What is a highly sensitive person?

Perhaps, you have heard about the term highly sensitive person (HSP) more often recently, but keep wondering 'but what is a highly sensitive person'? In this article, you'll find the exact definition and explanation!

Researcher Dr. Elaine Aron -who first introduced the term back in 1996- explains high sensitivity in the following way:

The highly sensitive person (HSP) has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment. 

In fact, this trait has been found in over 100 species varying from fruit flies, birds and fish to dogs, cats, horses and primates. It is a strong survival strategy which includes to be observant before acting. Way back in time, when danger was around every corner, this skill was necessary for the group to survive. Also in human, this trait has been found.

What does highly sensitive person mean?

So, what does it mean to be highly sensitive? Research has proven that the brains of HSP's work a little different than other people's brains. They process external input deeply. Moreover, their sensitivity is a strategy to pause to check, observe, and reflect on or process what already has been noticed before undertaking action. Furthermore, relating the observings to earlier experiences is an important aspect in the decision-making process of a highly sensitive person. When they see subtle signals for an opportunity that relates to an experience that they had earlier in life, they grab it right away. However, this also counts for negative experiences. When they notice red flags and relate it to earlier bad experiences, they most likely will see a situation as risky and feel more alert/anxious.

DOES: Characteristics of a highly sensitive person

HSP's share many common characteristics and traits, but high sensitivity most commonly shows up through these four themes (D.O.E.S) introduced by Dr. Elaine Aron:

D: Depth of Processing

It is scientifically proven that the highly sensitive brain obtains a more active insula. This is the part of the brain that is responsible to increase perception and strengthen self-awareness. Accordingly, this causes highly sensitive people to pause and reflect before they engage with something or someone. Consequently, highly sensitive people have a tendency to consume large amounts of information around them and to reflect about it deeply. As a result, highly sensitive people might need more time to make decisions and find it challenging to switch quickly between tasks.

O: Overstimulation

Due to the fact that highly sensitive people continuously are aware of their surroundings, pick up on the tiniest subtleties and are increasingly emotionally affected by social stimulation and interaction, they are more easily overstimulated. The high amount of input received throughout a day is exhausting for highly sensitive people. Therefore, they feel the need to recharge more often compared to less sensitive people.

E: Emotional responsiveness/Empathy

Research has proven with brain scans that HSP's have more active mirror neurons compared to less sensitive people. Mirror neurons are the part of your brain that are responsible for feeling empathic for others. Also, they cause increased activity in areas of the brain that are related to emotional responses. Both positive and negative emotions and feelings are felt more deeply by highly sensitive people compared to non-HSP's.

S: Sensitive to subtleties/Sensory stimuli

Highly sensitive people are more aware of subtle details in their surroundings that others seem to miss. For example, this can include non-verbal cues or minor adaptions in their environment. Moreover, highly sensitive people are increasingly impacted by intense sensory input. This can for example be strange smells, loud and sudden noises, bright and flickering lights or rough textures.

This illustration by 'Doodles for Change' shows the characteristics that many highly sensitive people share:

Can highly sensitive person change

A question that is commonly googled, is 'Can highly sensitive people change?'. It makes it almost sound like it is a disease or a bad thing to be a highly sensitive person! However, being highly sensitive can be a true gift. Nevertheless, it is no surprise that this is being googled often by HSP's and/or their loved ones. While it brings along many wonderful characteristics and traits, there are certain struggles highly sensitive people experience. These struggles might feel frustrating for the HSP and/or their loved ones at times.

Struggles of highly sensitive people

High sensitivity can result in certain struggles: Dr. Elaine Aron emphasized that it is a waste of energy if what is going on in your life right now has nothing to do with your past experiences. On one hand, the strength of a highly sensitive person lies in using past experiences as a moment for growth and base for future decisions. On the other hand, HSP's have a tendency to overgeneralize and avoid certain situations rather quickly. This occurs because they remind them of past bad situations or a trauma in some way. The art of thriving as a highly sensitive person is to find balance between these two extremes. 

Another struggle highly sensitive people face, is that an HSP's nervous system might become overloaded rather quickly. Due to over-stimulation, they are more easily exhausted and need to withdraw faster compared to non-HSP's. This emphasizes the importance of self-care for highly sensitive people.

Don't let your challenges stop you from enjoying life!

Nevertheless, these challenges can be overcome. Instead of wondering if you can hide away your sensitivity or change it, try to embrace the wonderful sides of it and use your gifts! Most likely, you'll realize that you don't have to change and that you are perfect the way you are!

Want to learn more about the trait? Watch this video!

This video from PsychCentral perfectly explains what high sensitivity is: