Other people may not understand why highly sensitive people (HSPs) do these seemingly unusual things.
About 1 in 5 adults are HSPs, or “highly sensitive people,” so either you know one, or you are one yourself. But if you’ve never heard of the term, you’re not alone. Despite being coined by researcher Dr. Elaine Aron in the late 90s, high sensitivity is often mistaken for other things: anxiety, “pickiness,” or even a personality defect.
Yet being a highly sensitive person (HSP) is a perfectly normal, healthy trait. In fact, it’s likely an evolutionary advantage, given how HSPs easily notice details and patterns that others miss. It may have even helped keep the human race from going extinct. Hey, my fellow cave people, there’s a saber-toothed tiger hiding in those bushes! I saw the smallest twitch of his ears. Or, there’s something about these mystery berries that just doesn’t smell right.
Essentially, if you’re highly sensitive, you were born with a nervous system that processes all stimulation deeply, from sights to sounds to textures. The downside is HSPs can get easily overwhelmed. Imagine 100 alarm clocks going off at once, as opposed to everyone else’s one.
(Sound like you? Find out if you’re a highly sensitive person.)
As a result, highly sensitive people tend to organize their lives around protecting their sensitive systems, and they do some things that others may find, well, strange. Non-HSPs may not realize the real root of their actions — and perhaps the HSP doesn’t even realize it themselves.
So, here are 27 things HSPs do that may be related to their high sensitivity. Not everything on this list will resonate with every HSP (sensitivity looks different from person to person), but this article is a good starting point to understand and normalize HSPs.
Things You Do Because You’re a Highly Sensitive Person
1. You shut down in loud, busy places.
HSPs may mentally shut down or zone out in crowded bars, at big parties, or even in a busy office setting. It may look like they’ve “checked out” or aren’t listening, but really, they’re simply overwhelmed with sensory input. Remember, their minds are processing every little thing deeply, from the words you just said to the expression on that couple’s face, five tables away.
2. You can’t watch or read about certain topics.
Certain topics may immediately trigger a stress response in HSPs, especially those involving suffering or cruelty. Those Netflix shows labeled “violent and gritty?” Hard pass. Personally, I can’t watch those TV commercials about animal abuse, even though I regularly donate money to animal relief groups. When HSPs changes the channel, it may look like they’re being cold and indifferent, but really, it’s quite the opposite: They are deeply moved, so much that it’s painful. Of course, no one enjoys suffering, but for HSPs, the effect is magnified.
3. You build a lot of little routines into your day.
Bedtime or morning, HSPs are known for their love of routine, because doing things in a similar way brings comfort and involves less stimulation than anything new. Change can be quite stressful for HSPs, both positive and negative changes.
4. You’re easily startled.
If your roommate sneaks up behind you or your alarm clock unexpectedly goes off, you may jump as sky-high as a frightened cat! Many HSPs have a high startle reflex, again due to their nervous system — it’s already “turned up,” so to speak, so even a small amount of added stimulation can activate their fight or flight response.
5. You get stressed and anxious when someone raises their voice at you.
If someone yells at you, or expresses disappointment in a stern voice, you may feel your whole world crumble — or you may lash out with an oversized response. Conflict can overstimulate HSPs, who aim to please. In school, if you were the student who felt bad when other students got scolded by the teacher — even though you weren’t involved! — you might be an HSP. A fight with a friend or spouse may leave an HSP feeling so physically unwell that they can’t sleep or eat.
6. You can predict the future.
You’re always holding back an “I told you so.” No, HSPs aren’t psychics, but they usually see it coming, on account of their pattern-recognition abilities and penchant for future thinking. This can be a valuable asset to those around them, helping their families and work teams avoid trouble.
7. Time pressure and deadlines really rattle you.
Deadlines are stressful for everyone, especially ones happening RIGHT NOW, but for HSPs, it’s worse. Time pressure, whether it’s getting out the door on time to catch a flight or handing in an assignment by its due date, is another form of stimulation that can really rattle HSPs.
8. When you fall in love, you fall hard.
It’s exhilarating, like your whole world feels like it’s changing. But any changes — even good ones! — are processed deeply by HSPs, and can border on overwhelming.
9. You absorb other people’s feelings as your own.
You may have a hard time distinguishing your emotions from those belonging to others. Due to their heightened empathy and ability to read others well, HSPs can be emotional sponges — and it’s exhausting.
10. When your significant other is stressed, you get stressed.
Similar to #9, when those around you feel sadness, anger, or tension, you soak it right up. They probably don’t realize that when you’re trying to cheer them up, you’re trying to make the bad feelings go away for yourself too.
