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What Is a Highly Sensitive Person?

Written by: Kate Smith, M.A.
What Is a Highly Sensitive Person?

The definition of a highly sensitive person is someone who experiences acute physical, mental, or emotional responses to stimuli. Although HSPs share characteristics with shy, introverted, anxious, depressive persons, those with Sensory Processing Disorders, and empaths, it is as unique as it is similar. While HSP is not an official diagnosis, learning to navigate the world as an HSP is critical to having a happy, healthy life. What are the signs of a Highly Sensitive Person? Here are just a few:

  • Easily overwhelmed in loud or crowded places
  • Tend to withdraw to your ‘quiet place’ regularly
  • Deep thinker- always searching for answers
  • Your physical comfort matters. A LOT!
  • Daydreamer
  • Creating stories or acting out situations before they occur
  • Change feels uncomfortable, especially when unexpected or out of your control
  • New environments, even welcomed ones, can be overstimulating to the point of discomfort
  • Misunderstood- people think you are shy, unfriendly, controlling or even selfish
  • Hangry is a real thing!
  • Conflict rattles you to a distraction
  • Criticism is deep, personal and painful
  • More perceptive than others

So, what does this all mean? Dr. Elaine Aron, created the acronym D.O.E.S, which narrows down the traits and how they can work for, or against a person. D.O.E.S stands for Depth of processing, Overstimulation, Emotional reactivity, and Sensitivity to subtleties.

Depth of processing occurs when the HSP is provided new information, like meeting a new person and they create paths to connect this person to pre-existing information. This could be a similar experience in the past, or the persons resemblance to someone else. For instance, An HSP meets Sally. Sally is wearing the same tennis shoes as our HSP. Sally also looks like our HSPs favorite character in a tv show. These connections will help our HSP remember Sally the next time they see each other. A deeper connection has been made and will therefore be more easily found the next time they pass Sally in the hall.

Overstimulation occurs when our HSP is in an environment that is stimulating to one more of their senses to a point of discomfort. This could be loud music, extreme heat, strong aromas or bright lights. Overstimulation will cause physical and emotional discomfort, causing our HSP to retreat to a ‘safer’ environment.

Living as a highly sensitive person can be difficult at times, but with attention to triggers, plans in place to help soothe and adequate recharging in a peaceful environment, days will feel less stressful and much more manageable.

Emotional Reactivity is having a strong reaction to an emotional stimulation, positive or negative. This can mean that our HSP may have a difficult time managing emotions when something negative happens, but it has a wonderful upside as well. HSPs have a tendency to find a great deal of joy from positive stimulation- spending time with someone they care deeply for, seeing a picture of their favorite pet, or smelling a beautiful flower. These positive stimulations often result in our HSP feeling invigorated and creative.

Sensitivity to Subtleties occurs when our HSP notices details others might miss. It could be in the slight body movement of the person they are talking to that reveals their comfort level or noticing a specific herb in a pasta sauce that is only part of a complex recipe.