Is the phrase, “You’re being too sensitive” something that you’ve heard quite often in your life?
Do you find yourself easily overstimulated by external factors like noise, lights, social events, and emotions? Or maybe you’ve always felt slightly different and a bit more sensitive than other people around you? If this is the case, you may be relieved to hear that these characteristics have been recognized within psychology as describing a “highly sensitive person” (HSP).
HSP is a type of personality trait that has been identified in people who show notable and above-average sensitivity to various stimuli. The term was coined by Elaine Aron, a Clinical Psychologist who estimates that around 15-20% of the population are highly sensitive.
Researchers have often used the term “sensory processing sensitivity” to refer to the experience of HSPs; however, it’s not listed as an illness or diagnosis; instead, HSP is thought to be an evolved personality trait. Some of the consequences of being an HSP, while admittedly challenging, can also be highly beneficial and adaptive. For example, HSPs are more likely to notice signs of danger that others may miss. Furthermore, the highly sensitive person has been found to pick up on subtle social cues which slip under the radar to most.
What are the Signs and Characteristics of being an HSP?
HSPs are highly sensitive to their environment. For example, they’ll usually experience heightened levels of stimulation to sounds, smells, light, taste, and emotion. Also, HSPs may also be able to hear sounds that may be barely perceptible to everyone else. Furthermore, sometimes this heightened sensory experience can be uncomfortable or even painful for an HSP, and they may need to withdraw or limit their exposure to certain things. But sensitivity to their environment is not the only trait of an HSP:
Additional Characteristics of a Highly Sensitive Person:
- Stronger physiological responses to stressful situations.
- Higher perception of subtle social cues.
- Stronger unconscious nervous system response to stress.
- Low tolerance to high levels of sensory input.
- Stronger emotional responses (both positive and negative).
- Lower threshold to pain.
- Processing of environmental stimuli more deeply.
As you can see, being an HSP can be challenging as it can result in higher sensitivities and responses to stress. However, there are advantages to being “highly sensitive”; for example, HSPs experience very high levels of empathy and are therefore able to connect well with others. Furthermore, because of their highly perceptible nature, HSPs make great counselors, doctors, and psychologists.
Tips for Coping for HSPs
- Carrying simple aids that allow you to control and limit your exposure to stimuli can be a big help, for example, sunglasses, earplugs, a peaked cap, and headphones, can all help an HSP to dial down the stimuli going on around them.
- Dimming the light and using blue light filters on devices like your phone and laptop can really decrease light stimulation.
- Create a calming, quiet space in your home where you can retreat to “de-sensitize” yourself, for example, a dark room with a lavender-scented pillow.
- Advocating for quiet spaces in the workplace and simple adaptions such as non-fluorescent lighting at your workstation can also help.
- Taking time out to recharge or withdrawing from overstimulating situations is necessary for HSPs
- Self-care – making time for rest, sleep and good nutrition — can all act as valuable support to an HSP’s nervous system.
If you would like to know more about HSPs you can check out Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.
Also, you can take a Highly Sensitive Person Test.