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HSP Highly Sensitive Person - what is their uniqueness?

HSP Highly Sensitive Person - what is their uniqueness? - 1

The term Highly Sensitive Person HSP was first coined by psychologist Elaine Aron (1996), who herself is a person with high sensitivity trait. She and her husband developed the Highly Sensitive Person Scale (HSPS), which gave rise to further research into this trait.

Earlier, Carl Jung was the first to recognize the importance of sensitivity and believed that it plays a more important role than sexuality in the susceptibility of an individual to neurosis (Aron, 2004).

In this article, we will explain the uniqueness of a Highly Sensitive Person. We will also analyze whether high sensitivity should be viewed as a disorder, or perhaps as a category of neurodiversity and a special gift.

And, importantly, we will provide links to the respective tests.

HSP Highly Sensitive Person - Characteristics

Highly Sensitive People are estimated to represent 15–20% of the total population (results obtained using the full Test by Aron & Aron, 1997) and up to 30% of the population using the abbreviated scale (, 2020).

When a person scores 14 or more on the 27-point scale, they are considered to have a highly sensitive personality. The original definition of Aron (1996) understood high sensitivity as an inborn and genetic trait, not learned or existing on a spectrum. In other words, you were either born with it or you weren't.

In research conducted in 2010, Aron divided this personality trait into four main categories that together are called D.O.E.S.

1. Depth of Processing

They process all kinds of information more deeply than other people. They are more reflective and take longer to make decisions (Aron, 2010). The depth of processing occurs both consciously, through the analysis of information conveyed by communication in relationships, and unconsciously, through hunches.

2. Ease of Overstimulation

They notice much more than others in the same situation or environment: noise levels, smells, and other aspects of the environment, including other people's emotions (although these may remain unexpressed). This can be beneficial, but it can also lead to overstimulation and chronic stress.

3. Emotional Responsiveness or Empathy

They experience strong positive and negative emotions in response to a range of both pleasant and painful stimuli (Aron, 2010). This increases their sensitivity to the feelings of others, making them very empathetic.

4. Sensitiveness to Subtle Stimuli

They notice subtle environmental cues that other people miss. This can help protect them and others in their social group from unforeseen threats, but can also lead to problematic levels of sensitivity to food, drugs, pain, strong smells, loud noises, and bright light (Aron & Aron, 1997). They can become easily overwhelmed by sensory input which may result also in headaches or joint pain.

The combined effects of the Highly Sensitive Personality trait result in empathetic, conscientious, cautious individuals who may also be sensation-seeking and revel in novelty (Aron, 2010).

It is worth emphasizing that there is no correlation between this trait and extraversion or introversion (Aron, 2010).

However, sensitive persons will always carefully assess the risks before embarking on an adventure, as their sensitivity counteracts impulsiveness (Aron, 2010). They also tend to plan carefully and are excellent strategists.

From an evolutionary point of view, they may act as oracles in social groups due to their heightened intuition and sensitivity to environmental cues (Acevedo, Jagiellowicz, Aron, Marhenke, & Aron, 2017).

It is worth knowing that high sensitivity is not limited to humans. Highly sensitive representatives of about 100 animal species have been identified. They often warn their group of dangers undetected by others, helping to keep the whole group safe (Aron, Aron, & Jagiellowicz, 2012).

This personality trait is not unambiguously associated with high talent, which is available only in 3% of the population (Aron, 1996). On the other hand, research by psychologist Elke van Hoof has shown that 87% of highly gifted people are highly sensitive (Koolhof, 2020).

Highly sensitive people also have a heightened aesthetic sense, being very sensitive to the beauty of nature and art (Aron, 2010). They can be deeply moved by beauty, either expressed in art, nature, or the human spirit.

In addition, HSPs respond with higher anxiety to violent or rough stimuli and avoid violent movies or tragic news stories (Aron, 2010). They are also more likely to have vivid dreams and rich inner life (Aron, 1996).

HSP Highly Sensitive Person - what is their uniqueness? - 2

Although people with high sensitivity are more concerned about negative environments than less sensitive people, they also benefit more from positive, supportive, and caring environments (Aron, 2010). This is especially true in childhood, but they also benefit greatly from counseling and psychotherapy to overcome childhood difficulties that lead to low self-esteem (Aron, 2002).

Cultural differences also play a role in their experiences. Empaths are highly valued members of societies that favor restrained, cautious behavior such as e.g. China, Japan, and Sweden, but less so in adventurous, competitive cultures such as Anglo-American countries and some European societies (Ketay et al., 2007).

