Are you a Highly Sensitive Person?

Are you very perceptive and intuitive?

Do you find that you need regular time alone in order to be at your best?

Does being hungry really knock you off centre, derailing your concentration and/or mood?

Are you unusually sensitive to the effects of refined sugar, caffeine and other drugs – and/or to pain and to hot and cold temperatures?

Are you especially affected by and sensitive to others’ moods and to unkind words or acts?

Do you sometimes experience mind fog or find that when put on the spot your mind goes blank?

Do you sometimes have real difficulty switching off and getting to sleep?

Do you seem to become overwhelmed more easily than others – for example in crowded environments or when you have too much to do?

Do you have a vivid imagination?

Are you deeply moved by music and the arts, and/or by nature?

If you answered yes to most or all of these questions, you’re in the 15-20% of the population that is highly sensitive.

And since you’ve found your way to my website it’s very likely you are, as those in this group are by far the most likely to be drawn to alternative and conscious lifestyles.

I’m right there with you, and discovering the information I am going to share with you here changed my life.

You may have considered your sensitivity a liability, as I used to. As a child (and possibly adult) you may have been told that you’re “too sensitive” and to “stop being so sensitive”, as if your sensitivity was a bad thing and something you could just turn off.

But in fact your sensitivity is valuable beyond measure.

The concept of the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) was first recognised by the psychotherapist Elaine N. Aron, and if you recognise yourself (or a loved one) in the description above, her book – The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You – is essential reading.

Aron found that 15-20% of the population is highly sensitive, and another 27% sensitive, while 42% count themselves as “not sensitive at all”.

We live in a world that is in dire need of more sensitive people. War, poverty, factory farming and decimated rainforests are just four of the devastating consequences of a world run largely by the insensitive.

Other consequences are our culture’s endemic superficiality and preoccupation with all things material.

Carl Jung, an HSP himself, observed that the life of the HSP, “teaches the other possibility: the interior life which is so wanting in our civilisation,” and that HSPs often possess a “prophetic foresight.”

So if you have higher than average sensitivity, I encourage you to recognise your immense value.

HSPs have great passion and creativity. They show deep compassion and empathy; high awareness and intelligence. They notice things others miss, which is why visionaries and geniuses are more often than not HSPs. HSPs are also the intuitive artists, healers, therapists, teachers, parents, writers, researchers, philosophers and spiritual seekers.

“We come as package deal, however,” writes Elaine Aron. “Our trait of sensitivity means we will also be cautious, inward, needing extra time alone.

“Because people without the trait (the majority) do not understand that, they see us as timid, shy, weak, or that greatest sin of all, unsociable. Fearing those labels we try to become like others, but that leads to our becoming overaroused and distressed.”

Being highly sensitive is not a disorder, but in a culture where it is not the norm, it is very misunderstood and is sadly often treated – and medicated – as one.

As Aron explains, all of us (regardless of sensitivity) perform best and are happiest when our nervous systems are aroused just enough, but not too much. Being bored is not good, but nor is being overwhelmed.

But we differ greatly in how much our nervous systems are aroused by the same stimulus. This is where the downside of the HSP trait shows up – we are unable to tolerate as much as most people.

She writes, “What is moderately stimulating for most people is highly arousing for HSPs. What is highly arousing for most people causes an HSP to feel completely frazzled and overwhelmed.”

Those who are not sensitive may view HSPs as touchy, tetchy or temperamental. But our degree of sensitivity – and this goes for all of us, HSP or not – is a trait over which we have a lot less choice than most people assume.

In fact, brain imaging studies show it is hard-wired into us.

What all HSPs have in common is a hyper-responsive amygdala – the part of the brain that governs both fear responses and pleasure.

This means that for the HSP, everything is amplified; experienced in high definition.

And here’s a contrast worth noting. At the other end of the sensitivity scale to the HSPs sit the 1-3% of humans who are least sensitive.

We know them by the interchangeable terms “sociopath” and “psychopath”.

Brain-imaging studies show this group to have, in stark contrast, uncommonly unresponsive amygdalas.

As Jon Ronson writes in his book The Pscyhopath Test, there are psychopaths in all walks of life. The trait goes mostly unrecognised – in fact, in our culture that rewards toughness and ruthlessness, they often accumulate great power and wealth.

And their impact on all around them is so damaging (in covert, as well as overt, ways) that although only a tiny minority, they have a disproportionately massive negative impact on our world.

Within the 15-20% of the population that is highly sensitive there are as many men as women, but due to cultural stereotypes regarding gender, the men have by far the harder ride of it and are more likely to go to great lengths to hide or suppress their sensitivity.

