day, and at such times as you feel yourself starting to "wear thin" and get overstimulated. As a friend-- or spouse-- of an HSP, please understand that spending time alone doesn't mean the HSP is being "anti social" and rejecting you... it just means they need to take a little time alone to regain their strength.

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HSPs and Spirituality

In several of her books about High Sensitivity, Dr. Elaine Aron stresses the importance of spirituality in the lives of HSPs.

Given how natural it is for an HSP to "look inwards" and seek introspection, it's not surprising that many are drawn towards "matters of the spirit." Add to this that HSPs are sometimes characterized as the "Priestly Advisors" (as opposed to "warriors") of the human race and it becomes easy to see why HSPs are often deeply spiritual... and spiritual practices can be the cornerstone of wellness and balance for many.

It's important to keep in mind that being "spiritual" in this context doesn't necessarily imply "religious." HSPs tend to hold a very wide range of beliefs, but seem disproportionately drawn to "alternative" and Eastern practices and philosophies that have less structure and are more open to "free" thinking. HSPs also seem more prone to become "solitary practitioners" of their belief systems, rather than become part of larger congregations... which many find overstimulating.

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The best book currently available on the topic of HSPs and work

The Highly Sensitive Person at Work

HSPs tend to be very idealistic, by nature. Unfortunately, this idealism can become one of the things that cause many of us to have turbulent work lives.

Traditional workplaces and careers are seldom HSP friendly-- most such environments tend to be highly competitive and allow for only limited expression of the valuable kinds of creativity HSPs are capable of. HSPs tend to be soft spoken and modest, as a result of which they are often overlooked, in favor of those with more aggressive and assertive styles. In the words of Dr. Elaine Aron, many HSPs end up "underemployed," relative to their education levels and skills.

The physical environment of many workplaces can also be rough for a highly sensitive person. Long hours and working in very public and noisy "cubicle farms" tend to not bring out the best in an HSP.

Constant pressures to "perform" and meet ever escalating company benchmarks for work add a lot of stress to anyone's life... and especially to an HSP's life.

As a result, many HSPs turn to self-employment, especially in mid-life. This is often the only way for them to not only build a comfortable work environment, but also to pursue their dreams. Although being in business for yourself can be risky, HSPs' conscientious natures tend to work in their favor, and HSP operated businesses have an unusually high success rate.

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Highly Sensitive Men - An underrepresented and often "invisible" subgroup of HSPs

Although there are approximately equal numbers of men and women who fit the description of a Highly Sensitive Person, it often appears as if the women greatly outnumber the men.

Unfortunately, there are a number of cultural perceptions of-- and biases against-- high sensitivity that makes it particularly difficult for men to be open about their sensitivity, especially in the US and some other Western societies.

Much as we may believe we have "advanced" from a patriarchal, emotionally cold "tough guy" image of men, the "boys club" remains alive and well... and the pressure to conform to societal expectations and norms often cause highly sensitive men to "go into hiding."

HS Men is a vast and complex area of its own-- and involves far too much information to adequately cover here. Instead, I'll offer this link to an extensive article I wrote specifically about the challenges of highly sensitive men. It's highly recommended, both for HS men themselves, as well as for the women who have a highly sensitive man in their lives.

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Highly Sensitive Children... and Parenting

As the concept of a "Highly Sensitive Person" has gained acceptance in the medical and mental health professions. there has also been an increase in the discussion of highly sensitive children, and the issues involved in raising a highly sensitive child.

Similarly, there is growing interest in the topic of how to handle parenting (of HS children, or not) when you are an HSP, yourself.

Many HSPs feel hesitant to start families-- or choose not to have children at all-- out of concern for the constant state of overarousal parenting might bring.

Because highly sensitive children often find conventional learning difficult-- and at least overwhelming-- many parents of HS children choose to home school, at least for parts of their child's education. There is no clear cut evidence to suggest that home schooling is the optimal approach for HSPs-- it has benefits and drawbacks for HS Children, just as it does for the rest of the world.

The topic of highly sensitive children is extensive, and far beyond the scope of this article, as far a detailed coverage goes.

As of this writing, several books are available on the topic of highly sensitive children. In addition to Elaine Aron's book from 2002, Dr. Ted Zeff has also written about this subject, specifically with highly sensitive boys in mind.