What it is, characteristics, signs that you are one

  • Elaine Aron coined the term “highly sensitive person” based on her 1991 research to refer to people with a sensitive nervous system.
  • Highly sensitive people, or HSPs, have lower thresholds for certain physical and emotional stimuli and need more time than non-HSPs to switch off and recharge.
  • It’s not a diagnosable condition, but it can help people who have been told they’re “too sensitive” to better understand themselves.

As therapy talk continues to make its way into mainstream conversation, more and more people are using labels like “empathy,” “introvert,” and “highly sensitive person” to describe how they experience the world and to gain understanding from those who do so are able to. I can’t relate to that.

You’ve probably heard of empaths and introverts, but for many, the concept of a highly sensitive person could be a new and useful addition. If music often brings you to tears, you get overwhelmed at boisterous parties, or you’re nervous about someone else’s overwhelming scent of perfumes or bright lights, you might be a highly sensitive person.

It turns out the term has been around longer than people might realize. Psychology researcher Elaine Aron began investigating the idea of ​​high sensitivity in 1991, noting that an estimated one in five Americans met her criteria for a highly sensitive person, or HSP for short. Aron summarized her insights and tips on how to help highly sensitive people live their best life in her 1996 book “The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Succeed When the World Overwhelms You.”

Although not a diagnosable condition, the term “highly sensitive person” is used to describe someone with a sensitive nervous system who has a lower threshold for certain physical and/or emotional stimuli than someone who is not highly sensitive. After being exposed to certain lights, smells, sounds, or lots of socializing, HSPs can feel drained and overstimulated, and need many hours on their own to relax and recharge, Insider previously reported.

In recent years, celebrities such as Lorde, Nicole Kidman, and Alanis Morissette have stated that they identify as HSPs, which has led to more publicity for the term.

If the label resonates with someone, it can help them better understand how to take care of themselves, trauma therapist Amelia Kelley told Insider. And for people who feel ashamed of being told they are “too sensitive,” learning about the phenomenon of highly sensitive people can also help them gain self-acceptance for the depth of their emotions, she said.

“When you understand that your brain processes the world and the stimuli around you differently, you can do whatever it takes to give yourself compassion and shape your life in a way that enhances rather than challenges your traits,” says Kelley , who identifies as a highly sensitive person, said.

How do you know if you are a highly sensitive person?

Because the brain drives the nervous system, high sensitivity is thought to be a form of neurodivergence. It’s a non-medical term that describes someone whose brain processes information differently than what’s traditionally considered “normal,” Kelley told Insider. People with autism and ADHD are typically considered to be neurodivergent.

Kelley said a highly sensitive person could also have autism or ADHD, but cautions that they are entirely different conditions and are not interdependent.

High sensitivity is also often confused with shyness, Kelley said. She said shyness is a personality trait that can change over time, while high sensitivity is a condition trait, meaning a person’s body is programmed in a certain way that cannot be changed. Research suggests that people can show signs of hypersensitivity as early as babies.

To find out if you might be a highly sensitive person, you can take a free online quiz that Aron developed. The quiz is a basic starting point, but if you identify with some of the scenarios it can help you understand yourself better.

You don’t have to agree with every question on the HSP inventory to be considered highly sensitive, and according to Aron, people who see themselves in just two or more questions can be considered HSPs.

If you identify as an HSP, learning and respecting the limits of your nervous system and taking breaks to recharge with rest and a nutritious meal can help you cope better with overwhelming situations, Kelley said.

High sensitivity can be exhausting, but it is also rewarding

HSPs are often told that they care too much, are too sensitive and just need to relax. But HSPs can’t just change their mindset, Kelley said.

According to Kelley, a highly sensitive person’s brain is wired to think and feel more deeply than the average person’s, making their nervous system more alert and reactive to the energies around them.

As a result, HSPs may report picking up on the feelings of others, fear rejection, and feel easily hurt, as reported in Psychology Today. They could also be easily startled by sudden or loud stimuli such as traffic or alarms and become deeply moved by the art, often to the point of tears.

Kelley finds that her nervous system becomes overstimulated after spending hours with her loved ones. It doesn’t matter if she’s happy to be with her closest friends or family. Kelley said she always reaches a breaking point where she feels drained and irritable, even when everyone else is having a great time. Since realizing she is an HSP, Kelley has learned to set aside a few hours each day to keep her nervous system under control.

In fact, Kelley said she learned to love being an HSP because it allows her to see the world in a deep and vivid way.

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