What exactly is a highly sensitive person? How is high sensitivity defined? Am I a highly sensitive person?

If any of these questions are running through your mind, keep reading, because in this article I’ll discuss the meaning of high sensitivity as defined by two of the most prominent scientists doing research on high sensitivity – Dr. Elaine Aron and Dr. W. Thomas Boyce.

The 5 Defining Highly Sensitive Person Characteristics

Dr. Aron coined the term “Highly Sensitive Person” and first introduced it to the general public in her 1996 book The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. The scientific term that she uses for high sensitivity is “sensory processing sensitivity”, and according to her research, highly sensitive people have four characteristics in common. While non-HSPs can have some of the same characteristics or similar ones, Dr. Aron defines HSPs as those who have all four:

1. DEPTH OF PROCESSING

Researchers have found that when HSPs process information, we are more likely to use areas of the brain associated with deeper processing.  We like to mull things over, think things through, and carefully consider all angles. We do this both consciously and unconsciously.  

2. OVERSTIMULATION

Stimulation is anything that wakes up your nervous system.  Because HSPs’ nervous systems are more sensitive to stimuli, we are more vulnerable to overstimulation than non-HSPs.  The same amount of stimulation that will make a non-HSP feel comfortably alert might make an HSP feel “fired up”. And this “fired-upness” – if allowed to continue long enough – is inevitably followed by something that feels an awful lot like a hangover.  Only you don’t need to have a drop of alcohol to get this special hangover. 

3. EMOTIONAL REACTIVITY + EMPATHY

HSPs tend to have stronger emotional reactions than non-HSPs.  This includes both positive and negative reactions. As in, we cry over happy news just as easily as we cry over sad news.   We also have high levels of empathy, so we are easily affected by other people’s emotions.

4. SENSING THE SUBTLE

HSPs have a tendency to notice subtleties that other people miss.  This doesn’t mean that our senses are somehow more superior. I don’t have laser vision.  Instead, we just absorb more subtleties.  Moreover, we often do this unconsciously, which results in us appearing more intuitive. We “just know” without being able to explain how.

5. More Reactive Stress Response

W. Thomas Boyce is a medical doctor, researcher, and author of The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive.  His term for sensitivity is “biological sensitivity to context” .

Dr. Boyce has studied how children react to various potentially stressful stimuli.  And he found that about 20 percent of children are more reactive as measured by their cortisol levels and autonomic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) than their less sensitive peers.

With his studies, Dr. Boyce is demonstrating the phenomenon at the root of HSP overstimulation.  Highly sensitive kids will become physically stressed more easily than non-HSPs. Their bodies react to stimuli more readily.

Want To Learn More?

  • Go on Dr. Aron’s website and take the same test that she uses in her research studies to classify people as HSP or non-HSP.
  • Watch a brief YouTube video where Dr. Aron explains what being a highly sensitive person is all about.
  • Watch a short YouTube video where Dr. Boyce explains biological sensitivity to context.

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About the Author

Hi, I'm Anni! I'm a life and career coach for stressed out highly sensitive people. My mission is to help you discover your true self and create a life you ACTUALLY like.

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