What Does it Mean to Be a Highly Sensitive Person?
If you’ve seen Season 1 of White Lotus, you might remember Olivia telling her mother that Paula is an HSP - a Highly Sensitive Person. Played for laughs in the show, HSP is a term coined by psychologist Elaine Aron in the 1990s, and is gaining recognition as a personality trait that may affect up to 20% of the population. Memes and quizzes for HSPs are popular on social media, but you might be curious about its origins and the research on people who have the trait
HSP Research and Traits
According to Aron’s theory, HSPs are a subset of the population high in a personality trait described as sensory-processing sensitivity, or SPS. HSP and SPS are not diagnoses, diseases or disabilities - they are neutral personality traits that make us unique in the way we process the world around us, and within us. Those with high levels of SPS display increased sensitivity and reactivity to both external and internal stimuli—light, noise, pain, hunger, emotion, etc. Many self-identified HSPs also identify as introverts, although there are a fair number of extroverted HSPs as well. A running theme in discourse on HSPs is that those with the traits experience criticism from others over their perceived neuroticism and/or pickiness, which are just manifestations of an increased sensitivity to external stimuli.
The test to measure sensory sensitivity in the adult population is known as the Highly Sensitive Person Scale (HSPS). It was first developed and validated by Aron and her husband, Art Aron, in the 1990s at SUNY Stony Brook. Elaine Aron, Ph.D., is a research and clinical psychologist, and the author of The Undervalued Self, The Highly Sensitive Person, and The Highly Sensitive Child (her website also promotes a feature-length film featuring Alanis Morisette called “Sensitive and In Love” about siblings who identify as HSPs).
SPS is thought to have both genetic and environmental components. Some researchers have looked at it through an evolutionary lens, theorizing that HSPs and non HSPs each have different contributions to make to a group’s survival. Non HSPs have lower sensitivity to stimuli, and are better able to react quickly in high stress situations. The higher sensitivity of HSPs makes them slower to react as they take everything in, and while that slower response may seem like an evolutionary handicap, the HSP can notice and learn things from their environment that non-HSPs might miss.
Four main characteristics for HSPs using the acronym D.O.E.S:
- Depth of Processing: HSPs tend to take more time to make decisions or come to conclusions. Both consciously and subconsciously they ruminate on information and ideas for much longer than the average person, often coming up with the solution to a problem spontaneously after a “passive” period of reflection. This can mean that HSPs make more thoughtful and well-planned decisions, but the flip side can result in over-thinking, taking things too seriously, and difficulty navigating fast-paced situations.
- Overstimulation: HSPs can become overwhelmed by external stimuli and their own emotions very easily. Being at a crowded party or in a heated conversation can be more difficult for them than for the average person, and they tend to respond by “shutting down” physically and emotionally - speaking little, avoiding eye contact, using reserved body language. It’s been suggested that HSPs should take time to regroup in a dark quiet space to pace themselves through the day, especially if their job or family situation requires them to be in the thick of things 90% of the time.
- Emotional Responsiveness & Empathy: HSPs have emotional responses that can be more intense than normal, and they connect more deeply with others’ feelings than the average person. A simple argument can become deeply upsetting; a perceived slight can linger longer than usual; a news story about someone they don’t even know can cause days of sadness. This can be a burden to the HSP, and can make others confused or uncomfortable in the face of emotional reactions they don’t fully understand. However, this also leads many HSPs to develop deep and meaningful relationships thanks to their highly developed empathy, and to have a profound appreciation for the arts. Anything that evokes feeling by nature or design has more power over the HSP’s thoughts and feelings, which can enrich their life positively.
- Sensitive to Subtleties: This aspect of the HSP experience refers to their tendency to notice subtle details and differences in their environments. Brain activity of people considered highly sensitive indicates that they absorb more information from their environments. They notice temperature, light, sounds, smells, and other aspects of their surroundings more actively than others, and may have better memory and recall because of this. At the same time, this heightened awareness can be distracting to the HSP when they’re trying to focus on something else, and others may perceive their reactions to their environment as “picky,” or “judgy.”
Coping Mechanisms for HSPs
If you identify as a Highly Sensitive Person, you may have experienced some depression and anxiety in the face of your Sensory Processing Sensitivity. Many HSPs report feeling isolated by their unique experience of the world, and ashamed of their perceived weakness or pretense compared to non-HSPs. Due to their increased sensitivity to stimuli, HSPs are also easily stressed out by loud noises, strong smells, and emotional confrontation. If you’re experiencing these feelings, there are a few widely suggested coping mechanisms you can try:
1) Take Care of Your mental and Physical Health: If you’re experiencing a lot of stress from a busy life and many emotional demands, you’ll need to give yourself as much leeway as possible to keep yourself at a healthy emotional baseline.
- Get enough sleep: 8+ hours of quality sleep is ideal for most adults.
- Eat frequent, healthy snacks: Your doctor will be best able to determine what you need specifically, but avoiding hunger and keeping blood sugar stable can contribute positively to mental health.
- Limit stimulants: Anything that artificially raises your heart rate - caffeine, cigarettes, etc. - can intensify stress response.
