What Is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

When you’re deeply sensitive to certain physical, emotional or social situations
Giant hand holding a sensitive person.

“Stop being so sensitive.” You may have heard this from family, friends or coworkers or even uttered it to someone else.

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Generally, the word “sensitivity” is used to describe how you respond to the environment around you, whether that’s physically or emotionally. You could physically be sensitive to the cold, or emotionally, you’re able to pick up the feelings of others easily. To some extent, we’re all sensitive about something in our lives.

But you may also identify with being a highly sensitive person (HSP), a personality trait that was first used by psychologists in the 1990s to describe someone with a deep sensitivity to the physical, emotional or social situations and information around them.

There are pros and cons to being an HSP, which can also be known as sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). For example, you may avoid violent movies or TV shows, but you may also have deep, close relationships with others.

And it’s important to know that being a highly sensitive person isn’t considered a mental health disorder — and that there’s no official way to diagnose someone as HSP and there’s no official highly sensitive person test (though there’s this quiz from the doctor who coined the term “highly sensitive person.”)

“Know that it’s OK to be you. Being HSP comes with its own set of strengths and weaknesses,” encourages psychologist Chivonna Childs, PhD. “If you’re a highly sensitive person, you can lead a rich life.”

Dr. Childs explains what it means to be a highly sensitive person, what traits you might have and how to cope with any stress that comes from being an HSP.

What is a highly sensitive person?

If you’re a highly sensitive person, you have a heightened awareness of the stimuli around you, which can be good or bad. HSPs tend to be bothered by violence and can easily be overwhelmed, which leads them to avoid certain situations. Highly sensitive people can also be very creative and have a deep level of empathy.

“Highly sensitive people are built more deeply, emotionally and mentally than most people,” notes Dr. Childs. “It’s more than their emotions. It can also be sensitivity to textures and sounds. You might not like big crowds or bright lights.”

And while we all tend to have sensitivities, with HSPs, they tend to experience these sensitivities on a higher level.

Highly sensitive people traits

There are some characteristics and traits of a highly sensitive person that seem to be common, like:

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  • Avoiding TV shows or movies that are violent.
  • Finding the beauty in almost anything, whether it’s art or something in nature.
  • Feeling overwhelmed by noises, bright lights and uncomfortable clothes.
  • Feeling anxious.
  • Feeling the need for downtime.
  • Having a rich inner life.

“We have to be careful about diagnosing people,” says Dr. Childs. “Some people just like their quiet time or some people just admire art where the rest of us don’t.”

When it comes to how they think and feel, HSPs tend to think through situations and reflect on their lives.

“They can be with themselves and have inner conversations and deep thoughts,” she says. “They can think for hours on end and be OK with that.” 

If you’re an HSP, you may struggle with multitasking or feel overwhelmed rather quickly. And that tends to stem from the ability to feel empathy for others.

“HSPs can pick up on the needs of others, which can be a good thing because you want somebody who’s empathetic,” says Dr. Childs. “But the other side of empathy is compassion fatigue. If we’re always picking up on others’ feelings and others’ emotions, what does that do for us? What does that do for the highly sensitive person?”

What causes HSP?

It’s thought that being a highly sensitive person can be a hereditary trait. But there can be other factors at play like your environment and your experiences as a child.

“If you had childhood trauma, you may likely be a highly sensitive person,” states Dr. Childs. “With trauma, we become hyper-vigilant. We’re on the lookout for things. We stay away from things that have sparked that trauma.”

It’s also important to note that there are similar conditions and traits that are often confused with HSP.

While being an introvert can look and feel the same as being an HSP, they’re different. In social situations, an introvert may be bothered by social stimuli like making small talk or being part of a large group, but for an HSP, the bright lights and loud music can also affect how they feel and act.

HSP is often mistaken for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While it’s true that both those with HSP and ADHD can react strongly to sensory information, those with ADHD often have difficulty focusing or paying attention.

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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be another condition that people confuse with HSP. But experiencing high sensitivity isn’t a sign of ASD. People with ASD tend to experience hypersensitivity (an exaggerated response) or hyposensitivity (an underwhelming response) to sensory situations.

“While HSP and other medical conditions are not the same thing, high sensitivity can happen in conjunction with mental health conditions,” says Dr. Childs. “For example, you can have ADHD in addition to HSP.”

Coping strategies

If you’re a highly sensitive person, there are strategies you can use to help with anxiety and feeling overwhelmed in certain situations. For example:

  • Take time for yourself. This also includes avoiding situations that make you feel overwhelmed. “Step back from those situations and set boundaries and be OK with setting boundaries,” Dr. Childs explains. “‘No’ is a complete sentence. It doesn’t need an explanation.”
  • Form close relationships with others. HSPs tend to have deep bonds with certain people in their lives and are often seen as a supportive friend. “But it’s also OK to limit our time with people we feel are too draining,” says Dr. Childs.
  • Make a gratitude list. Dr. Childs suggests that when you wake up in the morning, think about three things you’re grateful for. Repeat at night before you go to sleep as well.
  • Consider talk therapy. If being a highly sensitive person is negatively impacting your life, don’t hesitate to talk to someone. “Talk therapy helps to find coping skills, manage the anxiety and or depression that may be accompanying it.”

And if you’re not an HSP but want some guidance on how to interact and understand someone with HSP, Dr. Childs suggests the following.

“Just be there for them. Don’t pressure them. Understand how they operate and give them the space to operate in that way,” she says. “Ask them what they need.”

How common is HSP?

Dr. Childs says that about 15% to 20% of the world’s population can be classified as a highly sensitive person.

“It might be a little bit higher because we don’t necessarily diagnose it as such because it’s not a mental health disorder,” she adds.

But overall, identifying as an HSP shouldn’t be considered a bad thing. While there may be challenges, there are plenty of positives you can focus on.

“When you’re a highly sensitive person, you think a lot — you’re not quick to action,” Dr. Childs explains. “Sometimes, when we’re quick to action, we make mistakes. But highly sensitive people sit back, they think about things and then, they think about things some more, which gives other people time to digest, sit and wait. That can make for highly effective leaders.”

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