​​Do you find yourself becoming overwhelmed by noisy, crowded spaces, bright lights, other people’s moods? Do you notice subtle things that most others seem to miss? Do you have a rich and complex inner life? Are you a deep thinker? Do you find that you need a lot of down time or alone time to recover from the stresses of daily life?

Sensitivity is an inborn trait that falls along a continuum. Overall, sensitivity describes the ability to perceive and process information about the environment. Sensitivity consists of two basic components:

  • The perception of sensory input from the environment, such as sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and proprioception (where our body is in space).​​
  • The cognitive processing of the perceived information about the environment, such as thinking deeply, connecting ideas, reflecting and learning from experiences.

If this describes you, you may be considered a highly sensitive person (HSP), a term coined by the clinical psychologist, Elaine Aron in 1991. HSP's are often gifted leaders, healers, writers, and artists. HSP’s often excel at caring for others but may need guidance and support to learn how to also nurture themselves.

Given that sensitivity is an inborn trait, everyone is sensitive to an extent. However, research has shown that people tend to fall into three different groups along a spectrum of sensitivity: low, medium, and high. 30% of the population fall under the highly sensitive group, 40% under medium and 30% under low.

It’s important to understand that being born with high sensory processing sensitivity does not mean that you have a disorder or a mental illness, this simply describes an inborn trait that we all have to greater or lesser degrees.

It is interesting to note that research has demonstrated that when HSP’s have had supportive and positive childhoods, they can excel and thrive. However, when they have not had supportive upbringings, or they have experienced neglect, trauma, or abuse, HSP's may greatly struggle with shame, anxiety, depression, isolation, numbness, addictions, and chronic health issues.

Although HSP's suffer more when exposed to adverse events, they also benefit more from positive experiences, such as psychotherapy. Learning to manage their energy in sustainable ways can vastly improve daily functioning, quality of life, focus, creativity, self-worth, and overall health.

What are the benefits of being highly sensitive?

There are many advantages to being highly sensitive, in fact, some HSP’s view it as their superpower. According to theory, these advantages are the result of more active mental circuitry and neurochemicals in areas related to attention, action-planning, and decision-making, as well as deep cognitive processing. In other words, HSP’s have an enhanced capacity to channel their focus with precision, make thoughtful choices, and have rich and creative insights and ideas.

Highly sensitive people are extremely observant, intuitive, thoughtful, compassionate, empathetic, conscientious, self-aware, and creative. They tend to have a particularly well-developed understanding of relationships and an appreciation for the complexity of environments and other people’s feelings and thoughts.

Highly sensitive people care deeply about their friends, and they tend to form deep bonds with people. Again, the empathy that a highly sensitive person brings to the table is a powerful tool for being a supportive friend and loved one.

As a result of these qualities, sensitive people tend to make excellent leaders, health practitioners, writers, artists, researchers, college professors, photographers, and scientists.

Notable others thought to be HSP’s: Abraham Lincoln, Jane Goodall, Princess Diana, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, Glenn Close, Steve Martin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Bruce Springsteen, the list is long...

Questionnaire: Are You Highly Sensitive?
Adapted (abbreviated version) from Elaine N. Aron, 1996, Aron, E. (2013).

If these questions resonate with you, you may be a highly sensitive person.

  • I am easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input.
  • Other people’s moods affect me.
  • I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or into 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 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 get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time.
  • I am annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once.
  • I become unpleasantly aroused when a lot is going on around me.
  • Changes in my life shake me up.
  • I make it a high priority to arrange my life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations.

Links To Research and Further Reading:

Sensory processing sensitivity and somatosensory brain activation when feeling touch (Shaefer, Kuhnel and Gartner, 2022)

The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others' emotions (Acevedo et al., 2014)

​​Sensory processing sensitivity and serotonin gene variance: Insights into mechanisms shaping environmental sensitivity (Homberg, et al., 2016).

Sensory-Processing Sensitivity, dispositional mindfulness and negative psychological symptoms (Bakker and Moulding, 2012)​​​

The Relationship between the Temperament Trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Emotional Reactivity (Jagiellowicz et al., 2016)

Sensory-Processing Sensitivity

What is Sensory-processing sensitivity?

Sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS) is a biologically-based trait that is characterized by an increased awareness and sensitivity to the environment and a deeper level of cognitive processing than those without this trait. 

Research suggests that sensory-processing sensitivity is found in approximately 20% of humans and over 100 other species. 

Individuals with high levels of SPS typically have the following characteristics:

  • Greater awareness of environmental and social stimuli
  • Deeper cognitive processing with activation in brain regions involved in awareness, attention and action planning (Acevedo, Aron and Brown, 2014)
  • Greater attention to subtleties
  • Strongly affected by the environment
  • High levels of self awareness, empathy and self-other processing
  • Pausing before acting in new situations (Aron and Aron, 1997)
  • More reactive to both positive and negative stimuli (Jagiellowicz, 2012)
  • Processes stimuli more elaborately and learns from information gained ​​