- Practice good mental hygiene: Just as we see a dentist or general practitioner regularly to ensure we’re physically healthy, it’s a good idea to see a mental health professional regularly to ensure we’re mentally healthy. HSP traits have been linked in some research to childhood upbringing, and relate to learned behaviors like hyperawareness of a parent’s needs and expectations, chaotic home situations, and other factors. Therapists are well equipped to address these issues in addition to the anxiety, depression, and underlying mental health conditions that often accompany someone with HSP. Whether or not you have insurance, there are many practices where you can get free or low cost appointments or pay on a sliding scale. It’s an investment that’s as worthwhile as a visit to any other professional trained to take care of you.
2) Find Refuge to Return to Baseline: If excessive stimuli deranges your mood, you need to remove that stimuli as much as possible to reset your mental and emotional baseline. When possible, give yourself time to decompress in a dark room with noise canceling headphones. This will let your nerves recover from overstimulation and give you more capacity to process the world around you. If you don’t have access to these things, you can try other similar practices to simulate reduced stimulation:
- Close your eyes and sit quietly, paying attention to your breathing. Some call this meditation, others mindfulness. In any case you’re intentionally slowing and deepening your breath which can reduce heart rate and mellow physiological symptoms of stress. Grounding yourself in your immediate environment by planting your feet and taking note of the details in your surroundings can also provide a reset.
- Lower the lights and reduce clutter. Cleaning up for 15 minutes or less can also center you in the present moment and limit distractions in your immediate environment. Bright lights can also be overstimulating to HSPs, so lowering them will reduce the strain on your nerves.
- Listen to your favorite music, ideally something that boosts your mood, calms your emotions, or reminds you of good times. HSPs have rich internal lives and are highly responsive to art and music. Art and music therapy can be powerful tools to level you out.
3) Take Control of your Schedule: This can be tricky if you have a lot of responsibilities (pets, kids, sick relatives, a demanding job, etc.). The idea isn’t to be perfect - it’s to think creatively about the 24 hours in the day and position yourself strategically.
- Wake up earlier: If you’re not in the habit of getting out of bed more than 15 minutes before you have to get to work, you’re not alone. Especially since the pandemic shifted our work culture to favor remote employees, people have taken advantage of more flexible schedules to get extra sleep. This can be great, and you may be more productive when you sleep later, but if you feel like you have to hit the ground running the second you get out of bed, you could be doing yourself a disservice. Giving yourself even an extra thirty minutes before you start getting into your day provides extra space to get centered, grounded, and clear. You may have enough time to take a walk to your favorite coffee shop, spend some time playing with your pet or kid, or read a book - anything that connects you with what you enjoy. Challenge yourself to wake up 30 minutes earlier once a week, and see if you start getting into the habit of providing yourself extra time in the morning.
- Run errands on off hours: Again, this might be tricky if you have a lot of people or animals depending on you, but when possible, run errands and times and places where there won’t be many crowds. Google Maps often has this data available in a bar chart graphing when most patrons visit a business. Grocery shop during evening hours, go to the post office during the day on a weekday, etc.
- Practice the 20-20-20 rule: This is often recommended for people with eye strain due to screen usage, and it can have valuable benefits for HSPs. Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away from you for 20 seconds. Your eyes are like cameras whose lenses are focused and unfocused by tiny muscles. If you’re looking at a bright screen or page close to your eyes you are subtly straining those muscles and leading to cascading discomfort, which for HSPs is magnified. Taking regular breaks every 20 minutes rests your eyes and your mind, allowing you to pace yourself throughout the day and conserve your sensory and emotional resources.
- Get comfortable saying no: For the HSP, social obligations present a unique dilemma. Emotional connection with others can be highly enriching - HSPs experience emotions deeply and often enjoy lengthy conversation with people they care about. At the same time, this social interaction can become draining, especially if there’s a lot of people you don’t know around you. You may feel pressured to attend every social gathering and feel guilty if you don’t join friends or family when they expect you. However, you’ll enjoy the social gatherings you really want to attend more if you give yourself sufficient space to recover between events. This will take some time to develop as you reset expectations for others and find a schedule that works for you. Be patient with yourself and others as you set these boundaries. You don’t have to apologize, and you don’t need to go into deep detail about why you’re stepping back. Just let the person know you care about them, that you’re looking forward to seeing them again soon, and make alternate plans if possible. A phone or video call can also be a nice alternative to an in person meeting if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
If you take Aaron’s quiz and score highly on the HSP scale, take stock of how you feel throughout the day, note situations in which you feel threatened, stressed, or out of control, and reflect on what role you can play in changing the situation. Each of us operate in the boundaries of our jobs, families, and schedules, and many of us may feel overwhelmed by what’s expected of us. Ultimately you’ll need the people around you to make space for your needs and collaborate with you in managing your emotions. An honest conversation with those close to you about how you’ve been feeling and what you need from them can be a relief to both of you - they may see you suffering and be wondering how best to help you, and you can empower them to become your partner in creating a healthier and more supportive environment for everyone.
Readings & Resources by Elaine N. Aron, PhD:
The Undervalued Self: Restore Your Love/Power Balance, Transform the Inner Voice That Holds You Back, and Find Your True Self-Worth
The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You
The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When The World Overwhelms Them
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