The Highly Sensitive Person

Reviewed Mar 14, 2017

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Summary

  • A highly sensitive person responds strongly to sensations like sight, sound, and touch.
  • This trait is a difference in temperament, not a defect.

Are you or a loved one easily overwhelmed by noise, commotion, smells or other stimuli? Do you frequently need time alone to calm down after lots of activity or socializing? Do you wonder why you react so much more to caffeine or medication than your friends do?

Before you write yourself off as stressed, “thin-skinned,” or in any way flawed, consider a more likely possibility. You may simply have been born with a nervous system that reacts quickly and deeply to sensory input. To borrow psychologist Elaine Aaron’s term, you may be an HSP—a highly sensitive person.

It’s in your biology

In her book The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Aaron explains that 15 percent to 20 percent of all people are born with a central nervous system that is more sensitive to sensory stimuli than that of the rest of the population. In simpler terms, an HSP responds strongly to sensations like sight, sound, and touch. Even internal events like pain, emotions and thoughts are felt more profoundly by HSPs.

The difference is believed by Aaron and other experts to be biological and present at birth. Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan refers to the difference as high versus low reactivity. Kagan’s research pinpointed specific areas in the brain as more active and more excitable in highly reactive individuals. Input such as a sound or a sight that causes little effect in most people may arouse the highly sensitive person’s nervous system enough to raise his heart rate and breathing. He not only notices—he may feel frazzled by it.

Keep in mind that Aaron, Kagan and other researchers refer to this trait as a difference in temperament, not a defect.

In practical terms

The way high reactivity plays out in one’s life can vary from person to person, but an HSP may identify with many of the following realities:

  • Easily overwhelmed or frazzled
  • Startle easily
  • Often need to be alone
  • More sensitive to pain, caffeine, and medication
  • Easily affected by others’ moods
  • Uncomfortable with loud noises, bright lights, strong smells, or lots of activity
  • Upset easily by change of most kinds
  • Judged often by others to be fearful or shy, even though this may not be true
  • Tend to notice subtle aspects of the surroundings that others miss
  • Deeply moved by music, art, nature, etc.

This list is in no way exhaustive and may change for the HSP over time. The general tendency is for an HSP to feel more sensitive to external and internal sensations than other people.

Curse or gift?

If you or a loved one is a highly sensitive person, you may already know that life seems different for you than for most folks. You may have been teased for “overreacting” or crying easily as a child. Parents or other adults may have belittled you for being shy, when you really were just taking more time to adjust to increased activity and other stimulation. HSPs are misunderstood, even as adults, to be fearful because they show more caution in settings that are stimulating. The caution is born of the need to process the higher heart rate and other arousal, as well as any discomfort that may occur.

What highly sensitive persons can be thankful for (besides needing smaller doses of medicines) is an awareness of subtle variations in light or sound that contributes to great skill in the arts. Or how about a chef? Imagine the advantage for one who can discern tastes in a way that most people cannot. HSPs, because of their reactivity to others’ moods, are often intuitive and know when something’s “not quite right” with someone else.

Coping with overstimulation

Aaron offers tips to help the HSP cope with situations that are unavoidable and overstimulating.

When faced with a new, noisy or chaotic situation, or anytime you feel overwhelmed by sensations, try to:

  • Reframe the situation—focus on what is familiar or pleasant.
  • Think of a word or phrase that helps you to calm down—“Let go.” or “I’m OK.”
  • Objectively observe your overarousal without judging it as “bad.”
  • Appreciate the situation—welcome it as an opportunity to strengthen your coping skills.
  • Appreciate your difference—be thankful that your sensitive nature gives you so much depth and intuitiveness, even if sometimes you have to pause and calm down.

Embracing high sensitivity

Remember, high sensitivity is a built-in difference that is not a flaw or disorder. Your brain is processing sensations sooner and more deeply than someone with low sensitivity. This “extra” work for your nervous system can leave you exhausted or overwhelmed at times, but you can learn how to cope with such times. The following suggestions may help you avoid some overstimulation:

  • Schedule frequent breaks in a busy day—times when you can be quiet and alone.
  • Plan longer breaks each week for activities that soothe you—perhaps a bubble bath, a hike in the woods, or sitting by a lake.
  • Find a loved one or counselor you can share your deepest thoughts and concerns with.
  • Tell your doctor you are sensitive to medicine and ask about a lower dosage.
  • Explore ways to enjoy your sensitivity through the arts, nature, or any environment that you can experience and process with pleasure. 

Resources

Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron. Routledge. 2010. 

The Highly Sensitive Person
www.hsperson.com
A website authored by Dr. Elaine Aron that offers tips, tests, articles and references.
By Laurie M. Stewart
Source: Jerome Kagan interview on “All in the Mind,” ABC Radio national, www.abc.net.au/rn/allinthemind/stories/2006/1722388.htm; The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aaron, PhD. Carol Publishers, 1996.

