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Highly Sensitive Person - what is their uniqueness?

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The term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) was first coined by psychologist Elaine Aron (1996), who herself is an HSP. 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 (HSP). We will also analyze whether high sensitivity should be viewed as a disorder, or perhaps as a category of neurodiversity and really a special gift.

And, importantly, we will provide links to the relevant HSP Tests. For both adults and children.

What are the characteristics of a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

HSPs are estimated to represent 15–20% of the total population (results obtained using the full HSP Test 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 HSP 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 the HSP trait into four main categories that together are called D.O.E.S.

1. HSP Depth of Processing

HSPs 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. HSP Ease of Overstimulation

HSPs 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), (Aron, 2010). This can be beneficial, but it can also lead to overstimulation and chronic stress.

3. HSP Emotional Responsiveness or Empathy

HSPs 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. HSP Sensitiveness to Subtle Stimuli

HSPs 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, noise, and light (Aron & Aron, 1997).

The combined effects of the Highly Sensitive Person 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 the HSP trait and extraversion or introversion (Aron, 2010).

However, the HSP will always carefully assess the risks before embarking on an adventure, as its sensitivity counteracts impulsiveness (Aron, 2010). HSPs also tend to plan ahead and are excellent strategists.

From an evolutionary point of view, HSPs 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).

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

HSPs also have a heightened aesthetic sense, being very sensitive to the beauty of nature and art (Aron, 2010).

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

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Although HSPs 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 HSPs also benefit greatly from counseling and psychotherapy to overcome childhood difficulties that led to low self-esteem (Aron, 2002).

Cultural differences also play a role in their experiences. HSPs 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 HSPS 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 on HSP 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?

Is HSP's Sensitivity to Sensory Processing (SPS) 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 (or HSP) can be distinguished from HFA due to the high level of empathy and response to social stimuli. HSPs can also be misdiagnosed as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but this is different because HSPs can concentrate for long periods of time when working in a quiet environment (Reijnders-Mies, 2021).

HSP 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, HSP is a feature that presents a unique set of challenges and brings certain benefits to both the individual HSP 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 trait and due to the patient's perception of their HSP 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 HSPs often encounter in the less vulnerable outside world.

10 Signs and Symptoms of Highly Sensitive People (HSP)

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

1. HSPs feel everything more deeply and intensely than others.

Be it joy or sadness, pleasure or pain.

2. High sensitivity means that HSPs take great joy in the simple pleasures of life.

This makes them "maintainable" and easy to please.

3. SPs need much more downtime than others, thrive in silence, and need a slower pace of life.

This means that taking time to relax and process experiences is essential for their well-being.

4. HSPs take longer to make decisions than others due to the depth of information processing.

This includes conducting a thorough risk assessment and exercising caution.

5. Change can be a problem for HSPs.

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 for HSPs.

They tend to have very high expectations of themselves and are hard on themselves when they don't meet their expectations. The extra criticism of others may seem overwhelming to them.

7. HSPs tend to have a rich inner life and 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. HSPs tend to avoid the negative overstimulation caused by violent movies and news coverage.

Such experiences almost hurt them physically.

9. The susceptibility of HSPs 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. HSPs prefer a small social circle full of love and support, which they return to abundantly due to their high level of empathy.

It takes time to let another person in, but when HSP becomes your friend, they are loyal and supportive every step of the way.

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 HSPs.

The best tests to measure High Sensitivity

Here are the links to various science-proven HSP Tests for both adults and children.

Original HSP Tests in English

  1. HSP Test for adults developed by Aron and Aron (1997).

  2. In new research, developed HSP Test for adults with short scale

  3. Parents may use a special test to assess their children for HSP. This test is based on research conducted by Aron for children (2002).

  4. At there is also an abbreviated self-test available for children ages 8-18.

Free Highly Sensitive Personality Test for adults 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 Aron.

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 Highly Sensitive Personality, and a list of books in English on high sensitivity.

HSP test templates are available in various print-ready formats.

At this link, you can download a free ebook with the Highly Sensitive Personality test

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How to support HSPs?

HSPs often struggle in life due to a profound misunderstanding by those around them, including their own parents in childhood. This means that some of their early self-esteem needs may remain unmet in adulthood, causing chronic self-doubt, anxiety, and even depression (Aron, 2010).

1. Psychoeducation

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

And while HSPs seeking therapy may have suffered from a lack of awareness of their characteristics, research shows that HSPs benefit more from psychological support and therapy than their insensitive counterparts (Aron, 2010).

2. Finding a balance

HSPs can be introverted or extroverted. The more sociable, thrill-seeking type will have to learn to balance novelty, over-stimulation and 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 HSP 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

HSPs 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).

HSPs 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 at 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 HSPs 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 HSP, children, and autism

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. But children with HSP 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).

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.

Children with HSP 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).

Highly Sensitive Person - what is worth remembering

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 to managing HSPs is self-regulation by recognizing over-arousal. HSPs 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 excessive empathy for the suffering of others.

Rest and inclusion of breaks are essential to strengthen the strengths of HSPs. 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 into the HSP trait as a form of neurodiversity is constantly evolving along with specialized coaching, counseling, and therapeutic interventions that aim to increase HSP resilience.

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The 8 best books on Highly Sensitive Person

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

This book describes how Elaine Aron, herself a Highly Sensitive Person, 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 The Highly Sensitive Person's 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 own 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.


See also:

Where are the limits of our brain capabilities?

Want to be a better leader? Activate vulnerability

Why are some people more cheerful than others?

Maurice Ravel - engineer or composer?

3/4 - the power of Life by WBE Theory – ep. 1

Big Bang and the Beginning of Everything - Deus ex Machina – part 1 Divine Proportion - a myth or an imprint of the Divine Mathematician? Buddhism and quantum physics vs Burnout at Work What does Einstein's theory have to do with personal development?

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