Smolewska, McCabe, and Woody (2006) performed a factor analysis of the high sensitivity and found that it consists of three different factors:

  1. Aesthetics awareness of aesthetics (AES)

  2. Low sensory threshold (LST)

  3. Ease of excitation (EOE)

Further analysis by Smolewska et al. (2006) confirmed that higher AES scores produce more positive trait outcomes, including more intense perceptions of subtlety and empathy, while higher LST and EOE scores indicate more neurotic outcomes such as anxiety, social withdrawal, over-vigilance, and over-excitement.

This brings us to the next section and the question of potential "deviations from the norm". In other words, to the question: being a highly sensitive person, should I worry about it, or rather realize my special gift and learn to cultivate it?

Sensitivity to Sensory Processing (SPS) - is that a disorder?

Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) is a trait rooted in an otherwise wired nervous system, but it can co-exist with or be misdiagnosed as a disorder such as cyclothymia, high-functioning autism (HFA), or Asperger's syndrome (Aron, 2010).

However, SPS can be distinguished from HFA due to the high level of empathy and response to social stimuli. High sensitivity can also be misdiagnosed as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but this is different because they can concentrate for long periods when working in a quiet environment (Reijnders-Mies, 2021).

The sensitive personality trait can make some people more prone to anxiety and depression due to the feeling that they are poorly understood, coupled with a tendency to become withdrawn and self-isolating after overstimulation (Dyer, 2018).

Thus, high sensitivity is a feature that presents a unique set of challenges and brings certain benefits to both the individual and the social groups to which they belong - at work, at home, and in the community.

Aron (2010) states that approximately 50% of patients seeking psychotherapy are HSPs, often due to the difficulties they encounter in relationships with others who misunderstand their traits and due to the patient's perception of their personality as a set of undesirable symptoms.

Aron (2010) explains how to work with HSPs, providing psychoeducational interventions to compensate for the lack of support and understanding that highly sensitive people often encounter in the less vulnerable outside world.

HSP Highly Sensitive Person - 10 Signs and Symptoms

People with high sensitivity have distinct features that can be confused with other symptoms, but they do not indicate a disorder. They are as follows (Aron, 2010):

1. Feeling everything more deeply and intensely than others.

Be it joy or sadness, pleasure or pain. They tend to feel deeply moved by the beauty they see around them, e.g. they may cry while watching particularly heartwarming videos.

2. Taking great joy in the simple pleasures of life.

This makes them "maintainable" and easy to please in daily life.

3. More downtime is needed than others - thriving in silence, and needing a slower pace of life.

This means that taking time to relax and process experiences is essential for their well-being. They can be easily overwhelmed by the busy day.

4. More time is needed to make decisions than others due to the depth of information processing.

This includes conducting a thorough risk assessment and exercising caution. They process information on a much deeper level than others.

5. Change can be a problem.

Even positive change can result in high levels of arousal and anxiety at the same time due to overstimulation caused by new experiences.

6. Dealing with conflict and criticism can be challenging.

They tend to have very high expectations of themselves and are hard on themselves when they don't meet their expectations. Exposure to extra criticism of others can make them easily overwhelmed.

7. Rich inner life. They are more self-aware, creative, and insightful than less sensitive people.

This probably drives them to explore the spiritual path in life, especially contemplative practices like meditation. They also enjoy deeply experiencing arts such as painting, dancing, and music.

8. Avoiding the negative overstimulation caused by violent movies and news coverage.

Such experiences almost hurt them physically, including joint pain and headaches.

9. The susceptibility to overstimulation can lead to a tendency to withdraw in new or tense situations.

This can lead to them being perceived as shy or unsociable. And many of them are extroverts who just need extra alone time to process things.

10. Preferring a small social circle with a high level of empathy, love, and support.

It takes time to let another person in, but when a highly sensitive person HSP becomes your friend, they are loyal and supportive every step of the way. They are also feeling overwhelmed in big gatherings and don't want to be in the spotlight.

Common problems faced by Highly Sensitive People

At the end of this section, please watch this video from Psych2Go, which neatly summarizes the common problems faced by sensitive persons.

The High Sensitivity Test based on the Aron and Aron method

On the Empowerment Coaching portal, you will find a free ebook in PDF format containing the HSP test developed by psychologist Elaine Aron and her husband.

This 20-page booklet also includes an interpretation of the results, a list of frequently asked questions and answers related to the HSP trait, a list of reliable sources of knowledge on sensitive personality, and a list of books in English on high sensitivity.

Test templates are available in various print-ready formats.

HSP Test - free pdf ebook

How to support HSPs?

