What is a highly sensitive person (HSP)?
Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman, PhD, CSAC
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 08/15/2023
A highly sensitive person (HSP) is someone who’s very aware of their environment and reactive to subtle sensations around them. Their central nervous system is more easily aroused than the average person’s. They tend to notice and be more affected by light, sound, other people’s moods, and even physical touch.
An HSP can also be described as a person who has sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), which is a personality trait. In the 1990s, Elaine Aron, PhD, and her husband, Arthur Aron, PhD, developed the Highly Sensitive Person Scale (HSPS) to measure SPS.1
How to tell if you’re an HSP
If you can relate to any of the following, you might be an HSP:
- You’re easily overwhelmed by strong sensory stimulation, like bright lights or loud noises.
- You tend to be highly aware of and affected by the emotions of others.
- You often need to spend time alone.
- You’re very intuitive and can pick up on tiny cues.
- You tend to be a deep thinker.
- You’re highly creative and appreciate the beauty of art and/or nature.
If you’d like to take a self-test based on the HSPS, you can do so on Elaine Aron’s website.
Common challenges for HSPs
HSPs often find that the world can be a bit too much for them. They might feel easily overwhelmed, exhausted, or anxious in sensory-rich environments or when they’re around other people.
Challenges HSPs may face include:
- Finding it difficult to be in loud or crowded places
- Feeling the need to escape or avoid situations that involve conflict
- Fixating on or absorbing the negative emotions of others
- Having difficulty making decisions
- Feeling stressed by busy schedules
- Wanting to please others
- Fearing failure and tending toward perfectionism
- Struggling with anxiety or depression
The benefits of being an HSP
Although being an HSP may cause struggles, it also has its perks. Some advantages of being an HSP include:
- Being highly attuned to your environment and the people around you
- Paying close attention to detail
- Having strong intuition
- Being highly creative
- Caring deeply for others
- Leading with compassion
- Making decisions based on your values
- Feeling a strong connection to nature and your environment
What causes people to be HSPs?
Several factors contribute to a person’s sensitivity, including evolution, genes, and environment. One study conducted by the Arons and colleagues estimates that around 20% of the general population are HSPs—which means that for every five people you know, one of them likely fits the definition.2
Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) is the personality trait that makes HSPs more sensitive to their surroundings, but it isn’t unique to humans. SPS has been found in over 100 other species—including fish, birds, and other mammals.3 Researchers think these species evolved this way to help them survive. Species that are more sensitive to their environments are naturally more aware of what’s going on around them, which puts them at an advantage for finding food, attracting mates, caring for their young, and protecting themselves from predators.
SPS is believed to be partially determined by the genes inherited from a person’s parents. Because SPS is a personality trait, and personality is greatly affected by a neurotransmitter called dopamine, the way the brain metabolizes dopamine may play a role in whether someone turns out to be an HSP.4
Additional research conducted and analyzed by the Arons concludes that 70% of HSPs are also introverts, which may be due to the fact that introverted people tend to need less stimulation from their environment than extroverts do.5 However, you can still be an extrovert and an HSP.
Our early childhood experiences are thought to play a role in the development of SPS. Children who are raised by emotionally unavailable parents or in chaotic, abusive, or unpredictable environments may be more likely to become HSPs.6 This may stem from their tendency to learn to tune into their environment for signs of danger.
Does being an HSP mean you have a mental health disorder?
Being an HSP or having SPS is not a mental health disorder—it’s a personality trait characterized by heightened awareness and sensitivity to the world around you. That said, HSPs may be more prone to stress, anxiety, and depression because of the particular challenges they face in a world that often feels overstimulating.
HSPs and other disorders
Researchers have looked into how SPS compares to related clinical disorders that have similar symptoms—including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), schizophrenia, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They found that SPS activates the brain differently by targeting the areas responsible for processing reward, memory, self-understanding, awareness, and empathy.7
Self-reported traits of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are associated with SPS, but this doesn’t mean that a child or an adult with ADHD will necessarily be an HSP.8 However, the likelihood of correlation does increase if they’ve been diagnosed with or show symptoms of ADHD.
How to cope with the challenges of being an HSP
If you’re an HSP, you may find that the world feels overwhelming sometimes. Fortunately, there are actions you can take to help make life a little easier.
Reduce or limit stimuli in your environment. This could involve wearing noise-canceling headphones, dimming the lights in your home, or visiting quieter and less popular places instead of destinations with larger crowds.
Stick to a routine as much as possible. This can help reduce the amount of sensory input you have to process on a daily basis.
Plan ahead and give yourself plenty of time to get things done. You might find it helpful to make lists or set reminders on your phone to help you stay organized.
Avoid multitasking. When you try to do too many things at once, it can lead to stress and anxiety. Stick to working on one thing at a time.
Mind your social media habits. Social media can often lead to stress and cause us to compare ourselves to others. Be mindful of how much time you spend on social media, and take breaks from it as needed.
Make time for yourself. Schedule regular downtime to relax and rejuvenate—especially when your life gets busy. Even an hour here or there can help prevent you from getting overwhelmed.
Calm racing thoughts. Try breathing exercises, meditation, affirmations, self-talk, or journaling to help soothe an overactive mind.
Express yourself in a creative way. You might enjoy drawing, painting, writing, dancing, or playing music to help calm your nervous system and process your emotions.
Seek out supportive relationships. Try opening up and talking to close family and friends about your sensitivity. When you have people in your life who understand and accept you as you are, it can make a world of difference.
Use your high sensitivity to become your best self. Being an HSP is an advantage—as long as you look at it that way. Your heightened awareness and ability to feel things more deeply can help you become a better friend, sibling, parent, worker, or romantic partner.
Can therapy be helpful for HSPs?
If you’re struggling to cope with your sensitivity, professional help is available. Since SPS is a personality trait and not a disorder, there’s no specific treatment for it, but a therapist can provide support and guidance as you work on managing the challenges of being an HSP.
Browse our therapist directory and check off “Highly sensitive persons (HSPs)” under Clinical Specialties to find a mental health professional who’s a good fit for you.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.