What is an HSP?
What is it?
An HSP (highly sensitive person) is someone who possesses an acutely sensitive nervous system due to a genetic and physiological trait called Sensory Processing Sensitivity. Because Sensory Processing Sensitivity wires the HSP nervous system more sensitively, HSPs experience deeper cognitive processing of physical, social and emotional stimuli.
15–20% of the population are HSPs, meaning we perceive and experience the world around us much differently than 80–85% of the rest of the world. That is a significant difference in reality for HSPs — a difference that lasts a lifetime.
What does it mean?
Dr. Elaine Aron, the psychologist who discovered the HSP trait and coined the term “highly sensitive person” in 1991, created an acronym to describe the four main aspects of an HSP nervous system: D.O.E.S.
D — Depth of Processing
O — Overstimulation
E — Emotional Reactivity/Empathy
S — Sensitivity to Subtleties
“D” is for the depth of processing.
This means that HSPs process information more deeply than the average person. This includes all sensory input, physical and emotional: what we’re hearing, what we’re seeing, what we’re reading, what we’re thinking about, what we’re feeling, communication between others that we’re observing, seeing and hearing, communication between us and others, etc. We HSPs are processing all of that a lot deeper, more intricately, more thoroughly, and more in-depth than the average person around us.
And because HPSs feel more on a physical level as well as emotionally, we are more susceptible to pain, therefore tending to have a much lower pain tolerance. Because we are processing those painful stimuli more deeply, we experience more pain.
“O” is for overarousal/overwhelm.
Since HSPs notice subtleties in our environments, we naturally take in more stimuli in which to process. And because HSPs innately process things more deeply than most, that further exacerbates the amount of brainpower we need to process our environment. Because of that, we HSPs are going to wear out mentally and physically much quicker than the average person.
We are also going to need more time than most others to recuperate from our various activities and experiences of the day. It could even be one activity or one encounter or one experience that we need to recuperate from. This is especially true when HSPs have been in environments and situations that are complicated, meaning they’re in a complex situation. For example, if an HSP is in an environment involving a lot of things to remember, a noisy or cluttered space, or they’re doing something in an atmosphere where the activity is taking too long (like a long commute or a lengthy event) then it’s going to increase overwhelm and the subsequent rest time needed for our nervous system to recover from overarousal.
Now, because HSPs become overstimulated so easily, that can and does affect relationships for them and for those they’re involved with. It affects the activities that HSPs plan and how they engage with people in their life. It affects the ways in which HSPs behave and conduct themselves in social situations as well as their choices and decisions. It affects the goals and dreams HSPs create for themselves and possibly for others, whether that be a romantic partner, friends, or family. It affects the ways in which HSPs take in and process verbal communication and the behavior of others, whether that behavior is directed towards the HSP or not — this could refer to criticism or even positive feedback. Regardless, the words, tone and delivery will be evaluated thoroughly by an HSP.
“E” stands for emotional reactivity/empathy.
First, let’s focus on emotional reactivity.
HSPs react more to both positive and negative experiences. This is because of the intensity of our depth of processing (“D” in D.O.E.S.) Because HSPs process our emotions and experiences more deeply than most, that is naturally going to elicit more emotional reactivity when processing those emotions and experiences. As a result, HSPs experience heightened feelings of any emotion or experience, such as heightened feelings of pleasure, curiosity, fear, anger, joy, excitement, etc.
And as the mantra continues, because we HSPs process our experiences so deeply, we develop stronger feelings about those experiences as well. For example, it’s very common that when HSPs receive criticism or negative feedback, we want to fix it right away. And that is stemmed really from caring more, more so than doing things right.
Another reason HSPs might have a hard time processing criticism is that it’s very easy for us to go into an internal place of self-shame surrounding our sensitivity, surrounding who we are innate. It’s easy for us to get into this mindset that we are self-sabotaging because we HSPs are very much aware that we process the world around us differently than most people, we’re very much aware that things affect us more deeply and affect us longer than most people. And being so different and having that internal awareness can be very frustrating and taxing and can weigh HSPs down. These feelings of self- shame are also reinforced by society and often reinforced by our communities, often by people who are close to us like friends and family.
“E” — Empathy.
HSPs are extremely empathic individuals and that is because the part of the brain that helps humans understand people’s intentions and how they feel is more active in the HSP brain. This makes sense because the HSP brain is more associated with deeper cognitive processing of sensory input.
Because there’s so much neural activity in that particular part of the brain for us HSPs, we do more than just intuitively know what or how someone is feeling — we, ourselves, absorb and actually feel the other person’s emotions as well.
“S” — Sensing Subtleties.
HSPs notice things and pick up on subtleties in their environment that other people miss. As I’ve discussed before, there are certain parts of the brain that are more active in the HSP brain, and those particular active parts are associated with more complex processing of sensory input. And because those parts of the brain are more active, that is why we HSPs are able to notice the subtleties in our environment; our brain is working overtime to take in much more of our surroundings. This ability is not about having heightened or exceptional senses, because there are HSPs that have poor eyesight and hearing, but it’s more so about the fact that HSPs are processing the information more carefully.
How To Know if You're an HSP
Dr. Elaine Aron's official website includes assessments to determine if you are likely an HSP.
There are a myriad of advantages HSPs possess! First and foremost, being highly sensitive is a superpower in and of itself; we’ve got an edge! Here are the strengths, gifts, abilities, and skills we HSPs possess that serve us well:
- Highly empathic
- Fiercely intuitive
- Reflective & self-aware
- Astute & perceptive
- Extremely polite & mindful of others
- love deeply
- possess an innate pause-to-check system that helps us make thorough and calculated decisions that bring us peace
- can easily tap into our emotions
- deeply feel positive emotions more deeply than most
- tend to prioritize personal growth
- tend to be professionals at self-care — because we HAVE to be
- experience heightened feelings of joy and happiness
- easily find meaning in everything
- easily see the beauty in so many things, positive and negative
- are great at naturally fostering vulnerability in others
- have the keen ability to sense, notice, and distinguish things within our environments that others miss. This gift grants us the ability to remedy a diverse range of problems — from the individual others to massive world issues
- have the powerful ability to bring sensitivity, mindfulness, and empathy to a harsh world. Remember, HSPs are the royal advisors in many societies, including ours. We help create and sustain a more sensitive world, one of more mindfulness, empathy, kindness, generosity, and progression in the face of stoicism, emotional regression, grief, violence, ignorance, routine, harmful traditions.
- have the power of influence — major and significant influence. We are trailblazers! As the royal advisors, we influence our cultures and communities by serving as counselors, therapists, coaches, prophets, writers, teachers, judges, activists, artists, philosophers, and the like.
Where I come in!
I am here to further a movement of implementing & integrating awareness of sensory processing sensitivity and the highly sensitive person into schools, companies, government, and other organizations.
We need to integrate awareness and knowledge of this trait and how it affects HSPs and non-HSPs in relationships, the workplace, and in everyday life. Awareness and structured implementation of knowledge and structures that support HSPs must be taught and executed in schools, in psychology & sociology textbooks, in novels, in T.V., in cinema, workplaces, community centers, and in more publications like this!
I'm here to normalize, support, and guide HSPs in thriving in a world that's dismissive of sensitivity. I'm here to help you accept, know, understand, embrace, and love your sensitivity! I'm here to help you nurture and maintain self-reverence for the unique gift of high sensitivity!
I work with & provide support to help:
- HSPs in relationship to self
- HSPs in interpersonal relationships
- HSC (highly sensitive children)
- Parents of HSC
- HSP Parents
- HSP men