Do you feel deeply moved by art, music, nature, or the suffering of others? Do you startle easily, get rattled when you have a lot going on, or need to withdraw during busy times to recharge? Or perhaps you notice subtle changes in the environment - sights, sounds, textures, or other things that others often miss. If this sounds familiar, you may be a highly sensitive person (HSP).
Psychologist Elaine Aron, who pioneered research on high sensitivity, describes HSPs as having a sensory processing sensitivity or a sensitive nervous system. HSPs are more aware of subtleties in their environment and process information on a deep level. This gives them many strengths, like insight and ability to reflect. But processing so much information also means they can feel more easily overwhelmed and overstimulated.
High sensitivity isn’t a disorder or flaw, but a natural trait making up 15-20% of the population. It’s like being an introvert or extrovert - just an example of normal human diversity. In fact, for many HSPs, their sensitivity is an asset and an important part of who they are.
While being highly sensitive makes up a large minority and is not a disorder, it does share some characteristics with and can get confused for other conditions, leading to misdiagnosis. In this article, we’ll take a look at characteristics of highly sensitive people, what causes high sensitivity, and how it differs from other conditions that share similar characteristics.
What is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
According to Elaine Aaron, one of the leading researchers on high sensitivity, a good way to summarize what it means to be a highly sensitive person is the acronym DOES, which stands for:
Depth of processing. HSPs spend a lot of time reflecting on their experiences and the world around them and tend to consider multiple factors when making decisions.
Overstimulation. HSPs tend to notice everything going on in their environment and can therefore feel easily stressed and overstimulated.
Emotional reactivity and Empathy. HSPs tend to have strong emotional reactions, both positive and negative, and are highly attuned and empathic toward others.
Sensing the Subtle. HSPs notice subtle changes in the environment that others often miss. For example, HSPs tend to be better at reading nonverbal cues.
What Causes High Sensitivity?
Research on high sensitivity suggests that it may be impacted by both genetic and environmental factors.
Many researchers believe high sensitivity is an innate hereditary trait linked to differences in brain functioning. One study found HSPs appear to have more activity in regions involved in awareness, integration of sensory information, empathy, and visual processing compared to non-HSPs.
Additional research suggests that stressful life events (such as a death in the family, failing an exam, or parents divorcing) may also contribute to the development of highly sensitive traits. People who experienced stressful life events can be very good at picking up on other’s emotions; they may have had to learn how to do this to cope or soothe those around them. Trauma can also cause people to become hyper-vigilant, constantly tuning into their environment to detect and avoid potential danger.
The Gifts and Challenges of High Sensitivity
High sensitivity is a mixed blessing. On one hand, it creates challenges. And on the other, it brings many strengths.
Challenges associated with high sensitivity include:
Feeling easily overwhelmed by time pressures, noise, conflict, or heavy social interaction
Increased anxiety and need for down time after busy days
Getting rattled and distracted by discomfort like hunger or thirst
Emotional intensity including hurt feelings, sadness, and worry
Discomfort with overstimulating environments like malls, concerts, or chaotic gatherings
Strengths associated with high sensitivity include:
Depth of experience - music, art, and beauty are felt profoundly
Ability to detect subtleties in the environment, people, or situations
Insight into oneself and others
Conscientious, thoughtful decision-making
Empathy and concern for others
Creativity and appreciation for innovation
How is High Sensitivity Different from Autism, ADHD, and SPD?
While high sensitivity isn’t a diagnosable condition, people sometimes confuse it with disorders like autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or sensory processing disorder (SPD). Here’s how they differ:
Highly Sensitive Person vs. Autism
Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by challenges with social skills, communication, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors. People with autism may have sensory processing sensitivities similar to HSPs. But there are many other significant differences.
Differences between highly sensitive people and autism include:
Autism is a developmental condition making up about 2-3% of the population, while high sensitivity is an innate trait making up 15-20% of the population.
While HSPs and people with autism both exhibit sensitivity to sensory stimuli, people with autism also tend to be less responsive to things HSPs would normally notice.
