If You Cry Easily, Have Extreme Empathy, and Need Time Alone to Reflect, You Could Be an HSP
Do you feel moved by the beauty of music, feel extreme empathy toward animals, cry during touching commercials, hate loud nosies, are easily startled or overwhelmed, and need a lot of quiet alone time? If so, you may be a highly sensitive person or an HSP. Elaine Aron, who has a Ph.D. in clinical depth psychology, discovered the traits of HSPs and wrote the book The Highly Sensitive Person, in which she says 15 to 20 percent of the population are HSPs.
HSPs may have been called “too sensitive” or told their heightened sensitivity is a weakness. But once a person comes to the realization that they’re an HSP, they’ll understand themselves on a much deeper level. They’ll see their sensitivity, intuition, and conscientiousness as a strength and a gift, and they’ll feel happier and more confident because of it. Keep reading to learn about the traits of highly sensitive people; how being highly sensitive affects diet, workouts, and body image; how HSPs can practice self-care; and how to use sensitivity as a superpower!
What Are the Traits of a Highly Sensitive Person?
Highly sensitive person traits were first identified by Dr. Aron, who was a pioneer in the research for high sensitivity, explained licensed creative arts therapist Sheilagh McGreal, MS, ATR, LCAT. Dr. Aron has identified four core categories of HSP traits using the acronym D.O.E.S.:
- Depth of Processing: They think deeply, need more time for transitions and to reflect on decisions, and have good intuition, McGreal said.
- Overstimulation: With the ability to notice every little detail and feel all the feels so deeply, it can lead to overstimulation or feeling stressed when HSPs aren’t getting enough downtime, McGreal said. They can be sensitive to loud sounds or music, bright lights, uncomfortable fabrics or clothes, crowds, and clutter. HSPs often need time alone in a quiet space to just think, and they often work best without distractions.
- Empathy/Emotional Reactivity: Humans have something called mirror neurons in our brains, which enable us to reflect body language, facial expressions, and emotion. HSPs have more of these active neurons, which leads to heightened feelings of empathy toward people and animals, explained McGreal. This is why HSPs are often affected by the moods of others. They feel everything deeply, higher highs and lower lows.
- Sensitive to Subtleties: HSPs notice little details and nonverbal cues that others miss, McGreal said.
Each individual will relate to these traits in different ways. For example, some may have high intuition, others might be better at sensing or “reading” the moods of others, and some might have high empathy or sensory sensitivity (to itchy clothes, drafts, loud noise, etc.), McGreal explained.
Since high sensitivity (or sensory processing sensitivity, as it’s known in the research) is something 20 percent of humans are born with, explained licensed psychotherapist and author April Snow, LMFT, and it’s also found in over 100 other species, you can tell you’re an HSP if you have experienced all of the D.O.E.S. characteristics since you were a child.
Is There a Test to Find Out If You're a Highly Sensitive Person?
Snow said you can take this self-test developed by Dr. Aron to find out if you’re a highly sensitive person. If you answer more than 14 of the questions as true for yourself (I scored a 23), you are probably highly sensitive (welcome to the club!).
But Dr. Aron also said no psychological test is so accurate that an individual should base their life on it – it’s best to see a therapist who’s trained in helping HSPs to find out. Here’s a list of HSP-knowledgeable therapists.
What It's Like to Be a Highly Sensitive Person
According to Snow, highly sensitive people may relate to these:
- Has been called “too sensitive” or “too emotional” throughout their life
- Feels more deeply than others in their life
- Needs more time to “warm up” when meeting new people or starting new activities such as school, a job, a hobby, a workout class, etc.
- Rereads texts or emails before sending them as a way to process
- Feels deeply connected to animals, nature, music, the arts, spirituality, or religion
- Picks up on what others are feeling or notices nonverbal cues others miss
- Prefers soft, comfy clothing and quiet spaces
- May scream if accidentally startled
- After a busy day, they just want to go somewhere to be alone and quiet
- Is very conscientious and wants to do things right; doesn’t like when others point out mistakes
- Feels annoyed or frazzled when they have to do too much at once time
- Has vivid dreams or a colorful imagination
- Has an overall sensitive nervous system (sensitive to temperature changes, loud noises like sirens, sugar or caffeine, etc.)
Our emotional selves may be a bit more sensitive than other people’s. We may cry at a commercial, the sound of a baby crying, or seeing something traumatic in a movie like animal cruelty or a sick child, Snow explained. Being highly sensitive has the advantage of having heightened perception and intuition, which allow HSPs to soak up the little joys that others miss and feel deeply connected to the people in their lives.
Are There Different Types of Highly Sensitive People?
All highly sensitive people experience their sensitivity differently depending on personality and life experiences, Snow said. A few common differences in sensitivity are:
Introverted HSPs: The majority of HSPs are introverts, will need a lot of recharge time after socializing, and prefer deep one-on-one or small group connections.
Extroverted HSPs: McGreal said that not all HSPs are introverted! Snow agrees, saying Dr. Aron’s research shows that 30 percent of HSPs are actually extroverted and may seek out more social engagement than the highly sensitive introverts. They want more one-on-one connection and downtime compared to the non-HSP extrovert.
High sensation seeking (HSS) HSPs: Some HSPs are also high sensation seekers, meaning they will have more need for novelty and thrilling experiences. Despite being more adventurous or thrill-seeking than other HSPs, they will still be conscientious about risks.
