What Is A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
In the past few weeks, I’ve heard from several “newbie” HSPs – newbie in that they have just recently learned about high sensitivity and realized that they might be highly sensitive people themselves.
So with these dear readers in mind, I wanted to go back to the basics with this article and talk about the meaning of high sensitivity. Is sensitivity really a thing? And what is a Highly Sensitive Person, anyway?
Well yes, high sensitivity is a thing. 🙂
It’s thought to be an inborn temperament trait possessed by about 20 percent of people, including yours truly. We experience everything more intensely than the average person. And by everything I mean just about everything. Sensory stimuli like lights, sounds, smells, and touch. Social stimuli like meeting new people or receiving criticism. And emotional stimuli like our own and other people’s feelings.
Our brains process incoming information more deeply, which leads to a more intense experience. Which sometimes has the side effect of rendering us overwhelmed or VERY emotional. And sometimes bothered and irritated by things that other people barely notice.
Several scientists have studied or are still studying high sensitivity, each from slightly different angles and using different terminology to describe it. So let’s list the main ones.
What Is A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
Sensory Processing Sensitivity by Elaine Aron
The label Highly Sensitive Person was introduced by Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, first published in 1996.
Her scientific term for the trait is “sensory processing sensitivity”, and according to her research, highly sensitive people share the following four characteristics:
1. Depth of Processing
Researchers have found that when HSPs process information, we are more likely to use areas of the brain associated with deeper processing. We like to mull things over, think things through, and carefully consider all angles. We do this both consciously and unconsciously.
Stimulation is anything that wakes up your nervous system. Because HSPs’ nervous systems are more sensitive to stimuli, we are more vulnerable to overstimulation than non-HSPs. The same amount of stimulation that will make a non-HSP feel comfortably alert might make an HSP feel “fired up”. And this “fired-upness” – if allowed to continue long enough – is inevitably followed by something that feels an awful lot like a hangover. Only you don’t need to have a drop of alcohol to get this special hangover. 🙂
3. Emotional Reactivity + Empathy
HSPs tend to have stronger emotional reactions than non-HSPs. This includes both positive and negative reactions. As in, we cry over happy news just as easily as we cry over sad news. 🙂 We also have high levels of empathy, so we are easily affected by other people’s emotions.
4. Sensing The Subtle
HSPs have a tendency to notice subtleties that other people miss. This doesn’t mean that our senses are somehow more superior. I don’t have laser vision. 😉 Instead, we just absorb more subtleties. Moreover, we often do this unconsciously, which results in us appearing more intuitive. We “just know” without being able to explain how.
While non-HSPs can have some of these characteristics or similar ones, Dr. Aron defines HSPs as those who have all four. She also makes it clear that sensory processing sensitivity is not the same as sensory processing disorder.
On Dr. Aron’s website, you can take the same test that she uses in her research studies to classify people as HSP or non-HSP.
Also, here’s a brief YouTube video where Dr. Aron explains what being a highly sensitive person is all about.
Biological Sensitivity To Context by W. Thomas Boyce
W. Thomas Boyce is a medical doctor, researcher, and author of The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive. His term for sensitivity is “biological sensitivity to context” .
Dr. Boyce has studied how children react to various potentially stressful stimuli. And he found that about 20 percent of children are more reactive as measured by their cortisol levels and autonomic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) than their less sensitive peers.
With his studies, Dr. Boyce is demonstrating the phenomenon at the root of HSP overstimulation. Highly sensitive kids will become physically stressed more easily than non-HSPs. Their bodies react to stimuli more readily.
Here’s a short YouTube video where Dr. Boyce explains biological sensitivity to context.
Differential Susceptibility by Jay Belsky
Jay Belsky is a child psychologist and he uses the term “differential susceptibility” to describe the idea that some kids are more affected by both good and bad environments. So HSP kids are going to do worse than non-HSPs when raised in a bad environment, but they will also do extraordinarily well – even better than non-HSPs – when raised in a good environment.
Here’s a quick video explaining differential susceptibility.
Is High Sensitivity The Same As Introversion?
It’s easy to confuse high sensitivity and introversion, because many books and articles discussing introversion are actually describing high sensitivity. It all comes down to how one actually defines introversion.
If introversion is used to describe how socially interactive one is, then high sensitivity is not the same as introversion. About 70 percent of HSPs are introverts (often INFPs, INFJs, INTPs, or INTJs), while about 30 percent are extraverts (often ENFPs or ENFJs).
Highly sensitive extraverts typically share many of the characteristics usually associated with introverts – need for time to recharge, need for time to process, and need for depth rather than breadth in relationships. However, highly sensitive extraverts have a higher need for interaction than highly sensitive introverts and often like talking more than writing.
I’m a highly sensitive introvert, while my son is a highly sensitive extravert. We both want to escape highly stimulating situations sooner than our non-HSP family members, relish our down-time, and have a rich inner life. However, in social situations, he’s expressive and outgoing, whereas I’m mellow and understated. I would also describe him as being somehow more open to the world than I am – he’s easier for other people to read. And his love of talking definitely runs as deep as my love of writing. 😀
Is High Sensitivity A Disorder?
Because highly sensitive people are more vulnerable to stress, they are also more vulnerable to physical and mental illnesses related to stress, especially if they were exposed to stressful circumstances as children.
However, high sensitivity itself is not a disease, disorder, or “condition”.
Although highly sensitive people are a minority, twenty percent is still a pretty high number. And it’s not likely that the trait would be this common if it only had negative consequences. If that was the case, evolution would have done away with us a long time ago. 🙂
High sensitivity actually comes with various advantages for both us as well as for people close to us. I have listed some of those benefits in this post.
And while there are some potential disadvantages, they can in many cases be dealt with. Personally, I have struggled with depression, anxiety, various hormonal imbalances, and pre-diabetes, but I’ve been able to resolve all these issues mainly by learning to reduce my stress levels.
I’m still sensitive. I still get overstimulated from time to time. But I’m happy and healthy overall and no longer need to take any medications to control the chronic illnesses I used to struggle with. (For a step-by-step of how I got here, check out the Conquer Your Anxiety E-book Bundle.)
Where Can I Learn More About High Sensitivity?
If you’d like to learn more about high sensitivity, you can find all of my articles about high sensitivity by clicking here. I’ve also listed several of them at the bottom of this article.
Elaine Aron’s website and her books are another good resource.
I also recommend checking out Highly Sensitive Refuge, a community website with excellent articles by various contributors.
And finally, I’m working on some additional resources for HSPs that I’m really excited about – one is a free download that I’ll be sharing in just a couple of weeks. So stay tuned for that!