No, being a highly sensitive person (HSP) is not a disorder. An HSP is a perfectly normal and healthy thing to be, and roughly 15 to 20 percent of the population are HSP. This trait has a number of advantages, and can be a strength — especially in the arts and the caring professions.
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Why is HSP not a disorder?
If you are an HSP, you were born that way. You will be highly sensitive your entire life, and there are ways to draw on your sensitivity to thrive. In fact, simply being an HSP may be the source of many of your greatest strengths and gifts.
There are usually four main signs of being an HSP:
- Depth of processing, meaning you pick up on even small stimuli and you process information very deeply
- Overstimulation, which happens because HSPs are processing so much information all the time. HSPs can feel overwhelmed or “wiped out,” and usually need alone time in a low-stimulus environment to come back down from overstimulation.
- Empathy, or strong emotional reactions. An HSP picks up not just on physical stimuli, but socia and emotional cues as well — and they have more active mirror neurons, which allow them to feel a deep empathy and understanding of other people.
- Sensing the subtle — in other words, picking up on even very minor things that other miss, and making connections that others may not.
As you can see, three out of the four aspects of being an HSP are extremely useful and helpful traits to have. The only one that can sometimes be a downside is becoming overstimulated. However, a healthy HSP will learn to set boundaries, manage their environment, and take time to rest to avoid being overwhelmed.
Almost every normal human trait can be both a strength and a weakness in different circumstances, and being an HSP is no different.
Want to know if you’re HSP? You may want to read these signs of an HSP to find out.
Is HSP a good thing?
Of course, the best way to know is to talk to HSPs themselves. We have spoken to hundreds of highly sensitive people about their sensitivity. Here are some of the things they’ve said about being an HSP:
- “[Being HSP is] my superpower. I notice things others don’t notice, and it makes me much better at my job and a great life partner to my husband… It allows me to do things others can’t.”
- “It means being merciful, empathetic, compassionate and strong.”
- “In all areas of my life, I am able to see the big picture and also the details. I am a quiet but confident leader because of that… I did not realize how unique my skills were until I saw others struggling to do the same things [that I do easily].”
- “I can see what others cannot see.”
There’s no question that some HSPs struggle, especially when they are not well understood or when their work life doesn’t fit well with their needs as an HSP. Others simply struggle to filter out the emotions they can sense from everyone around them — it can be hard to only be as relaxed as the least relaxed person in the room.
That’s why the path to being a happy, thriving HSP involves both understanding and accepting this trait, and then working to set boundaries and create the time and space you need to avoid overwhelm.
Why is HSP often mixed up with a disorder?
People often mix up two very different traits: Sensory Processing Sensitivity, which makes someone an HSP, and Sensory Processing Disorder. Even though the names are very similar, the two traits are very different.
Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) is the trait that makes someone a highly sensitive person (HSP). It’s a healthy trait that comes from a gene some people are born with. This is really just a way of saying that the person’s nervous system is extremely sensitive toward stimuli of any kind — including external stimuli from the environment and other people, as well as internal stimuli such as emotions and thinking deeply about an issue.
SPS means that you process these things more deeply than other people do. As a result:
- You notice things that others don’t.
- You feel emotions very strongly, which can be a gift as well as, at times, difficult.
- Because your nervous system is processing so much information all the time, you can become overstimulated and overwhelmed — especially in high-stimulus environments.
As a result, SPS is considered a neutral, normal trait. People with the SPS trait are healthy individuals. They simply experience the world slightly differently than people without that trait.
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), on the other hand, also known as Sensory Integration Disorder, is a neurological condition. It involves the nervous system jumbling up sensory information and creating the wrong response to that information.
SPD is much more rare than SPS, and psychologists consider it a disorder — it can be diagnosed, has symptoms, and usually requires treatment (usually in the form of occupational therapy).
The Difference HSP and Sensory Processing Disorder Explained
The difference in a nutshell: An HSP, or someone with Sensory Processing Sensitivity, simply processes more information than the average person, or processes it more deeply.
People with Sensory Processing Disorder, on the other hand, process information in a way that gets mixed up.
That’s why being an HSP is healthy, or even an advantage, while SPD is considered a disorder.
Are you a highly sensitive person (HSP)?
If you’re an HSP, you are part of the 20 percent of the population with the special gift of seeing and feeling the world deeply. Your gift can be harnessed in many ways:
- You can likely create stunning artistic, musical or literary work
- You have the power to deeply understand and care for the people around you
- You are built to do careful, thoughtful work that requires deep thinking
- You have the capacity to be an inspiring leader who listens to those you lead
More resources about being HSP: