If you've ever been told you're "too sensitive" or perhaps felt seriously overwhelmed when others did not, you may have wondered why you're more acutely sensitive to things than others. There's nothing wrong with you—you may in fact be a highly sensitive person (HSP).
Here's what it really means to be an HSP, the pros and cons, and how to deal with it, according to experts.
What is a highly sensitive person?
As psychologist and relationship counselor Margaret Paul, Ph.D., tells mbg, much of what we now understand about HSPs comes from the work of clinical research psychologist Elaine Aron, Ph.D., who authored both The Highly Sensitive Person and The Highly Sensitive Child. Aron's research found that about 15 to 20% of the population are born with a nervous system that's different from the rest of the population, says Paul. "It's a nervous system that is more reactive to stimuli—it's a nervous system that can feel things more deeply."
More recent research has expanded on these findings, showing that these reactions in the nervous system are actually due to increased blood flow in the areas of the brain that process emotion, awareness, and empathy. So what causes a person to be highly sensitive, then, does indeed lie in the nervous system and the brain.
"And what Elaine Aron found is that [high sensitivity can be found] in every population. She gives an example in her book of deer, where the deer will go running into a field, but a couple of highly sensitive ones will stand on the edge and tune into whether it's safe," Paul notes.
Personality traits of a highly sensitive person.
If you're not an HSP yourself, odds are you know one. According to Paul, a highly sensitive person is someone who may find themselves overstimulated, overwhelmed, or otherwise unsettled while others seem unfazed. This can result in a tendency to withdraw or recharge after intense situations. (That said, HSPs aren't necessarily introverted. Extroverts can be HSPs too, but they often are introverts, according to Paul.)
Because of their keen sensitivity, they also tend to be empathic, noticing the moods or energy of others and even the energy of physical spaces. This can make them very caring and nurturing, which Paul notes narcissist types may take advantage of.
In her experience, she has found HSPs are less likely to display narcissistic tendencies or anger issues but rather a soft and compassionate approach to others. Many HSPs may not even be able to watch violent movies, for instance, because their sensitivity is so strong.
Ahead are some signs of a highly sensitive person, according to Paul and other experts.
Signs you're a highly sensitive person:
You feel more deeply affected by things than other people.
One telltale sign or symptom of an HSP is someone who is more deeply affected by things than other people. As Paul explains, this often shows up early in life. "Most HSPs have had a lot of problems as kids because they didn't understand why they were feeling so much more, why things hurt them so much more, or why they couldn't let things roll off their back," she explains. Whether it's music, conflict, or a beautiful image, HSPs are often moved emotionally.
You're an empath.
The energy of large crowds or certain spaces can be overwhelming.
According to Paul, HSPs will often find large crowds, and even large or busy places, to be overwhelming. "So it's not just the large crowds but even the energy of a store itself can really 'wipe out' an HSP," she explains.
Your body is sensitive to certain things.
Along with having an emotional sensitivity, some HSPs will also have physical sensitivities, such as to certain textures, lighting, and even caffeine. As Paul explains, whether it's an itchy tag on your shirt, bright overhead lights, or feeling way too jittery after a cup of coffee, all of those sensitivities are common for an HSP.
People have told you you're too sensitive.
If you're an HSP, odds are you've known that you're more sensitive than most—and others may have noticed as well. As Paul, who is a highly sensitive person herself, tells mbg, "I was put down for things like that, and a lot of kids are put down. And that can create a lot of problems because then highly sensitive people learn to think there's something wrong with them."
You feel a need to withdraw.
The overwhelm that can come with being an HSP can make some want to withdraw from the overstimulation of everyday life. Again, extroverts can be HSPs, but according to Paul, many are introverted. And to that end, even the most extroverted HSP may still feel the need to recharge after a particularly tumultuous experience.
You often feel depressed, exhausted, or otherwise unwell.
As psychiatrist Judith Orloff, M.D., previously wrote for mbg, "Highly sensitive people are particularly vulnerable to other people's stress and emotions. This can result in panic attacks, depression, exhaustion, and a range of physical ailments."
Paul echoes this point, adding, "There are many things that affect health problems, but one of them is self-rejection, which a lot of highly sensitive people feel." As she explains, "They're rejecting themselves rather than loving themselves. They're creating a lot of stress, and that can lead to illness. And so it's hard to say, but I think that anytime people don't accept themselves in any way, and they're not loving themselves—emotionally, spiritually, physically—then they're going to be more prone to illness."
Indeed, one 2020 study published in the journal The Highly Sensitive Brain2 found high sensory-processing sensitivity can predispose individuals to health issues under "harsh" conditions, namely, poor social outcomes and more self-reported physical health problems.
You feel isolated.
