A highly sensitive person (HSP) experiences the world differently than others. Due to a biological difference that they’re born with, highly sensitive people are more aware of subtleties and process information deeply. This means they tend to be creative, and insightful but it also means they’re more prone than others to stress and overwhelm.
What is a Highly Sensitive Person?
A highly sensitive person is a term created to describe a group of people whose brains process all information very deeply, including emotions, thoughts, and sensory input. This makes them more physically sensitive and emotionally sensitive than other people. High sensitivity is considered a normal, healthy personality trait, although one that — like all personality traits — comes with its own advantages and drawbacks The same trait is referred to as Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), environmental sensitivity, and differential susceptibility.
HSPs are often negatively described as “too sensitive.” But being an HSP isn’t a bad thing. Like any personality trait, it comes with challenges, but also many strengths. For example, highly sensitive people tend to excel at creativity, empathy, and the ability to notice things that others miss or make connections that others do not see. In fact, according to Linda Silverman, the director of the Gifted Development Center, high sensitivity is linked to giftedness. The tradeoff for these gifts is that the sensitive mind can become overworked easily, which makes HSPs prone to becoming overstimulated or emotionally overloaded.
Based on these traits, you might recognize a friend, coworker, or even your partner or yourself as being a highly sensitive person.
Still, although high sensitivity is completely normal — meaning, it’s not a diagnosis or a disorder — it’s often misunderstood, because HSPs are in the minority. Recent research suggests that roughly 30 percent of people are highly sensitive — less than 1 in 3 — and some researchers put the number as low as 15 to 20 percent. Either way, highly sensitive people often feel like they are rare or “alone,” perhaps because our culture does not value sensitivity, and tells us to hide our sensitive side.
The Science Behind Highly Sensitive People
Sensitivity is a personality trait that everyone has, but some people are more sensitive than others. According to Michael Pluess, a researcher who specializes in sensitivity at Queen Mary University of London, sensitivity is a continuum. This means that some people are “low sensitive,” some people are “high sensitive,” and the majority of people fall somewhere in the middle.
How sensitive you are is partly due to your genes, and partly depends on the way you are raised. Your genes determine your basic sensitivity level, which means that if you are a highly sensitive person, you were likely born that way. However, in twin studies, identical twins with exactly the same genes can end up with different levels of sensitivity as adults — largely because of their life experiences. Pluess says that sensitive people need a supportive environment to thrive, and get more benefit out of an emotionally healthy upbringing than other people do.
There are also profound differences in the highly sensitive brain. If you are a highly sensitive person, you likely have more activity in areas related to empathy, emotion, and reading social cues, as well as the part of the brain known as the “seat of consciousness,” especially when you’re in social situations. This suggests that HSPs are highly alert and very tuned into the people around them.
Finally, highly sensitive people tend to act differently than others and want different things out of life. Generally speaking, HSPs prefer a slow pace and like to take time to enjoy subtle experiences. For example, an HSP may get more joy out of the smell of their morning coffee and the view out their window than they do from a loud concert or a crowded event. This makes sense for someone who can get overstimulated easily: small pleasures and a slower schedule allow them to be at their best, bringing out their sensitive gifts without getting overloaded.
How Do You Know If You’re a Highly Sensitive Person?
Perhaps people routinely tell you that you’re “too sensitive” or you “think too much.” Perhaps you get easily overstimulated in loud, noisy situations. Perhaps you wonder why things bother you so much more than other people.
Those are just some of the signs you may be a highly sensitive person. There are many more. If you relate to most of these signs, there’s a good chance you’re an HSP.
21 Signs You’re a Highly Sensitive Person
1. You absolutely abhor violence and cruelty of any kind.
Everyone hates violence and cruelty, but for highly sensitive people, seeing or hearing about it can be extremely unsettling. You might be an HSP if you can’t watch very scary, gory, or violent movies without getting upset or even feeling physically ill. Similarly, you may not be able to stomach a news story about animal cruelty or similar brutal acts.
2. You’re frequently emotionally exhausted from absorbing other people’s feelings.
Although highly sensitive people are not necessarily empaths, HSPs tend to “absorb” other people’s emotions, almost like an empath would. It’s not unusual for an HSP to walk into a room and immediately sense the moods of the people in it. That’s because highly sensitive people are very aware of subtleties — including facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice — that others may miss. Pair this with the sensitive person’s naturally high levels of empathy, and it’s no wonder HSPs feel emotions that are not their own. As a result, highly sensitive people tend to suffer from frequent emotional exhaustion.
3. Time pressure really rattles you.
In school, timed quizzes or speed tests made you extremely anxious — perhaps to the point of not being able to perform as well as you normally would. As an adult, when you have too many things on your to-do list and not enough time to finish them, you feel very stressed. HSPs are more sensitive to stimulation, and time pressure is no exception.
4. You withdraw often.
Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you need plenty of downtime, preferably alone. You often find yourself withdrawing to a quiet, darkened room at the end of a long day — in order to lower your stimulation level, soothe your senses, and recharge.
5. You’re jumpy.
When someone sneaks up on you, you jump like a frightened cat. Many HSPs have a high “startle reflex” because even in non-threatening situations, their nervous systems are dialed up.
6. You think deeply.
The cornerstone of being an HSP is you process information deeply. This means you do plenty of reflecting on your experiences — more so than other people. Unfortunately, this also means you’re more prone to negative overthinking. Sometimes you obsessively play events over and over in your mind or spiral into anxious thoughts.
7. You’re a seeker.
HSPs seek answers to the big questions in life. They ask why things are the way they are and what their role in all of it is. If you’re a highly sensitive person, you may have always wondered why other people aren’t as captivated by the mysteries of human nature and the universe as you are.