HSPs often struggle in life due to a profound misunderstanding by those around them, including their parents in childhood. Research also shows that a lack of parental warmth growing up may cause a child to develop strong high sensitivity. The same goes for negative early childhood experiences (i.e. some form of trauma).

This means that some of their early self-esteem needs may remain unmet in adulthood, causing chronic self-doubt, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, and even depression (Aron, 2010).

1. Psychoeducation

Good care for sensitive people can be achieved through a combination of psychoeducational interventions, counseling, and therapy (Aron, 2010).

While highly sensitive people seeking therapy may have suffered from a lack of awareness of their characteristics, research shows that they benefit more from psychological support and therapy than their insensitive counterparts (Aron, 2010).

2. Finding a balance

They can be introverted or extroverted. The more sociable, thrill-seeking type will have to learn to balance novelty, over-stimulation rest, and withdrawal. Often, more extroverted people shut out the need for rest and withdrawal, while others may mask this with substance abuse that dulls the senses (Dyer, 2018).

In turn, avoidance of novelty can lead extroverts to under-stimulation, boredom, and depression, so balance is the key (Dyer, 2018).

3. Meditation and rest

Starting a meditation practice can be very useful in dealing with overstimulation. Taking breath breaks or taking nature walks can be very helpful (Aron, 2010).

It is often enough to spend five minutes practicing deep breathing or contemplating the silence of nature (Aron, 2010).

4. Personal boundaries

Setting boundaries by learning mature refusal is an essential life skill in dealing with overstimulation. If the sensitive person needs to operate in a new environment, becoming familiar with the new environment before acting can help to mitigate overstimulation (Jaeger, 2005).

5. Emotional regulation

They should be encouraged to become experts in their emotions and thereby cultivate emotion regulation. Their acute awareness of internal bodily signals such as increased heart rate, changes in breathing, and body temperature should make it easier to master this art (Jaeger, 2005).

They should also pay attention to bodily complaints, such as hunger and pain, and how they affect their functioning. Relieving discomfort early will help them avoid the emotional deregulation that can wreak havoc on their relationships at home and work (Jaeger, 2005).

6. Self-confidence

HSPs should learn to trust themselves and their intuition (subconscious knowledge from subtle cues). This can help build self-confidence and strengthen immunity. To support this process, self-compassion, and mindfulness skills should be cultivated (Cassil, 2020).

7. Social support

Seeking social support is often very difficult for HSPs due to their excessive concern for others, conscientiousness, and perfectionism (Dyer, 2018). However, given that they are very loyal friends, it's worth asking them how they would react to a friend asking for support. This will help them understand that such requests are rarely burdensome (Aron, 2010).

The link between Highly Sensitive Personality, children, and autism

People often confuse high sensitivity with other personality traits or mental health conditions. Acevedo et al. (2017) investigated the brain circuits involved in sensory processing sensitivity and related disorders, including HSP, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Although ASD and HSP share a similar neurological pattern of sensory processing sensitivity, they are very different in other respects (Reijnders-Mies, 2021).

There is some risk that children who are highly sensitive to sensory processing exhibit excessive arousal that will be misdiagnosed as Asperger's or high-functioning ASD. However, highly sensitive children will not, for example, avoid eye contact or be characterized by a lack of social reactivity or a preference for obsessive, repetitive activities typical of children with ASD (Acevedo et al., 2017). While HSPs are overwhelmed by sensory information, individuals with autism may experience either hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness) to sensory information.

Acevedo, Aron, Popos, and Jessen (2018) found that a key difference between HSP and ASD "may be the degree to which individuals find social/emotional stimuli rewarding," including their ability to adaptively behave in response to social stimuli.

Highly sensitive children find positive social bonding and social stimulation more rewarding than their insensitive counterparts, while children with ASD have difficulty adapting to both negative and positive feedback from other people and their environment (Acevedo et al., 2018). It's however important to remember that high sensitivity can occur alongside other mental health conditions. For instance, a person can have ADHD and be an HSP.

Highly Sensitive Person - what is worth remembering about HSP

Being a Highly Sensitive Person is a package deal. Having heightened sensitivity to sensory processing can transform ordinary joys into ecstasy and ordinary sadness into despair.

The key is self-regulation by recognizing over-arousal. Such people can be a huge asset in any group due to their combined intuition and caution, which makes them excellent strategists, healers, and researchers of all kinds.

However, HSPs may be more prone to burnout due to chronic overstimulation stress coupled with perfectionism, conscientiousness, and a high level of empathy for the suffering of others.

