So, what is a highly sensitive person, anyway? You may have heard the term but not really understood much or anything about what it is. Or perhaps you’ve heard the term and felt a potent curiosity to know whether or not you are highly sensitive. Research shows that 15–20% of the population is considered highly sensitive, and this is equal among women and men. Additionally, about 70% of HSPs are introverts, but introversion and being highly sensitive are not the same thing.
Highly sensitive people, or HSPs, are born this way. It is not a disease; it is not a disorder—it is a trait. Or so says preeminent scholar in the growing field of high sensitivity Dr. Elaine Aron. Dr. Aron is the author of many books on high sensitivity, including the bestseller The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, and is an HSP herself. I came across Dr. Aron’s film called Sensitive: The Untold Story a few years ago, and it changed my view of myself forever, offering me insights, gifts, limitations, tips, and strategies about my high sensitivity that were previously unknown to me. While I had been called “too sensitive” for as long as I can remember, I never knew that my particular brand of sensitivity had a name and a very defined set of characteristics that I resonated with powerfully. After watching the film and having countless a-ha moments occur, I bought her book and began educating myself, for the benefit of myself and my psychotherapy clients. I cannot recommend her book enough, especially for those of you who have always had a hunch that your sensitivity may be more than meets the eye.
WHAT IS A HIGHLY SENSITIVE PERSON?
Let’s begin by giving some definition around what it means to be highly sensitive. In my own words, I use Dr. Aron's acronym D.O.E.S. to describe some common characteristics that highly sensitive individuals share.
D = Depth of Processing. This means you prefer to mull things over slowly, in more detail, and over a longer period of time. You also often come up with unusual or creative ideas or give longer, more detailed answers to questions than most people. Being detail-oriented in this way also means you are most likely naturally a perfectionist. Additionally, it takes you a longer time to process your feelings than other people. Both strong positive and negative feedback from others deeply impacts you. While others may get over conflicts or powerful events (even an intense movie), you may take a longer time to emotionally and cognitively process the conflict or the event. While your partner or friend who is a non-HSP may get over the conflict within minutes or hours, you may take days to process your feelings and reactions.
O = Easily Overstimulated. Your physiological nervous system gets overaroused more easily than non HSPs. In children who are HSPs, studies have shown that their blood shows higher levels of norepinephrine (brain’s version of adrenaline) and cortisol, the stress hormone. Loud noises like fireworks can frighten you. Sustained noises can exhaust or annoy you. Chaotic situations and deadlines really stress you out. You may feel anxious and/or overwhelmed a lot of the time or more easily and frequently than non-HSPs. You may not do well with a lot of sudden change. Large groups may feel overwhelming to you because of the overstimulation. Know that you may need to create boundaries with people, events, and stimuli that are too much for you. You may also need time-outs from group gatherings and also from relationship conflicts in order to address your overaroused state.
E = Emotionally Reactive. You are more likely to react strongly to positive and negative feedback. You may cry regularly or more easily than others, worry more, or feel strong empathy for others. You also might express excitement and joy more readily than those around you.
S = Sensitive to Subtle Stimuli. You notice subtleties and details that others don’t. People may comment that you are “too sensitive.” It doesn’t simply mean that you get your feelings hurt more easily than other people (although that may also be true). It means you are deeply affected by other people’s moods and emotions. It also may mean that you feel things in the atmosphere more intensely than others do, especially uncomfortable or unexplained experiences, or subtle experiences that would go entirely unnoticed by non-HSPs. For example, you may notice unexpressed hostility or aggression, or when someone is withholding important information from you. You may not always know what you are noticing, but you feel unsettled or disturbed by these subtleties in the atmosphere. You may even feel things that, to many people, seem unrelated to you, such as destruction of the environment, harm done to animals, or violence happening to people on the other side of the planet. You may also be more sensitive to things in the air. For example, that may mean you suffer from more hay fever or allergies, skin rashes, and other environmental, chemical, and electrical sensitivities.
SOME TIPS FOR HSP’S
1. Give yourself regular alone or “down” time. Being in relationship with others takes energy and regularly results in overarousal, thus being alone is specifically an important kind of “down” time that HSPs need. When you feel like you’ve been “out” in the world too much, take a “time out” or some quiet internal time by yourself. You have a rich and complex inner life that needs your regular attention, and it’s critical that you allow yourself the time you need to process your thoughts and feelings. Take walks in nature, write in your journal, or sit quietly and contemplate your day. Additionally, keep in mind that your idea of fun may include reading a book, gardening, or making a simple meal at home. Anything that can be done quietly and at your own pace may feel like fun for you, rather than trying to partake in a bunch of activities. On the other hand, when you feel excessively bored or understimulated, it may mean you’ve spent too much alone time and need to interact with people and the world again. By thoughtfully taking some risks in the outer world, you may find that those outer experiences become less difficult or arousing, and you build skills and confidence that allow you to better navigate the outer world with fewer negative consequences on your well-being. Finding a balance between being out and in will be hugely important over the course of your life.
2. Get enough sleep and rest. This is vital. Adequate sleep, naps, and regular non-sleeping forms of rest are critical for an HSP to function well and should be a high priority. You may have more insomnia or experience jet lag more strongly or you may find that you simply need more hours of sleep than most people. You also need a kind of rest that falls into the more spiritual part of life, that being “transcendence.” This could be in the form of meditation, contemplation, prayer, or yoga—anything that takes you out of the ordinary world, out of your ordinary consciousness and into a state of pure consciousness or a connection to God, Spirit, or the divine.
3. Take extra-special care of your body. That means you need to eat and drink enough, and regularly. Drinking water regularly is especially good for HSPs. But be careful about caffeine, which tends to affect HSPs much more strongly than non-HSPs by causing more extreme overarousal. Get regular exercise to help manage your stress and get you outside, into nature. Keep in mind that HSPs are more affected by pain than others, and can be more sensitive to medication and feel more aroused or anxious about medical environments and procedures. Your healthcare sensitivities require you to take your medical care slowly and seriously.
4. Foster meaningful relationships. Because you feel things more deeply, it’s important that you have relationships in your life that foster deeper sharing, intimacy, and connection below the surface of life. Small talk or chitchat not only makes you awkward and anxious but also doesn’t feed you. Find people you can experience meaningful, long-term emotional contact with.
5. Cultivate a rich creative and/or spiritual life. Since you likely naturally have a creative mind, and because it’s so critical that you have regular experiences of being outside of ordinary life and consciousness, it’s essential that you give yourself time and space to explore your creative and/or spiritual side. Being creative in art, writing, dance, and music allows you to tap into and express your deep feelings in ways that ordinary life and communication may not. This allows you to enter a flow state, to follow your own pace, rhythms, and impulses, and to connect with the divine in all things. These states of consciousness rejuvenate, nourish, and restore you to optimal inner well-being.
To find out if you may be an HSP, take Dr. Aron's self-test here.
 Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D., The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You (New York: Harmony Books, 1998).
All data cited above comes from Dr. Aron’s book or her website: www.hsperson.com.