Am I a Highly Sensitive Person? Here’s How to Tell
Do loud noises, bright lights or crowded spaces make you feel overwhelmed? Do other people’s moods affect yours? Do you notice details in your environment that others don’t?
If you answered yes to these questions, you may be what’s known as a highly sensitive person, or HSP for short.
What does being a highly sensitive person mean?
The term “highly sensitive person” was popularized by Elaine Aron, a clinical psychologist who began studying high sensitivity in the early 1990s. It is also called sensory processing sensitivity.
Being highly sensitive can mean you’re more tuned into the world around you, feel emotions more deeply, experience sensory stimuli more strongly or all of the above.
“Research shows there are individual differences in how emotionally sensitive people are,” says Kate Comtois, a licensed clinical psychologist at UW Medicine who studies psychiatric disability and borderline personality disorder. “Some people have an emotional reaction to small cues that others might not even notice or do notice, but don’t react to emotionally.”
A few signs you may be highly sensitive include:
- Feeling easily overwhelmed when you’re busy
- Getting overstimulated by loud sounds, bright lights or other strong sensory experiences
- Being affected by the moods of others
- Experiencing hypersensitivity to physical or emotional pain
- Noticing details in your environment that others don’t
- Being extra aware of how your actions impact other people
- Having a rich inner life
Additionally, Comtois says, some people may be more prone to emotional reactions that impact them physically, such as a rush of adrenaline, increased tension or a quickening heart rate.
High sensitivity isn’t considered a type of mental illness, but it can be present in people with those conditions. People with borderline personality disorder often have more intense emotions, while people with an anxiety disorder or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be extra sensitive to emotions and external stimuli.
And no, being an HSP and an introvert aren’t the same thing, but they can co-occur.
Is high sensitivity related to neurodivergence?
Sensitivity can mean a lot of things and exists on a spectrum of different intensity levels. People can be sensitive to emotions, meaning they feel theirs more strongly or are deeply empathetic. People can also be sensitive to sensory information and what’s happening in the environment around them, like bright lights, loud noises or even subtle things like the hum of a refrigerator.
Heightened sensitivity can be part of autism and other types of neurodivergence. Some people with neurodivergence have a condition called sensory processing disorder.
Not everyone who is highly sensitive has a sensory processing disorder, says Alana McVey, a clinical psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington SMART Center who works with neurodivergent youth.
“I think the link between emotional and sensory sensitivities is not well understood; we seem to think of them as separate constructs, but there can be areas of overlap,” McVey says.
Some experts propose looking at sensory sensitivity more wholistically, which could contribute to a better understanding of the ways sensitivity, neurodivergence and mental illness are linked.
Is it OK to be highly sensitive?
Being hyper-affected by your emotions and the world around you can be challenging and overwhelming. But being highly sensitive isn’t all bad.
“We often think of emotional sensitivity in terms of unpleasant emotions like anxiety or anger, but there’s also the opportunity to intensely feel more pleasant emotions,” McVey says. “Highly sensitive people can also be deeply passionate and empathetic.”
McVey also points out that sensitivity — and any difficulties it may cause — is relative to your environment, culture and the society you live in. For instance, an emotional person in a stoic family may be teased for being sensitive and feel like an outsider, but in a family dynamic where people are encouraged to show their emotions, that wouldn’t be the case.
What can help the difficulties of high sensitivity?
If you’re highly sensitive and notice it interfering with some aspects of your life, there are a few things you can do.
See a therapist
They can help you learn how to manage and regulate your emotions. They can also lead you through exposure treatments that help you become desensitized to things in your environment (like loud noises) that produce stress but aren’t dangerous, Comtois says.
Work with an occupational therapist
McVey recommends this especially if you have trouble with sensory sensitivity, as they can help you develop strategies for getting work, school, chores and other activities done in a way that doesn’t constantly overwhelm you.
Find healthy coping strategies
This could be wearing headphones in loud places, using a weighted blanket on your legs when you sit at your desk, or taking regular breaks to go somewhere quiet.
“Emotions have a way of finding their way out of us. If we push down a core emotion in an unhelpful way, it’s going to squish out sideways. We have to figure out how to experience that emotion safely without suppressing it,” McVey says.