Summary

  • A highly sensitive person responds strongly to sensations like sight, sound, and touch.
  • This trait is a difference in temperament, not a defect.

Are you or a loved one easily overwhelmed by noise, commotion, smells or other stimuli? Do you frequently need time alone to calm down after lots of activity or socializing? Do you wonder why you react so much more to caffeine or medication than your friends do?

Before you write yourself off as stressed, “thin-skinned,” or in any way flawed, consider a more likely possibility. You may simply have been born with a nervous system that reacts quickly and deeply to sensory input. To borrow psychologist Elaine Aaron’s term, you may be an HSP—a highly sensitive person.

It’s in your biology

In her book The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Aaron explains that 15 percent to 20 percent of all people are born with a central nervous system that is more sensitive to sensory stimuli than that of the rest of the population. In simpler terms, an HSP responds strongly to sensations like sight, sound, and touch. Even internal events like pain, emotions and thoughts are felt more profoundly by HSPs.

The difference is believed by Aaron and other experts to be biological and present at birth. Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan refers to the difference as high versus low reactivity. Kagan’s research pinpointed specific areas in the brain as more active and more excitable in highly reactive individuals. Input such as a sound or a sight that causes little effect in most people may arouse the highly sensitive person’s nervous system enough to raise his heart rate and breathing. He not only notices—he may feel frazzled by it.

Keep in mind that Aaron, Kagan and other researchers refer to this trait as a difference in temperament, not a defect.

In practical terms

The way high reactivity plays out in one’s life can vary from person to person, but an HSP may identify with many of the following realities:

  • Easily overwhelmed or frazzled
  • Startle easily
  • Often need to be alone
  • More sensitive to pain, caffeine, and medication
  • Easily affected by others’ moods
  • Uncomfortable with loud noises, bright lights, strong smells, or lots of activity
  • Upset easily by change of most kinds
  • Judged often by others to be fearful or shy, even though this may not be true
  • Tend to notice subtle aspects of the surroundings that others miss
  • Deeply moved by music, art, nature, etc.

This list is in no way exhaustive and may change for the HSP over time. The general tendency is for an HSP to feel more sensitive to external and internal sensations than other people.

Curse or gift?

If you or a loved one is a highly sensitive person, you may already know that life seems different for you than for most folks. You may have been teased for “overreacting” or crying easily as a child. Parents or other adults may have belittled you for being shy, when you really were just taking more time to adjust to increased activity and other stimulation. HSPs are misunderstood, even as adults, to be fearful because they show more caution in settings that are stimulating. The caution is born of the need to process the higher heart rate and other arousal, as well as any discomfort that may occur.

What highly sensitive persons can be thankful for (besides needing smaller doses of medicines) is an awareness of subtle variations in light or sound that contributes to great skill in the arts. Or how about a chef? Imagine the advantage for one who can discern tastes in a way that most people cannot. HSPs, because of their reactivity to others’ moods, are often intuitive and know when something’s “not quite right” with someone else.

Coping with overstimulation

Aaron offers tips to help the HSP cope with situations that are unavoidable and overstimulating.

When faced with a new, noisy or chaotic situation, or anytime you feel overwhelmed by sensations, try to:

  • Reframe the situation—focus on what is familiar or pleasant.
  • Think of a word or phrase that helps you to calm down—“Let go.” or “I’m OK.”
  • Objectively observe your overarousal without judging it as “bad.”
  • Appreciate the situation—welcome it as an opportunity to strengthen your coping skills.
  • Appreciate your difference—be thankful that your sensitive nature gives you so much depth and intuitiveness, even if sometimes you have to pause and calm down.

Embracing high sensitivity

Remember, high sensitivity is a built-in difference that is not a flaw or disorder. Your brain is processing sensations sooner and more deeply than someone with low sensitivity. This “extra” work for your nervous system can leave you exhausted or overwhelmed at times, but you can learn how to cope with such times. The following suggestions may help you avoid some overstimulation:

  • Schedule frequent breaks in a busy day—times when you can be quiet and alone.
  • Plan longer breaks each week for activities that soothe you—perhaps a bubble bath, a hike in the woods, or sitting by a lake.
  • Find a loved one or counselor you can share your deepest thoughts and concerns with.
  • Tell your doctor you are sensitive to medicine and ask about a lower dosage.
  • Explore ways to enjoy your sensitivity through the arts, nature, or any environment that you can experience and process with pleasure. 

Resources

Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron. Routledge. 2010. 

The Highly Sensitive Person
www.hsperson.com
A website authored by Dr. Elaine Aron that offers tips, tests, articles and references.
By Laurie M. Stewart
Source: Jerome Kagan interview on “All in the Mind,” ABC Radio national, www.abc.net.au/rn/allinthemind/stories/2006/1722388.htm; The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aaron, PhD. Carol Publishers, 1996.

