Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person hugs a friend

This Is the Difference Between “Sensitive” and “Highly Sensitive” — and Why it Matters

A highly sensitive person is more sensitive to just about everything — it’s like taking sensitivity and turning up the dial times a hundred.

It was the summer of 2008. I was on a dream cruise in Mexico with my best friends: surf, sand, fruity drinks, and dressy dinners. I should have been soaking up the good times and making all the memories.

But instead, I was overwhelmed.

The weather was so hot and humid. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t ignore the sweat plastering hair to my neck, the headache from dehydration, and the abundance of sun shining in my eyes. That tag on my sundress was scratching me with each step. And then the constant activity left me fatigued, but unable to describe why to anyone around me. 

The rich food, alcohol, and sugary desserts tasted amazing, but they left me so cranky and tired. And despite my big smile in pictures from that time, being around so many other people was exhausting.

I remember such guilt because the sensory overload left me in a bad mood much of the trip. I just wanted to enjoy my vacation instead of it feeling like a burden. I’ve always been able to read others’ emotions well, too, so I was hyper aware of interfering with everyone else’s fun. 

And at the same time, the energy it took trying to “just ignore” everything made me want to hide away in my quiet room, alone. (I now realize that I was experiencing an “HSP hangover,” which left me feeling depleted and irritable. Instead of too much alcohol, I had had too much stimulation.)

What is wrong with me, why am I such a wimp, and why can’t I just enjoy this? I remember thinking.

It wasn’t until a decade later that I learned the meaning of a highly sensitive person (HSP). Within seconds, I understood myself better, and I realized that being an HSP is far more than just being “sensitive.” Knowing that difference helped me accept myself, and maybe it can be a comfort to you, too.

Here’s what I mean.

“Sensitive” Is an Adjective While “Highly Sensitive” Is a Scientific Personality Trait

Anyone can be sensitive at times in their life — it’s part of being human. For instance, one person may be more receptive to comments about their body, certain foods, or scary or sad movies than others. Sensitivity is normal and, contrary to popular opinion, it’s not a weakness; it actually makes us stronger

“Sensitive” can describe many things. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), sensitive means the “awareness of and responsiveness to” others’ feelings. It also means more likely to be “easily hurt or offended.” Both definitions can describe a highly sensitive person, but being sensitive doesn’t always make one an HSP.

Someone might be empathetic to other people or sensitive to judgemental comments — but that doesn’t necessarily make them an HSP. Maybe a person can’t stand the feeling of certain clothing fabrics, but they aren’t as sensitive in other areas of their life. Or their feelings are hurt easily, but they don’t struggle with daily fatigue from too much social interaction. 

Now, “highly sensitive” is more than just a word — it’s a personality trait attributed to three sets of genes. 

Scientifically, it’s called sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). According to research, those with SPS process stimuli more deeply, and they have more positive and negative responses to their environment. 

HSPs have a rich inner life; they are easily overstimulated. For example, a person with SPS might be more reactive to things like:

  • Physical and psychological pain
  • Artistic expressions, such as paintings or emotional movies
  • Loud noises
  • Caffeine or alcohol
  • Changes in other peoples’ moods
  • Hunger (ever notice how easily we HSPs get hangry — hunger + angry?)

When you’re a highly sensitive person, your heightened consciousness can impact everything you do and experience. HSPs literally have differences in their brains compared to non-HSPs. Research shows that HSP brains have more reactive mirror neurons, meaning they are more in tune with “mirroring” others’ feelings.

So when you’re highly sensitive, you process emotions deeply — yours and others’. Not only do we easily absorb others’ emotions, but we HSPs tend to get mentally and emotionally flooded, too.

When anyone has an emotional moment, their senses are heightened and evidence shows that it’s a more vivid experience. This is why someone might say “it seems like just yesterday” or “I can still picture it clearly” when recalling an emotional memory. But since high sensitivity is linked to genes that increase emotional vividness, that’s like turning up the dial on how intensely they experience moving moments.

HSPs are also less impressed by external rewards. The neurotransmitter dopamine plays a role in how humans feel pleasure. And how our brains use dopamine might contribute to personality traits — like being highly sensitive. Compared to non-HSP brains, HSP ones tend to feel rewarded more by internal activities. For example, reading a book or valuing a close friend feels better for highly sensitive types than gaining tons of friends, money, or possessions.

How to Know if You’re a Highly Sensitive Person, Not Just Sensitive

You might suspect you’re an HSP, but not know for sure. Here are some signs that you are highly sensitive. 

(And if you’re just sensitive but not an HSP, the points below probably won’t apply.)

  • A lot of things are “too much.” If you’re an HSP, you’ve probably felt like other people don’t understand how deeply life affects you. Others might have called you “too sensitive” or even “weak” for various reasons. Criticism, violent movies, and even hot or cold temperatures take a lot out of you. When other people don’t feel the same way, they might assume you’re just too picky or complaining too much.

    Maybe you’ve noticed that even when someone describes themselves as “sensitive” or is bothered by something, such as a smell, they still seem more under control of their reactions than you. You might wonder, How can others ignore annoyances or distractions so well? What does that say about me? Well, it might be because you’re a highly sensitive person. And that doesn’t mean you have a disorder or are weird or “wrong.” In fact, HSPs make up around 20 percent of the population (if not more). (Dolly Parton may be a highly sensitive person, too!)
  • Empathy comes easily — often too easily. HSPs are often good at observing other people; they notice the subtle details of someone’s movements, facial expressions, and reactions to things, leading to self-doubt: Did you say something wrong? Did your comment upset them? Are they judging you?

    Highly sensitive types are also pros at reading the room. You sense when a friend or family member is having a hard day. At the same time, you can absorb others’ emotions at the drop of a hat. You can enter a conversation feeling great and leave carrying the other person’s sorrow.

    As an HSP, this makes me acutely aware of others’ expressions as I’m talking to them. A single shift in eye contact or subtle mouth movement can tune me into the other person’s feelings. This makes me incredibly empathetic, but also overly anxious about saying or doing something wrong. Over time, I’ve learned that I’m not responsible for what other people think or do in response to me.
  • You fall apart without “me” time. Being around a lot of stimuli is draining for an HSP. If you can’t spend too long in crowds, loud places, or areas that require a lot of your senses, you might be an HSP.

    As a result, HSPs need a lot of time alone. While HSPs can be introverted or extroverted, downtime is still crucial. You need time to recharge, often in a quiet location with an activity you enjoy. (This is when having an HSP sanctuary comes in handy!)

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Why Knowing if You’re an HSP Matters

Sensitivity is a concept that our society is still learning to accept with open arms (and we have a long way to go). And being “sensitive” versus “highly sensitive” might seem like a small contrast for most people. But if you’re an HSP, knowing the difference is life-changing

Many HSPs have spent their lives feeling too sensitive for the world; they might think there’s something wrong with them. But, when you understand what being a “highly sensitive person” means and realize that other HSPs exist, it lifts the weights of comparison and shame. And you’ll learn a lot about yourself, too.

Being highly sensitive can make day-to-day interactions exhausting. In contrast with being just “sensitive” to one or two things, HSPs tend to become overwhelmed by any type of stimulation. For example, since HSPs take criticism hard, traditional work environments can be stressful. Crying easily, needing a lot of downtime, and getting drained by other people can interfere with relationships or other opportunities. 

But being an HSP is not doom and gloom. In fact, there are many wonderful benefits to being highly sensitive. HSPs have a keen sense of self-awareness, immense empathy for others, and special appreciation for the small things in life. HSPs also make amazing close friends, partners, and family members.

Understanding the meaning of “highly sensitive” is important for non-HSPs, too. Family members, friends, and coworkers can learn more about what makes someone an HSP and what they need to thrive. We can all understand each other better by talking about what being highly sensitive truly means.

While “sensitive” means being extra aware or responsive to something, “highly sensitive” is a specific personality trait. A highly sensitive person is more sensitive to just about everything in their environment. It’s like taking sensitivity and turning up the dial times a hundred. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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