Some HSPs may identify with being an “empath,” McGreal said, relating to a more spiritual life that may be associated with heightened insight or intuition such as clairvoyance or sixth-sense abilities. Judith Orloff has written a great deal on this topic and identifies as an empath.
What Is the Best Workout For a Highly Sensitive Person?
When considering workouts, highly sensitive people should look for activities that appeal to their high sensitivity, McGreal recommended. A workout that is rhythmic or repetitive, like biking or rowing, may be perfect because it’s soothing. Water can also be very calming and quiet, so swimming is a good option. Since many HSPs prefer working out alone or in nature because it’s calming and not overstimulating, as Dr. Aron explains in her book, running, hiking, kayaking, road biking, or cross-country skiing are great options.
Sensation-seeking HSPs may enjoy workouts that focus on agility and stamina such as training for a marathon, rock climbing, and even team sports, McGreal said. If your sensitivity requires something more grounded, quiet, and less stimulating, yoga, Pilates, tai chi, or qi gong might be a good choice. Dr. Aron said to make sure to get enough exercise, but that the amount is individualized and based on your needs.
How Does Being a Highly Sensitive Person Affect Diet?
Sensitive folks tend to be more affected by caffeine, sugar, spiciness, and other stimulants, Snow said. Heightened perception allows them to notice the subtle changes food has on their energy levels, mood, or physical body. McGreal added that HSPs may be very aware when a food doesn’t agree with them and also very sensitive to feelings of hunger.
Due to their conscientious nature, HSPs are often intentional about buying food from healthy, sustainable sources. Since HSPs are also highly empathetic toward animals, they may also choose to be vegan, McGreal said.
Food may also hold emotional significance, feeling connected to family dishes or helping to provide comfort through the tactile nature of preparing food from scratch. HSPs may love cooking or baking because it offers them quiet time to recharge and is an outlet for creativity. McGreal added that it’s also a way to nourish family and friends and show them love.
How Does Being a Highly Sensitive Person Affect Body Image?
Reading subtle or nonverbal cues and being intuitive to what others or society expects, highly sensitive people can struggle with feeling “good enough” in their body, Snow said. This is on top of already feeling different, misunderstood, or not enough than the other 80 percent of the population who are not highly sensitive.
Sensitive individuals will certainly be more impacted by criticism, whether external or internal, because they feel it more deeply, Snow explained. On the flip side, when feeling supported or encouraged by even one friend or loved one, HSPs will soak up the positive reinforcement like a sponge and begin to thrive.
How Do Highly Sensitive People Practice Self-Care and Support Their Mental Health?
Self-care is essential to keeping life balanced – especially for a highly sensitive person. It can include being proactive to reduce the chances for feeling overwhelmed, but it also involves knowing what to do when you realize you are overwhelmed, McGreal said.
One essential proactive thing HSPs can do is to get quiet time alone every day to reflect and recharge, Snow said. She said Dr. Aron recommends two hours a day, one day of quiet downtime per week, and one week of quiet downtime per season. During this quiet time, Snow said the individual can create or look at art, play an instrument, meditate, do repetitive forms of exercise or gentle movement, get out in nature, or spend meaningful time with animals. It’s also important for the HSP to say no to people or invitations that will make them feel overwhelmed.
When an HSP does get overstimulated, the above will also help. Taking time alone to have a hot shower or bath in dim light, doing something artsy, listening to calming music, writing in a journal, doing yoga, or taking a nap are helpful options. McGreal said, “A good way to gauge if it’s an effective self-care activity is to ask yourself if you feel refreshed afterwards or feel mentally and emotionally balanced.”
Highly sensitive people’s mental health may benefit from working with a therapist, since they think deeply, can suffer from body-image issues, and may feel easily overwhelmed, particularly one who is an HSP themselves.
How Can a Highly Sensitive Person Use Their Sensitivity as a Superpower?
Snow said many highly sensitive people grow up feeling bad about how different they are, are criticized for being “too sensitive,” and feel so overwhelmed that they are unhappy or can become depressed if their sensitivity isn’t supported. But once you identify yourself as an HSP, Dr. Aron said, you’ll have an “aha moment,” and Snow added, you can then embrace your sensitivity to access its many gifts.
Don’t let others convince you that you need to change, because they are benefiting from the superpowers of your sensitivity without even realizing it (your empathy, perception, creativity, etc.). Ignore the messages you’ve received that say your sensitivity is a weakness – see it as a strength, Snow said. “When you create a lifestyle that is in alignment with your needs, these strengths can truly shine through,” Snow said.
The sky is the limit with your superpowers, McGreal said. To start, just being your authentic, genuine, caring self in the world is a huge asset to everyone. The ability to care for and understand others makes for a positive and remarkable experience, particularly if you are a doctor, a nurse, a teacher, a parent, a yoga instructor, a therapist, or working on a team. Truly listening and caring deeply gives hope to people. As a creative thinker, McGreal added, you contribute innovative ideas, and if we didn’t have the arts, the world would be a bit boring.
Although HSPs may move slower, get overwhelmed easily, feel sadness deeply, and need more downtime, we also are incredibly creative, are skilled at anticipating the needs of others, have profound insights and ideas, and are passionately conscientious. Snow said, “The world needs our sensitivity now more than ever.”