A highly sensitive person (HSP) is more aware of social stimuli, such as other people’s voices and facial expressions. They may be particularly empathetic but also more prone to overstimulation.

Psychologist Elaine Aron developed the concept of highly sensitive persons (HSPs) to describe those who display notable sensitivity to various forms of stimuli. Aron estimates roughly 15–20% of the population is highly sensitive.

Researchers often use the term “sensory processing sensitivity” to characterize the experiences of HSPs. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not list sensory processing sensitivity as a diagnosis. It does include sensory processing disorder, which some HSPs may also experience.

Aron and other researchers treat sensory processing sensitivity not as an illness or diagnosis but as an evolved personality trait that can be adaptive in some circumstances. For example, highly sensitive people may notice signs of danger that others miss and may pick up on more subtle social cues.

Keep reading to learn more, including the signs and everyday challenges of being a highly sensitive person, as well as the benefits.

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A person with sensory processing sensitivity is highly sensitive to their environment. Sights, sounds, smells, and other forms of sensory input may cause a heightened experience for HSPs. A sound that is barely perceptible to most people may be very noticeable, and possibly even painful, to an HSP.

There’s more to being a highly sensitive person than just being sensitive to stimuli. Other characteristics include:

  • processing environmental stimuli more deeply
  • being more emotionally reactive to behavioral inhibition
  • being more physiologically reactive to behavioral inhibition
  • having stronger unconscious nervous system activity in stressful situations
  • having stronger emotional responses (both positive and negative)
  • being strongly perceptive of subtle differences
  • having a low tolerance to high levels of sensory input
  • having a low pain threshold

Being a highly sensitive person can be stressful and can cause anxiety or relationship challenges. However, there are also benefits to being highly sensitive, especially in the right environment or with support. Some advantages include having a rich inner life and showing increased empathy. Being highly sensitive can also offer strengths in relationships and depth in processing information.

As noted earlier, being an HSP is not a diagnosis but a personality trait or temperamental disposition that offers both benefits and challenges.

Some signs of high sensitivity include:

  • Low threshold for sensory awareness: HSPs may notice and experience sensory stimuli more strongly than others. For instance, loud noises and chaotic stimuli are likely to have a greater impact on HSPs.
  • Overstimulation: HSPs may become easily overstimulated and overwhelmed by their surroundings.
  • Personality and temperament: HSPs may seem introverted or very emotionally sensitive. This may also be because their environments are stimulating, and they feel overwhelmed by it.
  • Empathy: An HSP may find that others’ moods strongly affect them, or they notice subtle social cues others do not.
  • Pain sensitivity: HSPs are often more sensitive to pain or touch.
  • Withdrawal: HSPs who live in an environment that is not ideal may withdraw more or need more alone time to cope.

Popular media and anecdotal sources often focus on claims that people are more sensitive now than in the past. These claims typically revolve around the notion that the term HSP is a new concept, and people have only recently become interested in supporting those who are notably sensitive.

Aron and other researchers argue that sensory processing sensitivity is not a new trait. Instead, they found a heritable trait that may have evolutionary advantages.

There is no scientific evidence that people are more sensitive today than they were in the past. Instead, institutions and individuals may be more willing to acknowledge and make accommodations for those with different needs, including high sensitivity.

In a 2014 study, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans to measure the brain activity of HSPs. The study found increased brain activation in regions associated with awareness, empathy, attention, and action planning.

To cope with being an HSP, it is important for a person to first identify their major areas of sensitivity. For example, some people are more sensitive to sensory input, while others find certain kinds of social interactions overwhelming.

Some strategies that may help include:

  • using personal devices, such as sunglasses, earplugs, and noise-canceling headphones, to minimize sensory input
  • considering how clothing might contribute to sensory overload, then choosing items without tags, seams, or other types of sensory input
  • setting up at least one area of the house to be low stimulation, such as a dark, quiet room
  • advocating for accommodations at work or school and building them into daily life as needed
  • seeking psychotherapy

Learn more about different types of therapy here.

Highly sensitive people tend to be conscientious and empathetic and may notice subtle changes in their interactions and environment.

Some benefits include:

  • Social skills: HSPs tend to notice things others do not. Picking up on body language and other subtle cues may help them develop strong social skills.
  • Empathy: Highly sensitive people tend to be more sensitive to others’ emotions and moods. This may offer them more insight into other people. It can also help them detect others’ motives and inclinations, potentially making them good managers, negotiators, and leaders.
  • Sensitivity to the environment: Highly sensitive people may notice environmental cues others do not. In the right setting, this can help them detect danger.

Being a highly sensitive person is not a diagnosis or a medical condition and does not require treatment. However, HSPs may find relief from this label for their experiences. They may receive meaningful support from therapy and resources or books about HSP.

Some key traits of HSPs include deeper processing of emotional stimuli and a lower tolerance to sensory input.

The right environment can make being highly sensitive more manageable. With less sensory input, HSPs may not feel as overwhelmed. This may empower them to work toward positive outcomes, such as by using their empathy to better understand people and foster meaningful relationships.

While the concept of the HSP is relatively new, HSPs are not. As research continues, experts may identify new ways of supporting HSPs. They may also identify the environmental, genetic, and developmental factors that contribute to high sensitivity.