This is a tragedy because while we need more sensitive people of all kinds in the world, what we most urgently need is more highly sensitive men.

While the highly sensitive are a blessing to society, and while a highly sensitive nervous system can be a wonderful vehicle through which to experience life, life can be challenging for some HSPs.

Sadly, many grew up with the negative aspects of their trait being pointed out to them by parents, teachers and peers, and little to no appreciation nor validation of the positive ones.

HSPs value and need deep relationships more than any other group, and take things more personally than any other group, so if HSPs grow up feeling misunderstood and being told they are not acceptable as they are, this puts them at high risk for depression and anxiety – and consequently for eating disorders, addictions and other manifestations of those states.

HSPs for whom life has been a struggle may have a hair-trigger flight-or-fight response, which can lead to the stress hormones being chronically elevated.

This in turn affects every system of the body, including the digestive, immune and endocrine systems, and is linked with many health challenges, as outlined here.

So it is really important that HSPs find a way of dialling down this stress response, perhaps through a combination of yoga, meditation and building in plenty of quiet time alone.

On the positive side, just understanding that you experience life through an extra-sensitive nervous system can in itself be a huge relief for the HSP, and incredibly healing.

Especially once you realise – maybe for the first time – that your sensitivity is not a defect but a trait which brings immense blessings along with the challenges.

The next step is to learn to play to your strengths and manage your energy so that the challenges fade into the background and you consistently manifest those blessings.

And I’d love to help you do just that. Would you like my best tips and strategies for thriving as a Highly Sensitive Person?

Go here to sign up for my Highly Sensitive Woman newsletter.

Go here to join my Facebook group, The Highly Sensitive Woman Salon.

26 Comments

  • Love this. Book – feels like one I want to read. I do feel this dilemma – many perceive HSPs to be either overly neurotic, and or self indulgent /selfish. Even as a very young child I can recall bursting into tears two Christmases in a row as I found the invasion of visiting people, festivities and what felt like superfical hype too much to handle.. So excellent post. Thanks. 🙂
    x ruthie.

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    • Ah yes, been there, done that. And yes, this trait is very misunderstood; our need for space/time alone so often misconstrued. We humans differ greatly in how we process our worlds, and HSPs, while we number in the hundreds of millions on the planet at this time, are nonetheless a minority group. Thanks for sharing xx

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  • thanks for this. i have long recognised myself as an hsp and have quite good coping/integrating mechanisms nowadays. daily yoga practice for the past 15 years has balanced me out very well. however, my eldest son (9), while sociable, outgoing and mature, is definitely an hsp… i often find myself having to explain just why it’s a gift to be sensitive, and not some kind of curse. so, thanks for this; and any chance you could address the specific issues of parenting hsp’s in your next article?
    blessings x

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  • I am a HSP, I answered yes to all of the questions, I’ve always known I was sensitive but it’s always been classed as too sensitive by other people as if we’re not supposed to be sensitive.. that it’s a fault.
    My husband is HSP too…..

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  • Thanks for this. I read the book a few months ago, and it was a revelation. So I am not a melodramatic fusspot, but someone who sennses things more strongly than others as part of my makeup. Phew! Understanding the positive side of sensitivity helps. A little.

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    • I think understanding the positive side of sensitivity can be really transformative for some, especially those who grew up believing they weren’t okay as they are. But understanding from others is also important to HSPs, so having at least one close HSP friend and ideally several is really important too.

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  • Thanks so much, Sarah, for this article! I answered “yes” to every question. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry while reading parts of the article because I have also been labeled as “too sensitive” by my mom and sister so many times I could have been rich by now if I got $5 every time I heard it. Now I see that I am not alone and I belong somewhere! This soothes my soul. Thank you!

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  • So much pain and difficulty throughout my life trying to cope with the cruelty and lack of compassion doled out by those only interested in self!
    I’ve spent many years trying to make sense of a sense-less world but reading this article gives me hope that consciousness is truly being raised.

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  • I recognised myself here too and am now experiencing the results of an over-stimulated nervous system in my later life. Time alone and avoiding large groups of friends + gentle relaxing exercise are helping a lot! Thanks. Will look for Aron’s book – soon!!

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    • Good for you, Sheila, and no rush! 🙂 You touch on an important point here, because some of us can get away with that over-stimulation for many years. Not that the body doesn’t give us signs, but they start off as signs that we can ignore if we choose, then get harder and harder to ignore as it catches up with us.