11. A normal day at work can be utterly exhausting.
So much noise, so many demands. Sometimes, when you come home, you head straight to your bedroom, where you turn the lights low and relax in silence; it’s what’s needed to calm your overactive senses.
12. You have a very strong sense of smell.
Good smells can invigorate HSPs, while bad smells may make them “smangry,” again due to their deep processing of all sensory information. When someone wearing strong perfume walks into the room, HSPs may have to move away because the smell overpowers their already ramped-up senses.
13. You love certain foods and have a strong aversion to others.
Maybe raspberries are too tart, seafood is nauseating, and dark chocolate is divine. Other people may judge your food preferences: “Stop being so picky!”
14. You’re very sensitive to dips and spikes in blood sugar.
When HSPs get hungry, they get really hungry, and along comes everyone’s “favorite” hangry symptoms: irritability and a lack of focus.
15. Certain substances hit you harder.
Caffeine, alcohol, and even prescription drugs can have a strong effect on HSPs. This can be a good thing, because only one cup of Earl Grey will do the trick, but it may also mean you’ve woken up to some, err, head-pounding hangovers.
16. When people are physically uncomfortable, you know exactly why.
Because HSPs are so in tune with their environment, they know when the lights are too bright, the layout is claustrophobic, and the chair backs are too hard. No, they’re not being “picky” — they really can’t help but notice!
17. You’re deeply moved by art and beauty.
If you’ve ever felt a deep sense of awe — or pain — at art, music, or literature, you may be an HSP. Personally, music can make me soar, and leaves blowing in the wind on a crisp fall day catching the sunlight can make me feel like I’ve stepped into another world. On the downside, one of my most alienating memories as a child was wondering why my peers weren’t moved to tears and unshakeable questions about the universe after watching a movie about outer space.
18. You have a strong inner world.
That likely includes a rich imagination, natural creativity, and vivid dreams.
19. You have a low pain tolerance.
Similar to #15, a headache can really hurt; a muscle cramp can feel like a vice. HSPs are strong, and they hate to complain, but if only others knew what they were going through.
20. You often turn down social invitations, even if you’re an extrovert.
Dr. Aron estimates that about 70% of HSPs are introverts, so it makes sense that they’d love their alone time. But even extroverted HSPs often decline social invitations, not because they don’t love their friends (they do, madly!), but because socializing can be loads of stimulation.
21. Malls, stores, and other public spaces can be sensory overload.
Similar to #1, busy public spaces can simply be too much. You might be an HSP if you know exactly when the grocery store is busy and avoid going at that time.
22. You’re always trying to get the volume just right…
…whether it’s your music, the TV, or the podcast in your headphones. One click up or down makes a big difference to your sensitive ears. You often find yourself trying to sneak the remote control away from your spouse!
23. You’re extremely observant of other people.
Research has found that HSPs have genes that make them see other people as the brightest “things” on their radar. That makes them natural counselors, healers, and human lie detectors. It’s not an exaggeration to say that HSPs often understand other people better than those people understand themselves.
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24. You need more sleep than others.
For HSPs, sleep is not just self-care; it’s also a way to soothe their overwrought senses and process their strong emotions. If you’re the one in your family who is militant about bedtimes, you might be an HSP. Because when you don’t get enough sleep? Everything. Is. Awful.
25. You’re easily “flooded.”
“Flooding” is the extremely uncomfortable feeling of being overwhelmed mentally and emotionally, and it happens to HSPs a lot. Here’s how to recognize and calm flooding.
26. Sometimes you have trouble saying no.
Strong empathy and an innate desire to help mean you don’t want to disappoint anyone. No wonder HSPs suffer from burnout, exhaustion, and overwhelm at higher levels than others.
27. You seek meaning in all that you do.
For HSPs, life isn’t about their paycheck, their “toys,” or their social media likes. Sure, they want to live the good life, too, and we all need a certain measure of money, friends, and security to do just that. But for HSPs, they can have all those things and still feel desperately unhappy if meaning is lacking. They will leave a well-paying job (or a “good on paper” relationship) if it doesn’t fulfill their inner needs. Deep processing means deep thinking, so HSPs seek the eternal truths that underpin it all: love, connection, justice, making a difference, and peace.
HSPs, which of my points resonate with you the most? What would you add to this list?
You might like:
- 21 Signs You’re a Highly Sensitive Person
- Why Highly Sensitive People Get Mentally and Emotionally ‘Flooded’
- What Happens When a Highly Sensitive Person Grows Up with Emotional Neglect?
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