By , On 17th October 2019 Comments Off on Highly Sensitive People

Do you feel like you are more sensitive than most people you know?
Do you tend to think things through more thoroughly and love looking into things more deeply?
Do you take in so much information at once that sometimes you feel over stimulated by your five senses?
Do you read the vibe of the room or empathize with how someone is feeling well? Maybe you pick up on details in a room or you’re the first to notice that change in hairstyle of your friends and colleagues?

If you relate to the statements above, or you recognise them in someone you know, you may be observing a highly sensitive person. In this blog post, we will discuss what a ‘highly sensitive person’ is, why some people are highly sensitive and others aren’t and how it can influence your life.

What is a Highly Sensitive Person?

So what is a “Highly Sensitive Person”? First of all it is a personality characteristic, that is found in about 15% to 20% of the people, animals and insects (E. N. Aron, 2010b). The acronym “D.O.E.S” describes some key characteristics of highly sensitive people: Depth of processing, Overstimulation, Emotional reactivity/Empathy, sensitive to Subtleties (Aron, 2012). In other words; highly sensitive people process stimuli thoroughly; can because of this thorough processing become overstimulated; are emotionally responsive to both their inner and outside world; and pick up on subtle details. “High sensitivity” is an umbrella term for one’s increased processing of emotional-, physical- and environmental stimuli:

  • Emotions are processed more deeply; one often needs more time to make a decision or process feelings, such as during an argument. One can also experience pleasant feelings more deeply.
  • Physical stimuli are processed more deeply; one is more sensitive to pain and tight or itchy clothing.
  • Environmental stimuli are processed more deeply, one can often notice that change in hairstyles or glasses and is often easily overwhelmed by busy places such as shopping malls.

The word ‘highly sensitive person’ (HSP) is relatively new (20 years- old); however, the idea of someone being more sensitive than the average person is not (A. Aron et al., 2010). Older terms usually only focussed on observable behaviour such as ‘shyness’ and ‘introversion’, which are relevant characteristics for many HSPs – however, someone who is HSP can also be extroverted and outgoing. Being highly sensitive is not observable from the outside – yet it can impact someone’s experiences and often be confusing. For example, one might wonder why others do not seem to be as deeply moved by an event, piece of art/music or conversation. As a result of this detailed processing, HSPs tend to often require more time to respond to a situation before making a decision. Having a great sense of detail can be hugely beneficial as it can make one highly observant, yet also overwhelming at times.

So why does sensitivity vary?

Sensitivity, or otherwise called one’s temperament, is innate to everyone and can be thought of as a continuum scale; some people are ‘low’ on the sensitivity continuum, and some are ‘high’ – and most people will fall in the ‘average’ range (Lionetti et al., 2018).

The core differences between an HSP (highly sensitive person) and a non-HSP is that an HSPs processes information more thoroughly, this is due to a more fine-tuned central nervous system. The nervous system runs through the brain and spinal court and processes all information running through it. The central nervous system is, as the name suggests, a fundamental part of the human anatomy (and many animals and insects), it results in fine- tuned and more detailed processing of all things going through it; from all of our senses (vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell).

It is important to note, that sensitivity is not a disorder nor can it be diagnosed. It is an inherent part of someone’s character and it differs from person to person. Sometimes, depending on unique value systems or cultures, the word ‘sensitive’ has a somewhat negative meaning, however, being sensitive can be of great advantage in life. As sensitivity is on a continuum scale it is just as likely for any gender to be highly sensitive or low in sensitivity as another gender. Although cultural implications here may also make suggestions on how a specific gender ‘should’ or ‘is allowed’ to express their sensitivity.

Life as a Highly Sensitive Person

Individuals who are highly sensitive have a genetic predisposition to responding to their environment with this trait, however, this may not always lead to distress. Some individuals who are highly sensitive may have good supports in place and feel able to harness their unique strengths. These individuals, typically, would not seek therapy services. Often highly sensitive people can struggle with a low self-esteem, (inner) criticism/feedback and balancing an overwhelming lifestyle with goals that suits their personality (Aron, 2010a). Others may have experienced an aversive event, or have limited support and due to their pre- disposition to sensitivity, they may find their way into the therapy room (Grimen & Diseth, 2016).

Book a session with TOP Clinic to get a better understanding of your sensitivity. We can support you in navigating your internal world and translating this into expression to facilitate increased self-understanding.

Written by Tim van Wanrooij,
Bc. SW., H.Dip. Psych, M.Ps.S.I., 
Counselling Psychologist in doctoral training


You can find more information on Highly Sensitive People on this website, HSPerson.

Acevedo, B. P., Aron, E. N., Aron, A., Sangster, M.-D., Collins, N., & Brown, L. L. (2014). The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others’ emotions. Brain and Behavior4(4), 580–594.

Aron, A., Ketay, S., Hedden, T., Aron, E. N., Rose Markus, H., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2010). Temperament trait of sensory processing sensitivity moderates cultural differences in neural response. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience5(2-3), 219–226.

Aron, E. N. (2010a). Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person: Improving Outcomes for That Minority of People Who Are the Majority of Clients. Routledge.

Aron, E. N. (2010b). The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms you. Kensington Publishing Corp.

Aron, E. N. (2012). Temperament in psychotherapy: Reflections on clinical practice with the trait of sensitivity. In M. Zentner & R. L. Shiner, Handbook of temperament. (pp. 645–670). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Boyce, T. W., & Ellis, B. J. (2005). Biological sensitivity to context: I. An evolutionary–developmental theory of the origins and functions of stress reactivity. Development and Psychopathology17(2), 271–301.

Lionetti, F., Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Burns, G. L., Jagiellowicz, J., & Pluess, M. (2018). Dandelions, tulips and orchids: evidence for the existence of low-sensitive, medium- sensitive and high-sensitive individuals. Translational Psychiatry, 1–11.

Pluess, M., & Boniwell, I. (2015). Sensory-Processing Sensitivity predicts treatment response to a school-based depression prevention program: Evidence of Vantage Sensitivity. Personality and Individual Differences82(C), 40–45.

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