What is a Highly Sensitive Person?



– Carolyn Moriarty, LCPC


You’ve probably heard the of “introverts” and “empaths” before. Introvert describes a person who becomes drained quickly in social situations and needs plenty of time alone to recharge their energy. Empaths are individuals who have a naturally heightened awareness of the emotions of those around them and often absorb and internalize those emotions.

There is another term used to describe a similar (but distinct) temperament that can be difficult for others to understand.

In the mid-1990s, psychologist and author Dr. Elaine N. Aron coined the term “highly sensitive person” (HSP) to describe a specific set of personality traits found in approximately 15-20 percent of the population.

Dr. Aron identified certain characteristics associated with high sensitivity, such as:

  • experiencing emotions more intensely than others
  • having strong emotional reactions to both positive and negative stimuli
  • increased awareness of subtleties in the environment
  • easily overwhelmed by sensory input (lights, noises, smells)
  • strong ability to pick up on non-verbal cues

It’s important to know that being a highly sensitive person is not a “disorder” that impacts a person’s ability to function. It is just a term used to describe a certain type of temperament, one that may cause you to feel misunderstood by others. If you identify as an HSP, recognizing and understanding your sensitivity can help you navigate the world in a way that suits your needs and well-being.


What is an HSP?

In short, a highly sensitive person (HSP) is a personality trait characterized by increased sensitivity to stimuli, both internal and external.

It’s worthing noting that sensitivity exists on a spectrum and not everyone falls into the category of an HSP. Just because an individual may not identify with the characteristics associated with being an HSP, they does not mean they aren’t empaths or just sensitive people in general.


Here are more key aspects of being an HSP:

  • An equal amount of men and women are thought to be HSPs
  • HSPs often have a great degree of emotional sensitivity and empathy. They are highly attuned to the emotions of others and easily pick up on subtle cues and experience emotions intensely.
  • HSPs can be introverted or extroverted, although they are more likely to be introverts
  • In addition to emotional sensitivity, HSPs may also be physically sensitive. They may have preferences for certain textures, fabrics, or foods and may be more affected by physical sensations.
  • HSPs often notice subtle things that others may overlook, like textures and faint noises.
  • Because their brain is processing so much input, HSPs can be easily overwhelmed by external stimuli such as loud noises, bright lights, or crowded environments. This sensitivity can sometimes lead to stress or fatigue.
  • Due to the heightened sensitivity, HSPs often require more downtime to recharge. They may require quiet and alone time to recover from overstimulation.
  • Compared to others, HSPs are also thought to be more disturbed by violent movies/TV shows, tension, and conflict. In a self-protective effort, they may avoid situations in which such things are likely to occur.
  • HSPs often engage in deep introspection and reflection. They may spend time contemplating their thoughts, values, and experiences.




The trait of being a highly sensitive person (HSP) is believed to have a combination of genetic, biological, and environmental factors.

Here are some potential causes or contributing factors:

  • Research suggests that there is a genetic component to sensitivity. If one or both parents are highly sensitive, there’s a higher likelihood that their children may inherit the trait.
  • Studies using brain imaging have shown that the brains of highly sensitive individuals may process information differently. Specifically, there may be increased activity in areas associated with processing emotions and sensory input.
  • HSPs may have a more reactive nervous system, meaning they respond more strongly to stimuli. This heightened sensitivity can lead to a deeper processing of information and increased awareness of the environment.
  • Early life experiences and the environment in which a person grows up can also influence sensitivity. for example, heightened sensitivity may be used as a coping mechanism for trauma.
  • Similarly, some researchers propose that being highly sensitive may have evolved as an adaptive trait. In certain situations, having individuals who are more attuned to their surroundings and empathetic could have conferred advantages to the group.




Being a highly sensitive person (HSP) is not a medical condition or disorder, so it doesn’t typically necessitate formal intervention. However, there are strategies and approaches that can help HSPs navigate the world in a more comfortable manner.

It’s important to note that everyone is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. Experiment with different strategies to find what resonates with you.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Embrace and accept your sensitivity as a natural part of who you are. Understanding and acknowledging all the positive qualities associated with being an HSP can be the first step towards self-acceptance.
  • Prioritize self-care activities that help you recharge. This may include spending time alone, engaging in activities you enjoy, getting enough sleep, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
  • Connect with supportive friends, family, or a therapist who understands and respects your sensitivity. Having a supportive network can provide emotional validation and understanding.
  • Identify situations that may be overstimulating and find ways to manage them. This might involve taking breaks, finding quiet spaces, or using tools like noise-canceling headphones.
  • Engage in creative activities that allow you to express your thoughts and emotions. This can be a helpful outlet for processing your experiences.


For a wealth of information and resources about HSPs, check out. Dr. Aron’s website!



Seeking Mental Health Support

If you find that your sensitivity is impacting your daily life or causing distress, it may be helpful to seek support from a mental health professional who can provide guidance and strategies for coping with sensitivity in a way that enhances your well-being. Consider scheduling an appointment with Chicago Counseling CenterOur therapists can develop an appropriate treatment plan tailored to your specific needs. Meet our team to learn more!


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