The first time I realized I was highly sensitive was when I saw the movie Titanic. I was 11, and as I watched the passengers gasping for air as the ship sank, I too started gasping for air from the safety of my living-room couch. My sensitivities intensified as I got older, both to my benefit and detriment; to this day, I meticulously moderate the content I consume because I am so easily perturbed by images and words. My senses are so highly attuned that I have smelled gas leaks when no one else could, and a half shot of espresso is enough to keep me going all day.
I am a highly sensitive person (HSP), a term coined by the clinical psychologist Elaine Aron in 1991 to describe a personality trait that is present in 15 to 30% of the population, approximately 80 million women and men across the United States. An HSP refers to those with a sensitive central nervous system and thereby an increased awareness of physical, emotional, and social stimuli in their environment.
Aron’s HSP research began when her then therapist remarked on her high sensitivity. Intrigued, Aron began conducting brain studies to deduce whether high sensitivity was, in fact, a personality trait. The results of her research were clear: Those who scored higher on the HSP test revealed a greater depth of sensory processing in the brain scans than those who scored lower. Seven books and 20 studies later, her research has helped millions of people around the world understand why they feel stimuli more heavily than their peers. (While she is best known for her HSP research, you also might know Aron for developing the renowned 36 Questions to Fall in Love, made famous when it was published by The New York Times, in which two people form a deeper connection by asking each other a series of specific, intimate questions.)
Thirty years after she coined the term, HSP awareness is more relevant than ever as we are increasingly inundated with external stimuli. More than 25 books have been authored by researchers who have expanded on Aron’s findings, and Aron has been called to offer advice for HSPs during the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, her work has resonated with artists and creatives whose sensitivities are essential to their livelihoods. Nicole Kidman, Kanye West, and Alanis Morisette are among the many who identify as an HSP. “When I read her book for the first time, I just couldn’t stop weeping. It was self-recognition after recognition. I reached out to Elaine and said, ‘I need to meet you, can we talk?’” explained Morisette, who appeared in Aron’s 2015 documentary Sensitive: The Untold Story.
While there are countless strengths of being an HSP, the most lauded is creativity. Because HSPs have an acute ability to process so intensely, they tend to have rich and nuanced inner worlds that can be expressed in multiple mediums. “Being onstage totally taps into the gifts of being an HSP,” attests Morisette. “It’s music I wrote that I want to sing.” Another is adaptability; HSPs are so attuned to their surroundings that they can easily read a room and adapt to whatever environment they find themselves in. HSPs also have a high propensity for empathy, as they often have an immediate and deep empathetic response to what other people are thinking and feeling and can form bonds and connect on a deep level. Lastly, Aron says the most unexpected strength of being an HSP is their gift of intuition. Between their penchant for perceptivity and depth of processing, HSPs can tap into themselves and access their gut instincts and unconscious minds.
Among the many misconceptions Aron wants to dispel about the trait, the first is associating high sensitivity with introversion. While that can be true, Aron maintains it is by no means the rule. Many highly sensitive extroverts and novelty-seeking HSPs, like Morisette, thrive in energetic social situations. “I want more contrast, more information, more beauty, and then boom! I’m flooded. Then it’s like, Slow down and slam on the brakes, I can’t do this anymore. It’s too bright. It’s this constant back-and-forth,” Morisette describes. This balancing act is key for an HSP, who must make a conscious effort to allot downtime to decompress and process.
The second misconception is the stigmatized association between sensitivity and mental or physical weakness. “The longer [HSPs] reflect on things, the more subtleties we’ll notice and we start to feel more,” explains Aron. And emotions are often seen as weaknesses. “When people are quiet in a group, we think they’re stupid, shy, or afraid. And immediately they get a label.” As a result, many HSPs are reluctant to acknowledge their sensitivity out of a perceived fear of admitting weakness.
Aron recommends that HSPs make adjustments to advocate for themselves properly. “We have to rest before other people do,” she says. “When HSPs are overstimulated, we actually become insensitive to people—we want to be left alone.” Due to their predisposition for sensory overload, HSPs need to carve out time to detox, even if it’s closing their eyes for 10 minutes. “I had to hide in the hotel room for a little longer and have two or three therapy sessions a week,” says Morisette on how she coped while on tour. “There is no handbook on how to manage the lifestyle of rock and roll, which is not built for the highly sensitive. [But] as long as I have the illusion of being alone, I can recharge really quickly.”
I’m an HSP! Now what?
Aron advises HSPs to look back at their past relationships and decisions with a new lens. It is therapeutic and informative to reflect on your so-called failures and understand them in relation to your sensitivity. “You quickly realize the things that were inevitable given the HSP trait you were born with. Sensitive people get a lot out of any kind of self-help work or therapy,” Aron says. “Adjust for your lifestyle, set boundaries, and do the kind of work that makes the best use of your sensitivity and minimizes overstimulation. Find a community, either virtual or in real life, and connect with other HSPs!” Aron has provided a list of community resources on her website, while a search of HSP on MeetUp.com turns up groups like Highly Sensitive People Thriving in San Diego and London Highly Sensitive and Creative Meetup.
The Official HSP Quiz (courtesy of Elaine Aron)
If you answer yes to more than 14 questions, you are likely highly sensitive.
-I am easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input.
-I seem to be aware of subtleties in my environment.
-Other people’s moods affect me.
-I tend to be very sensitive to pain.
-I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation.
-I am particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine.
-I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by.
-I have a rich, complex inner life.
-I am made uncomfortable by loud noises.
-I am deeply moved by the arts or music.
-My nervous system sometimes feels so frazzled that I just have to go off by myself.
-I am conscientious.
-I startle easily.
-I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time.
-When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment, I tend to know what needs to be done to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating).
-I am annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once.
-I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things.
-I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows.
-I become unpleasantly aroused when a lot is going on around me.
-Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration or mood.
-Changes in my life shake me up.
-I notice and enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art.
-I find it unpleasant to have a lot going on at once.
-I make it a high priority to arrange my life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations. I am bothered by intense stimuli, like loud noises or chaotic scenes.
-When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.
-When I was a child, my parents or teachers seemed to see me as sensitive or shy.