Summary

  • A highly sensitive person responds strongly to sensations like sight, sound, and touch.
  • This trait is a difference in temperament, not a defect.

Are you or a loved one easily overwhelmed by noise, commotion, smells or other stimuli? Do you frequently need time alone to calm down after lots of activity or socializing? Do you wonder why you react so much more to caffeine or medication than your friends do?

Before you write yourself off as stressed, “thin-skinned,” or in any way flawed, consider a more likely possibility. You may simply have been born with a nervous system that reacts quickly and deeply to sensory input. To borrow psychologist Elaine Aaron’s term, you may be an HSP—a highly sensitive person.

It’s in your biology

In her book The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Aaron explains that 15 percent to 20 percent of all people are born with a central nervous system that is more sensitive to sensory stimuli than that of the rest of the population. In simpler terms, an HSP responds strongly to sensations like sight, sound, and touch. Even internal events like pain, emotions and thoughts are felt more profoundly by HSPs.

The difference is believed by Aaron and other experts to be biological and present at birth. Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan refers to the difference as high versus low reactivity. Kagan’s research pinpointed specific areas in the brain as more active and more excitable in highly reactive individuals. Input such as a sound or a sight that causes little effect in most people may arouse the highly sensitive person’s nervous system enough to raise his heart rate and breathing. He not only notices—he may feel frazzled by it.

Keep in mind that Aaron, Kagan and other researchers refer to this trait as a difference in temperament, not a defect.

In practical terms

The way high reactivity plays out in one’s life can vary from person to person, but an HSP may identify with many of the following realities:

  • Easily overwhelmed or frazzled
  • Startle easily
  • Often need to be alone
  • More sensitive to pain, caffeine, and medication
  • Easily affected by others’ moods
  • Uncomfortable with loud noises, bright lights, strong smells, or lots of activity
  • Upset easily by change of most kinds
  • Judged often by others to be fearful or shy, even though this may not be true
  • Tend to notice subtle aspects of the surroundings that others miss
  • Deeply moved by music, art, nature, etc.

This list is in no way exhaustive and may change for the HSP over time. The general tendency is for an HSP to feel more sensitive to external and internal sensations than other people.

Curse or gift?

If you or a loved one is a highly sensitive person, you may already know that life seems different for you than for most folks. You may have been teased for “overreacting” or crying easily as a child. Parents or other adults may have belittled you for being shy, when you really were just taking more time to adjust to increased activity and other stimulation. HSPs are misunderstood, even as adults, to be fearful because they show more caution in settings that are stimulating. The caution is born of the need to process the higher heart rate and other arousal, as well as any discomfort that may occur.

What highly sensitive persons can be thankful for (besides needing smaller doses of medicines) is an awareness of subtle variations in light or sound that contributes to great skill in the arts. Or how about a chef? Imagine the advantage for one who can discern tastes in a way that most people cannot. HSPs, because of their reactivity to others’ moods, are often intuitive and know when something’s “not quite right” with someone else.

Coping with overstimulation

Aaron offers tips to help the HSP cope with situations that are unavoidable and overstimulating.

When faced with a new, noisy or chaotic situation, or anytime you feel overwhelmed by sensations, try to:

  • Reframe the situation—focus on what is familiar or pleasant.
  • Think of a word or phrase that helps you to calm down—“Let go.” or “I’m OK.”
  • Objectively observe your overarousal without judging it as “bad.”
  • Appreciate the situation—welcome it as an opportunity to strengthen your coping skills.
  • Appreciate your difference—be thankful that your sensitive nature gives you so much depth and intuitiveness, even if sometimes you have to pause and calm down.

Embracing high sensitivity

Remember, high sensitivity is a built-in difference that is not a flaw or disorder. Your brain is processing sensations sooner and more deeply than someone with low sensitivity. This “extra” work for your nervous system can leave you exhausted or overwhelmed at times, but you can learn how to cope with such times. The following suggestions may help you avoid some overstimulation:

  • Schedule frequent breaks in a busy day—times when you can be quiet and alone.
  • Plan longer breaks each week for activities that soothe you—perhaps a bubble bath, a hike in the woods, or sitting by a lake.
  • Find a loved one or counselor you can share your deepest thoughts and concerns with.
  • Tell your doctor you are sensitive to medicine and ask about a lower dosage.
  • Explore ways to enjoy your sensitivity through the arts, nature, or any environment that you can experience and process with pleasure. 

Resources

Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron. Routledge. 2010. 

The Highly Sensitive Person
www.hsperson.com
A website authored by Dr. Elaine Aron that offers tips, tests, articles and references.
By Laurie M. Stewart
Source: Jerome Kagan interview on “All in the Mind,” ABC Radio national, www.abc.net.au/rn/allinthemind/stories/2006/1722388.htm; The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aaron, PhD. Carol Publishers, 1996.

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