I’ve cried watching Pixar animated movies. My senses easily get overwhelmed by crowds. And I get extremely stressed thinking about my to-do list for the week. These are a few of the hurdles I face as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).
As an HSP, I feel emotions stronger than the average person. While this personality trait presents some daily challenges, I am able to connect and build healthy relationships with others, respond more empathetically to things, and use many other strengths to my advantage. Unlike the personality trait suggests, being “highly sensitive” does not have to equal weakness.
What is a Highly Sensitive Person?
“Highly sensitive person,” or HSP, is a term coined by the psychologist Elaine Aron to describe people with a high level of sensory processing sensitivity. This means we are more easily affected by emotions and generally more reactive to certain internal and external stimuli, such as noise, light, or pain than others. While almost everyone experiences periods of heightened emotional arousal and reactivity from time to time, for HSPs, this elevated level of sensitivity is relatively constant, perhaps best summed up as “feeling too much” or “feeling too deeply.”
To get a clearer example of what HSPs experience, in one study in which a group of highly sensitive people and a control population were shown photos of loved ones undergoing an MRI scan, HSPs showed greater activity in the regions of the brain associated with attention, awareness, empathy, integration of sensory information, and planning.
It is important to keep in mind that being highly sensitive is not a mental illness or disorder. Instead, the term is understood to describe a certain personality type, which research indicates could include between 15 and 20% of the human population.
What are Common Characteristics of a Highly Sensitive Person?
As the term has been picked up by others in the psychology community and elaborated on, a set of common HSP experiences has emerged that could include:
- Sensitivity to criticism
- Extreme discomfort with violence or cruelty, even in fictional scenarios
- Avoiding arguments and expressing their own viewpoints
- Difficulty adjusting to a change in routine
Those who describe themselves as HSPs, along with researchers who study the personality trait, believe elevated sensory processing activity can confer certain strengths, including:
- Strong empathy for others
- Mediation and conflict resolution skills between other people
- Greater appreciation for music, art, and nature
- Ability to quickly build rapport and meaningful relationships
What are the Challenges of a Highly Sensitive Person?
While there are strengths, being highly sensitive can also come with challenges. HSPs typically feel overwhelmed or drained by overly stimulating activities, such as taking a test or interacting with a large group of people at a party. Highly sensitive people often report needing to take time to ourselves after social interactions to decompress and recharge. We may also ruminate unhealthily on past failings or imagined slights, worry excessively about how we are perceived, constantly compare ourselves to others, take things personally, and fear rejection, even in what may be a minor situation to anyone else.
How Can Someone Thrive as a Highly Sensitive Person?
Since HSPs can face many challenges, it is important for us to develop self-care strategies that can keep us from becoming overwhelmed or reactive. While there are some practices that seem obvious when discussing self-care — receiving proper nutrition and hydration and getting enough movement — there are additional strategies we can utilize to take care of ourselves:
- Know ourselves. Every person and every HSP is different: How we respond, what our interpersonal relationships and daily experiences are like, what stresses us out or excites us, etc. Gaining a deeper understanding of how we as HSPs respond to different experiences is helpful in being able to free us up to explore how this trait can serve us and makes us unique.
- Reframe, don’t pathologize. Since being highly sensitive is part of who we are, we need to remind ourselves not to treat this personality trait as an impediment. Just because our emotions are experienced differently, we are more sensitive to different stimuli, and need more time to recalibrate our social battery, does not mean there is something that needs to be fixed. Be curious and reframe HSP as a strength rather than a weakness.
- Respond rather than react. HSPs tend to react during overstimulating moments and those reactions tend to make us feel out of control. However, if we are attuned to ourselves and our environment, then we can prepare ahead of time about how we will experience emotion in different situations and when we encounter certain stimuli. HSPs can also set necessary boundaries before a situation becomes overwhelming. We can incorporate our emotional and physical experiences as a part of our rational decision-making and respond thoughtfully and appropriately.
- Set and stick to boundaries. Constant stimulation of the world around us will leave HSPs feeling depleted of energy at times. When we are more aware of ourselves, HSPs recognize which stimuli tend to trigger a negative response. Setting boundaries is crucial. If social situations are difficult, set time limits and have an exit plan. There is nothing wrong with protecting space.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are times when additional support will be needed. If we are struggling to reset, feeling constantly flooded and overwhelmed, and getting distracted during personal or professional interactions, it may be time for us to get some help. This can come from the community, family, friends, and professionals (e.g., support groups, therapy). Remember, self-care is not selfish, it’s necessary.
It is important not to view being an HSP as a barrier, as this may lead to the perception that there is something “wrong” that needs to be repaired. Our feelings and experiences should not be thought of as a weakness or failing. We simply process sensory information in a different way. HSPs have numerous strengths and can teach us all how to be more empathetic and show more love to others.