Being an HSP is not easy, especially if other people in your life don't understand or appreciate the way your biology operates. This can not only be isolating but can also leave you feeling ungrounded.
According to Irene Langeveld, M.S., an energy worker who specializes in helping sensitive and intuitive people thrive, grounding can be difficult for HSPs hard because a part of them feels out of placed or unloved. "Healing or integrating this part of you that doesn't want to be here takes time," she previously wrote for mbg.
You struggle with boundaries.
Last but not least, as an HSP you may find you struggle to set and/or maintain boundaries. The high sensitivity lends itself to empathy, but this can make it hard to detach from toxic people or situations. "Highly sensitive people tend to be the ones to be the caretaker for a narcissist," for example, Paul explains.
The benefits of being a highly sensitive person.
While on the surface, being highly sensitive may seem like a downfall, it can actually be a gift when someone knows how to work with what they've got.
For instance, Paul explains, the highly sensitive people of Indigenous cultures in the past were often the shamans and healers of their communities. "But we live in a very left brain culture now, and so highly sensitive people have not been revered—but I think that's just starting to happen," she adds.
Highly sensitive people do, after all, generally have an easier time accessing their intuition than the rest of the population. "They have an easier time tuning in to other people's feelings and feeling that empathy and that compassion," she adds.
When we look at those things as a strength rather than a weakness, the whole narrative can change. As certified reiki master and intuitive coach Marci Moberg, M.S., previously wrote for mbg, "When sensitive souls learn the right skills and tools, their sensitivity can be their most powerful ally. Over time [...] sensitive souls who struggle in relationships can learn to shift their relationship to their sensitivity from kryptonite to superpower."
The challenges of being a highly sensitive person.
You're probably getting a sense of the particular challenges faced by HSPs at this point. They can get easily overwhelmed, overstimulated, and emotional, which can ripple out into virtually any aspect of their life.
Let's make it clear, though, that being an HSP is not classified as a mental illness, and it will only hinder the sensitive person to think of it as such.
HSPs are, however, potentially more prone to being traumatized. According to Paul, "They're more easily traumatized because the nervous system is getting activated more, when for [non-HSPs], things can roll off their back easier."
Then, of course, there's the aforementioned research about adverse physical and mental health outcomes—but take these with a grain of salt. Being an HSP isn't a curse or an ill-health prophecy, and learning how to take care of yourself as an HSP is key.
As Paul says, "The main challenge is to accept this as a gift, because it is not an easy gift, especially if you're a child who doesn't have highly sensitive parents or they don't understand it," adding, "Once they accept it as a gift, and they do their own research, and they understand what it is, then it becomes much easier to take loving care of themselves."
How to cope as a highly sensitive person.
One of the best things for an HSP to do, especially if they have suppressed or ignored their sensitivity for a long time, is to learn to be present in the body, according to Paul. She suggests learning how to be embodied in your feelings, and recognize them as a source of inner guidance. It's about "learning from your feelings rather than avoid them," she says, and further, "learning to take responsibility for your feelings and not be a victim of them."
And as psychotherapist Annette Nuñez, Ph.D., LMFT, previously told mbg, inner child work can be particularly helpful for intuitive empaths in order to start unpacking and understanding the experiences you've had in your life and how they could be contributing to current issues (i.e., trauma, suppressing your sensitivity, etc.).
Of course, finding a therapist is always a good idea if you're struggling, and it would be particularly beneficial to find one who specializes in HSPs. If there aren't any specialists near you, there are plenty of online therapy options available today to help you find exactly what you need.
And in terms of feeling ungrounded or overstimulated, it's very important for HSPs to have an arsenal of relaxation techniques in their toolbox to lean on whenever they do feel their nervous systems lighting up and, further, to know when they've reached their limit and need to rest and recover.
Long story short: Everyone needs a healthy amount of self-care, but HSPs may need a bit extra to feel balanced.
What are good books for HSPs?
What are common triggers for HSPs?
HSPs can be triggered by a variety of scenarios or stimuli, but a few common ones include loud noise, certain physical sensations or textures, bright lights, large crowds, chaotic environments (including clutter), and information overload.
What should you not say to a highly sensitive person?
Some common phrases you should avoid saying to a highly sensitive person include: "You're too sensitive," "You're too emotional," "Calm down," or "You're being dramatic." In short, avoid anything that diminishes the reality of what they're experiencing and feeling.
If you fall within the 15 to 20% of the population that is said to be highly sensitive, hopefully this information gave you some much-needed answers. Being an HSP can certainly be confusing, isolating, and frustrating in a culture that, by and large, does not understand or appreciate your unique sensitivity.
But when you learn to work with this keen sensitivity, it can, in fact, allow you to experience life more deeply—and that is a beautiful gift.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.