People with autism often struggle to understand social cues, body language, and empathize with others. In contrast, HSPs tend to be very socially aware and attuned to others and are highly empathic.
People with autism generally need consistency and familiarity and tend to react strongly to changes in routine. HSPs may prefer familiarity, but are generally very adaptable and can go with the flow.
Autism also includes symptoms like repetitive behaviors, specific intense interests, and speech challenges, which is not characteristic of highly sensitive people.
So while people with autism may exhibit characteristics similar to highly sensitive people, high sensitivity is a distinct, naturally occurring personality trait, not a disorder. It occurs in a larger subset of the population and includes a strong sense of social awareness, empathy, and adaptability that are not as characteristic of someone with autism.
Highly Sensitive Person vs. ADHD
The primary features of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are: inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Some symptoms like difficulty focusing, getting distracted easily, or feeling overwhelmed can overlap with high sensitivity. However, the reason for these similarities tends to differ.
Differences between highly sensitive people and ADHD include:
ADHD is considered a neurological disorder with characteristic changes in brain function. High sensitivity is simply a personality trait.
Impulsivity is a hallmark of ADHD but not high sensitivity. Most HSPs are highly reflective and dislike rushing into things.
Hyperactivity manifests physically in ADHD with behaviors like constant fidgeting or moving around. Whereas, HSPs tend to be more low energy.
People with ADHD often have trouble focusing and can get bored in environments that don’t have enough stimulation. HSPs can have trouble focusing when there is too much external stimulation, but they tend to focus well in calm, distraction free environments.
People with ADHD often have trouble with organization, forgetfulness, and difficulty finishing tasks, which isn’t usually a problem for HSPs.
So while some sensitive people may have ADHD, and some people with ADHD may be sensitive to external stimuli, the two are distinct. While HSPs can have difficulty focusing if overstimulated, they generally aren’t impulsive or hyperactive, and tend to focus well when distraction free.
Highly Sensitive Person vs. Sensory Processing Disorder
Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is characterized by difficulty responding to sensory information in a typical way. Some people with SPD are overly sensitive to stimuli, while others are under-responsive. And while it does share similarities with sensory processing sensitivity or highly sensitive people (HSPs), the two are different.
Similarities between highly sensitive people and SPD include:
SPD and high sensitivity both involve a nervous system that processes stimuli more intensely.
People with SPD and HSPs both tend to experience strong emotions and feel overwhelmed by noisy or busy environments.
Both groups may notice subtle sensory details others miss.
Differences between highly sensitive people and SPD include:
SPD is diagnosed based on stronger responses to sensory stimuli, like having an aversive response to touch, avoiding certain textures, or bumping into things, which can result in behavioral outbursts or challenges.
HSPs tend to be less impacted by their sensitivity than people with SPD and more able to adapt their responses to their environment to accomplish daily activities.
SPD also focuses purely on the sensory piece, while high sensitivity includes additional characteristics, like deeper processing of emotions and experiences.
So, while people with SPD and HSPs both have sensory sensitivity, high sensitivity alone does not constitute SPD. SPD is a disorder involving significant sensory challenges, while high sensitivity is a personality trait that enables people to process their experiences and environment deeply. HSPs depth of processing and understanding can also make them quite adaptable.
High sensitivity is a trait that makes up a significant portion of the population. While it can present challenges like feeling easily overwhelmed, it also enables many strengths like depth of insight, empathy, and creativity. Rather than viewing their sensitivity as a weakness, HSPs can learn to manage challenges while embracing the unique gifts their traits offer. Although high sensitivity shares some characteristics with conditions like autism, ADHD, and sensory processing disorder, it is a separate and distinct trait. With self-awareness, coping skills, and an environment suited to their temperament, highly sensitive people have much to contribute thanks to their ability to appreciate beauty, contemplate meaning, and understand others at a profound level. The key for HSPs is to manage challenges while leveraging their gifts. Getting enough rest and downtime, finding work that fits their temperament, surrounding themselves with supportive people, and developing healthy coping strategies can help sensitive people thrive.