8. Sudden, loud noises startle you.
For example, a loud motorcycle suddenly roaring by your window may really shake you.
9. Your clothing matters.
You’ve always been sensitive to what you wear. Scratchy fabric or restrictive clothing — like pants with a tight waistband or pantyhose — really irritate you. Of course, non-HSPs might dislike these things too, but an HSP will carefully select their wardrobe to completely avoid them. And if an HSP inadvertently wears one of these things out, the discomfort may detract from their entire experience.
10. Your pain tolerance is less.
Many HSPs are more sensitive to pain of all kinds — headaches, body aches, injuries, etc. — than non-HSPs.
11. Your inner world is alive and present.
Again, due to your deep processing, you have a rich inner world. As a child, you may have had several imaginary friends, enjoyed fantasy-based play, and were prone to daydreaming. As an adult, you may have vividly realistic dreams.
12. Change is extremely upsetting.
HSPs take comfort in their routines, because the familiar is far less stimulating than something brand new. For this reason, change — both positive and negative — can really throw off HSPs. For example, when dating someone new or getting a job promotion, HSPs may feel as equally stressed as they do overjoyed. Generally, HSPs need more time than others to adjust to change.
13. Sometimes your environment is your enemy.
Similarly, moving to a new home or traveling (even if it’s just a “fun” vacation!) can be quite difficult for you, because your senses are bombarded with so much new stimuli.
14. You’re misunderstood.
High sensitivity is often mislabeled. You may have been called “shy” or “anxious,” and perhaps it was implied that something was wrong with you. Similarly, many HSPs are labeled as introverts, because introverts and HSPs share many characteristics, such as needing lots of downtime. However, 30 percent of HSPs are actually extroverts.
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15. You get hangry easily.
HSPs tend to be sensitive to changes in blood sugar levels, so they may get quite “hangry” (hungry + angry) if they haven’t eaten in a while.
16. Who needs stimulants…
…when your nervous system is already ratcheted up to the highest level? Some HSPs are sensitive to caffeine and need very little of it to feel its buzz. Similarly, some HSPs are also sensitive to alcohol’s effects.
17. Conflict is your poison.
When there’s tension or disagreement in your close relationships, you feel it deeply. Many HSPs even report feeling physically ill during conflict. As a result, some highly sensitive people become conflict-avoidant, doing or saying almost anything to keep the other person happy. It’s because conflict hurts so much.
18. Criticism is a dagger.
Words really matter to HSPs. Positive words can make them soar, but harsh words will send them crashing to the ground. Criticism can feel like a dagger, and negativity is toxic to the highly sensitive person’s finely-tuned system.
19. You’re conscientious.
At work and in school, you try hard not to make mistakes. Of course, this doesn’t mean you’re perfect — nobody is! — but you’re always giving things your best effort.
20. You’re deeply moved by beauty.
Fine meals, rich scents, beautiful artwork, or stirring melodies have a deep impact on you. You may find that music or certain sounds put you in a near trance-like state, or the way the wind catches the leaves in the autumn sunlight leaves you awestruck. You don’t understand how other people aren’t as moved by beauty as you are.
21. You’re perceptive.
Because you notice things that others miss, you’re seen as perceptive and insightful. Even as a child, you may have been wise beyond your years. The world relies on highly sensitive people like you to make it a more compassionate, understanding place to be.
Okay, I’m an HSP — What Should I Know?
If you identify with these signs, congratulations, you’re a highly sensitive person! You’re in good company. There’s an entire community of people like you out there, who understand how you feel and how difficult it can feel sometimes.
Being a highly sensitive person in a world not built for you can feel overwhelming, but there’s good news: as long as you’re aware of yourself, you can avoid pitfalls and add easy steps to your routine to make your life better.
Sometimes, life can feel like a minefield for highly sensitive people. Being aware of potential pitfalls can help you mentally prepare to handle them when they pop up. Some potential pitfalls for HSPs include:
- Hectic days: Having to run from one thing to another all day can be exhausting for the best of us, but it can lead you to feel overstimulated and overwhelmed.
- Interpersonal conflict: You’re often more prone to stress when conflict arises between you and another person.
- Expectations and Comparisons: You easily pick up on the expectations and needs of the people around you and can easily internalize them and beat yourself up for not meeting them.
- Failure: No one likes to fail, but it may feel crippling for you. You’re are prone to self-doubt and obsessive rumination, beating yourself up for even small mistakes.
HSP Tricks for a Happier Life
The good news is: you can create space for yourself by being aware of your own needs, and by being prepared for potential pitfalls. Here are some easy tricks to help insulate yourself from overwhelm and pitfalls:
- Avoid pitfalls: If you know a hectic day exhausts you, pad time into your schedule to rest between events. Space work and events out throughout the day and week so you don’t overwhelm yourself.
- Avoid stress: Stay away from things that cause you undue stress, like horror movies, or that coworker that always saps your emotional energy.
- Say no: Whether it’s to extra work, extra plans, or to your own expectations of yourself. Teach yourself to say no to things and be okay with it.
- Create a soothing space: Make your home (or at least a room in it) a space that helps you feel calm and safe. Fill it with pillows, blankets, books, movies, or whatever helps you decompress.
Celebrate Your Sensitivity
Being sensitive is not a bad thing! The high points of life bring you even more joy and happiness than a normal person. Your awareness of and empathy for other people aren’t weaknesses. Be kind to yourself, make a plan to take care of yourself in stressful situations, and celebrate your sensitivity each day.
You might like:
- 14 Things HSPs Absolutely Need to Be Happy
- 13 Signs You’re an Empath
- 27 Things People Don’t Realize You’re Doing Because You’re an HSP
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