Just What is a Highly Sensitive Person?
A highly sensitive person (HSP) is one who tends to feel emotions, sensations, and perceptions of the world more strongly than average. Not only do these people deeply feel pain and sorrow, they also experience joy more fully, are extraordinarily empathetic and creative.
In fact, being told you are “too sensitive” can be taken as a compliment once you accept the rewards – as I have learned.
- A 2014 study found that HSPs, about 20% of humans, experienced increased activation in the parts of the brain related to awareness, empathy, planning, and sensory information
- A 2021 study discovered that HSPs may have weaker connections between areas of the brain that regulate stress, emotions, and pain, which may contribute to why they often experience anxiety and overstimulation.
This trait is often attributed to deeper thought processing, stronger emotional reactivity, and overstimulation, which means that those who are highly sensitive have greater awareness of details in their surroundings, their emotions and others’ emotions – not bad things if you understand the signs and how to self-regulate.
Signs of a highly sensitive person
Every highly sensitive person has unique and varying traits. Some of the most common are:
1. You Experience Intense Emotions: You may cry easily, profoundly appreciate the awe of natural beauty, or be highly moved by poetry, art or music.
2. You are Hyper-Aware of Physical Sensations You may be hyper-aware of physical sensations, which can make you feel more aware of sounds, textures, or bright lights. This may lead you to feel overstimulated and uncomfortable in many contexts. If you’re hyper-aware of textures, you may prefer soft and comfortable clothing.
3. You Think Deeply HSPs are thought of as high processors since they not only take in more information than most people, but they also consider it in detail, which may cause you to take longer to make decisions, or to prefer doing things carefully.
4. You’re Extremely Empathetic Super-feelers pick up on external emotions quickly and easily; feeling what others are feeling. readily. This may be due to HSPs having more mirror neuron activity, which is linked to sensory processing and empathy.
5. You Want to do Things Slowly HSPs pick up information and process it deeply; preferring to move at their own pace as opposed to being rushed so that they can make sense of it all.
6. You Need Time to Recharge Since HSPs feel emotions and sensations more than others, they tend to become tired or overstimulated easily. Highly sensitive folks can feel overwhelmed and drained when rest is not possible.
7. You’re Not a Social Butterfly People who have highly sensitive nervous systems are often introverts who avoid crowds at all costs. It’s not that they dislike others or have poor communication skills.
Strangers, bright light, noise, and other sensations can overwhelm you and intensify your anxiety. Sensitive introverts are warm, conversant people when one-on-one.
8. You May be Indecisive When it comes to crucial decisions, some people have an easier time than others. If you have a highly sensitive nervous system, any decision can wreak havoc on your mind. Rather than make a choice, you may stay in limbo and frustrate yourself as well as those around you.
9. You Want Order and Beauty As a person with a highly sensitive nervous system, a dark, ugly place is your worst nightmare. For you, serenity, peace, and aesthetics make all the difference. You are most comfortable in a space with calming colors, minimal noise, and tasteful décor – all of which lightens your mood and relaxes your nerves.
10. You Might Fear Rejection It doesn’t matter if you have a highly sensitive system or not; rejection is painful to many. Belonging and connecting with others is a basic human need, but especially painful to HSP’s. When someone rejects you, it leaves you feeling worthless and invalidated.
How to Cope
At times, it can be very difficult to be a highly sensitive person, since some situations can be overstimulating, and emotions can easily rule. Here are ways to cope:
1. Give Yourself a Break Taking downtime is crucial when you’re overstimulated. The ideal break will look different for every person and their unique needs. Some may need more downtime than others. If possible, try to give yourself a break whenever you feel overstimulated, even if it’s just a mini-break. During your break, you may want to:
- Be alone
- Minimize sensory stimulation like loud noises and bright lights
- Practice self-soothing techniques
2. Monitor and Control your Environment While you can’t always control your environment, it’s possible to manage environments such as your home or your workspace. This may mean reducing bright lights, loud noises, and clutter.
3. Practice Breathing Techniques Paced breathing can help regulate an HSP’s sensitive nervous system and reduce feeling overwhelmed in chaotic situations.
1. Breathe in for five seconds
2. Hold the breath for two seconds
3. Breathe out for eight seconds
4. Hold for two seconds
5. Repeat the process for at least 5 rounds or about 5-10 minutes.
4. Manage Stress Since HSPs can get easily overwhelmed by stress, it can be helpful to learn what works best for you to manage stress, and think about long-term strategies. Some stress management techniques are:
- Getting enough sleep
- Eating a healthy diet
5. Learn to Emotionally Regulate Strong emotions can easily take over and cause an HSP to get swept up. Identify and understand your emotional experience while exerting some control over how you are experiencing these feelings. A few strategies are:
- Mindfulness: This involves noticing the present moment on purpose and without judgment.
- Practice self-compassion: Self-compassion means pausing to purposefully be kind to yourself through shifts in self-talk.
- Cognitive appraisal: Cognitive appraisal asks you to consider the validity of your interpretations, which helps you step back and look at your thoughts and feelings in a more rational way.
6. Set Firm Boundaries While you may feel guilty saying “no” to others, saying “yes” too often can lead to burnout.
Saying “no” may mean turning down invitations when you are feeling too stressed and overstimulated, or telling a friend you are only able to meet for a certain predetermined amount of time.
7. Practice self-soothing techniques You can self-soothe by exposing your senses to pleasant stimuli. For example:
- Cuddle up in a soft or weighted blanket
- Drink warm tea
- Look at pleasing pictures
- Taste comfort foods
A highly sensitive person reacts to internal and external stimuli more strongly than the average person.
HSPs may feel emotions deeply, experience physical sensations intensely, and need plenty of time to recharge.
While feeling stimuli intensely can be painful, it can also be a superpower. When HSPs take care of themselves, they find they’re able to experience the upsides of this trait while minimizing the downsides.