Rest and inclusion of breaks are essential to strengthen the strengths of persons with high sensitivity. Setting boundaries and learning to say no is key to getting the most out of the package while minimizing their vulnerability.

Finally, it is worth emphasizing that research on this personality trait as a form of neurodiversity is constantly evolving along with specialized coaching, counseling, and therapeutic interventions that aim to increase the resilience of sensitive people.

Elaine N. Aron Books Covers

Elaine N. Aron Book - The highly sensitive person in love

Tom Falkenstein Book - The highly sensitive man

The 8 Best Books on Highly Sensitive People

1. The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You – Elaine N. Aron

This book describes how psychologist Elaine Aron identified this trait during her work as a psychology researcher and psychotherapist.

It summarizes the various indicators of the trait and discusses the strengths and weaknesses that HSPs often face in their intimate relationships, at work, and in society in general.

The self-care strategies it recommends are based on Dr. Aron's research and clinical practice.

2. The Highly Sensitive Person's Workbook: A Comprehensive Collection of Pre-tested Exercises Developed to Enhance the Lives of HSPs – Elaine N. Aron

The enormous response to the first book led Dr. Aron to create this Workbook, designed to honor your sensitivity. A collection of exercises and activities for both individuals and groups, this workbook will help you identify the HSP trait in yourself, nurture the new, positive self-image you deserve, and create a fuller, richer life.

You will be able to: Identify your specific sensitivities with self-assessment tests, reframe past experiences in a more positive light, interpret dreams and relate them to your sensitivity, and cope with overarousal through relaxation, breathing, and visualization techniques, describe your trait in a work interview or to an unsympathetic family member, new friend, doctor, or therapist

3. The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them – Elaine N. Aron

In this book, Dr. Aron uses her experience working with highly sensitive children. The book explains how, with the right upbringing, HSPs can actually thrive and be successful in the world without the need for therapeutic support later in life.

4. The Highly Sensitive Man: How Mastering Natural Instincts, Ethics, and Empathy Can Enrich Men's Lives and the Lives of Those Who Love Them - Tom Falkenstein

Cognitive behavioral psychotherapist Tom Falkenstein offers the first psychological guide that specifically addresses highly sensitive men and those who care about them and explores the unique advantages and obstacles they face. Drawing from his training with pioneer in the field Dr. Elaine Aron, and his groundbreaking work, Falkenstein incorporates the most up-to-date research on high sensitivity—what it is and isn’t—how it relates to male identity and provides one-of-a-kind advice and practical tools.

Including an illuminating conversation with Dr. Aron, The Highly Sensitive Man is an invaluable book that will help redefine masculinity and reveal how high sensitivity can enrich men’s lives, their communities, and the lives of those who love them.

5. Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person: Improving Outcomes for That Minority of People Who Are the Majority of Clients – Elaine N. Aron

This book is aimed at clinicians working in a therapeutic capacity as research by Dr. Aron (2010) has shown that HSPs make up the majority of psychotherapy clients.

It discusses, among others, the overlap of sensory processing sensitivity with a range of clinical disorders including autism, attention deficit disorder, anxiety, depression, and borderline personality disorder.

Dr. Aron draws on his research and clinical experience to guide clinicians on the interventions that deliver the best outcomes for HSP. It explains how many HSPs who come to therapy have unmet childhood needs due to a misunderstanding of this trait by their parents.

However, it assures clinicians that HSPs benefit more from psychotherapy than less sensitive clients because of their conscientiousness, willingness to learn, and increased awareness.

6. The Empowered Highly Sensitive Person: A Workbook to Harness Your Strengths in Every Part of Life – Amanda Cassil

Dr. Cassil is a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with HSP. This workbook contains many practical, research-based mental health exercises to help HSPs deal with overstimulation, intense emotions, and relationship issues.

Dr. Cassil's book also shows HSPs how to use their unique qualities to achieve success in every area of life.

7. The Highly Sensitive: How to Stop Emotional Overload, Relieve Anxiety, and Eliminate Negative Energy – Judy Dyer

Judy Dyer is an empath who provides psychological and spiritual guidance to other empaths and HSPs.

A particular strength of this book is its focus on creating healthy boundaries that protect HSPs from emotional overwhelm and negative energy. This is a useful self-help resource for HSPs who struggle with relationships of all kinds.

8. Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person – Barrie Jaeger

Dr. Jaeger is a coach and psychotherapist who specializes in supporting the development of HSP in the workplace.

This book provides practical tips and techniques for HSPs to help them find rewarding and meaningful work by leveraging their unique strengths.


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