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  • Thank you for this! I am always ‘beating myself up’ for not being like other people, for not being as social and for needing space to myself. If only being a HSP was more acceptable in our society, and recognised for the peacefulness and reflectiveness that can come with such traits.

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  • how does this relate to the “spirited” & “Indigo child” labels?; my now16yo was astoundingly empathetic at age4& continues to be MISUNDERSTOOD but i proudly remind him that he is “sensitive to the needs of others”

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    • Beautiful! With this positive, empathetic mirroring you’re giving your son he can experience his sensitivity as a blessing instead of a curse. I personally believe there is much overlap between HSPs and indigos.

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  • I have been called sensitive all my life. It’s not until I moved into a management role that I realised how overly sensitive I truly was. I would speak about work-related situations to my boss and get emotional.

    I have two sisters who are very social and can make friends easily. I find it harder to open up to people. I am always trying to protect my emotions. I realized I have built up this hard image or personality to protect my feelings and prevent others from seeing I’m really sensitive. I get easily overwhelmed in stressful situations and my mind goes blank because I’m so focused on my feelings. As a child I would cry over everything and find it hard to express myself. If I was upset I would rely on two emotions getting really angry or start to cry.

    I’m so happy I found this website. I’m thanking God you wrote this post to know I’m not going crazy! I answered yes to almost all those questions. It’s so funny I can feel people’s energy and when I talk about this to my friends and family they look at me weird. Thanks, Sarah. I feel so much better I have discovered there are others like me. I just need to figure out how to control my sensitivity at work before it impacts my work.

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    • Hi Rachel,

      Thank you so much for sharing. I can totally relate to what you wrote, and I am so pleased you found the post helpful.

      Many HSPs find the workplace challenging – you are definitely not alone there. Your mentioning that has given me the idea to make that the topic of one of my upcoming articles about thriving as an HSP – so thank you for that, too 🙂

      Sarah x

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  • Hi! I am very thankful to read this, i have recently met another community let’s say of HSP or sensitive ones and their only presence comforted me, as well as your whole support! I have always been trying to be understood because i have felt the blessing of being sensitive and how beautiful it can be if you’re surrounded by beautiful people and nature. However, i recently got back in the same insensitive, passive and unmotivating surrounding and since then i am entirely going mad. Nevertheless, if you believe in what you are or become and remain patient and loyal to your nature, love should help u find your place among people and on Earth. I often struggle with extremely negative thoughts and feelings, but i think i know it’s all because of what i recieve from outside. Thankfully, i met my transcedental yoga teacher through whom i still learn how to go back to myself, feel less worried and believe. Thank you for the believe part ** I wish we could all hang out one day in nature. And all bring your talents.

    All love,
    Majda.
    Greetings from Macedonia

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  • I always thought everyone around me was the same way until I got older and did a lot of observing. I’ve been very good at hiding it but it does affect my health and overall well being. Major fight of flight response in a split second. Too many years of that and now I can’t sleep and have trouble relaxing. As sensitive as I used to be I do find that I have built a wall now and am much less sensitive (although there are serious cracks in that wall). It’s not an easy life.

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  • Finally, a name for what I’ve felt since as long as I have had a memory. I feel a sort of validation now. My most early childhood memories all feel negative as I tend to be very stressed and overly concerned (and sad for) the wellbeing of every plant, animal, human, etc on earth. haha. I laugh about it right now but it is a hard thing to deal with especially when I was a kid, So many things destroyed my heart and caused me to stress and worry and feel sad and now as an adult I am anxious a lot, have trouble sleeping as I lie awake thinking about people who are hurting, and the way this world is truly disturbs me on a level that I don’t think most experience.

    I am so intuitive to the point that I have premonitions about things that end up happening and I DON’T like that. Feel as though I can read minds at times too – again don’t like it. Being a Capricorn doesn’t help there either. Maybe if I learned to embrace all of this, instead of seeing it as negative. Yes I was always told that I was different, the black sheep, cry baby, a problem, etc.

    Growing up with extremely abusive and distant parents (mostly dad) and siblings did not help here either. BUT, I have come to love that I have compassion and deep empathy for other people’s suffering. Especially for children. I know this is where my calling is, but I find myself unable to get to a place of action – YET. But I believe something great will come of it. How many people on this earth can say that the only thing they truly want in life is to HELP others, to love others, and to be there for someone whose path you might be able to change?

    Is there a group or something online possibly, for HSP’s? That would be nice to have! To be together with your kind, people who understand you. Because they are so few. If anyone knows of any, please let me know! Thanks!

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