Highly Sensitive Persons (HSP)
Do you ever feel like you can’t handle as much commotion, change, or stimulation as other people? Perhaps your friends relish the idea of a 7am to 10pm hangout, full of various activities dispersed throughout the day with little to no ‘rest’ time in between. It’s as if they never need to recharge themselves before starting a new activity. Well, there may be many factors involved with why they appear to be like that, but one factor could be that perhaps you are a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) and have different needs when it comes to processing experiences and requiring more ‘downtime.’
Research estimates vary, but generally speaking it has been determined that about 15-35% of the population are considered highly sensitive persons. HSPs are known to have a different genetic make-up when compared to non-HSPs. One effect of the difference in genes is that the HSP genes affect serotonin availability in the brain differently than non-HSP genes.
HSP is considered to be a trait that you either have or don’t have, however, more research is needed to fully determine whether there is variability in the qualities of this trait.
Research is growing in this area so there are still many things to discover about this trait. Much of the research regarding HSP has been completed with other species and it has now been found that over 100 other species (i.e., dogs, deer, rhesus monkey, fish) also contain the HSP trait.
So, how do you know if you might be an HSP?
Here are some criteria developed by the primary researcher of this topic, Elaine N. Aron:
- HSPs process information more slowly and deeply (this occurs on a molecular level)
- HSPs tend to observe and reflect before making decisions or engaging in new experiences – they are ‘slow to warm up’
- HSPs process everything more, whether conscious of this processing or not
An acronym – DOES – also helps to describe the qualities of HSPs:
D – Depth of Processing – HSPs process everything more deeply than non-HSPs
O – Overstimulated – Because HSPs process things more deeply and thereby are slower to do so, they can become overstimulated/hyper-aroused quicker. This can feel like anxiety but is actually just the body’s response to being overloaded with stimulation.
E – Emphasis on Emotional Reactions and Strong Empathy – HSPs tend to be more in touch with their emotions and can feel them more deeply than non-HSPs, in general. This enables a stronger level of empathy, emotional connection, and attunement with others.
S – Sensitive to Subtleties – HSPs notice the details and nuances in everything (i.e., facial expressions, tones of voice, body posture, written typos, etc.).
Each HSP is unique, just like every person that considers themselves to be an introvert is unique. HSP qualities, just like introvert qualities, can vary widely and depend a great deal on the idiosyncratic upbringing and environment in which the person developed and was raised.
If interested in learning more about HSPs and how to learn to own the strengths inherent with this trait, see the references below for the book by Elaine N. Aron – it is a seminal and in-depth resource.
Aron, E. (1998). The highly sensitive person: how to thrive when the world overwhelms you. New York: Three Rivers Press.