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  • Writer's pictureAmy Pinnell, MSW, RSW

5 Must-Know Facts About the Highly Sensitive Personality Trait

After helping countless Highly Sensitive People understand their sensitive nature, I'm revealing what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person. By the end of this blog post, you'll have a deeper understanding of the Highly Sensitive Personality Trait, including 4 characteristics of Highly Sensitive People.

If you've never heard the term "Highly Sensitive" before, not to worry! You're not alone.

Although research now indicates that the Highly Sensitive Personality Trait (also referred to as Sensory Processing Sensitivity) has played an important role in our species' survival throughout history, the term "Highly Sensitive Person" was only coined in 1996 by

Highly Sensitivity People (HSP) around the world are feeling seen, validated, and supported as research about the HSP trait provides more information about the challenges and benefits of being a Highly Sensitive Person.

Western culture views sensitivity as a flaw or negative attribute. Even though information about the HSP trait is now easily accessible, many people still hold these misconceptions.

So, let's get really clear about what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person.

5 Facts About the Highly Sensitive Personality Trait

1. High Sensitivity is an innate trait

While much of our personality is shaped by our environment and experiences, we are also born with a particular innate temperament. People vary in their level of sensitivity to stimuli and the depth at which they process stimuli. Approximately 15-20% of the population is Highly Sensitive. This percentage is equally dispersed amongst all gender identities. Interestingly enough, the same percentage has been found in over 100 animal species.

2. High Sensitivity is a normal and healthy trait

High Sensitivity is a normal temperament variation. It's neither good nor bad to be Highly Sensitive, just as it is neither good nor bad to not be Highly Sensitive.

The world needs people with both traits.

Like anyone else, when HSPs learn to love, accept and care for their own unique needs they can live happy, fulfilling lives.

High Sensitivity is not a diagnosable mental health condition and is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (DSM-5).

Like anyone else, when HSPs learn to love, accept and care for their own unique needs they can live happy, fulfilling lives

3. There are 4 Key Characteristics of Highly Sensitive People

High Sensitivity can look different for different people, but most presentations of the trait involve the following 4 characteristics. They can be easily remembered with the acronym D.O.E.S.

D - Depth of Processing

HSPs process things deeply. Highly Sensitive folks spend more time interpreting and integrating what they observe and absorb from their environment and their internal world than others.

HSPs' brains are built to pause and reflect before making decisions. The depth at which HSPs process input often means they have a great memory and make wise, calculated decisions. However, it also means that HSPs are more prone to chronic stress and burnout.

O - Overstimulation

HSPs are constantly picking up on and processing small details in their environment and, therefore, more likely to become overstimulated. Overstimulation can look like anxiety, stress, collapse, exhaustion, or shut down and is the most difficult part of being highly sensitive.

E - Emotional Responsiveness and Empathy

The emotional responsiveness of HSPs is one of the more widely known characteristics. Highly sensitive folks feel emotions with more intensity than others. This means that they can feel deep joy or gratitude about small, everyday things and also feel emotions like sadness more intensely.

HSPs have an amazing capacity for empathy due to having particularly active mirror neurons. HSP brains pick up on the emotional states of the people around them, which allows for deep understanding and care for others. However, HSPs may often feel like they are absorbing the emotions of others which can lead to overstimulation.

S - Sensitivity to Subtleties

HSPs are highly aware of subtleties in their environment and often notice small details that other people miss. For some, loud noises, strong smells, bright lights or colours, and certain textures may feel intense or overwhelming.

4. High Sensitivity comes with a set of challenges

Like any temperament variation, there are some significant challenges that come with the Highly Sensitive Personality trait!

The most troubling for most HSPs is overstimulation.The way that HSP brains process information makes them more likely to become overwhelmed than non-HSPs.

This tendency to become overwhelmed is particularly challenging for HSPs working or living in environments where their sensitivity is not understood or accepted.

HSPs need to take time to fully process changes which can also mean that they take longer to make decisions and may be "late bloomers" in some areas of their lives.

Due to their high capacity for empathy, HSPs may find it difficult to set boundaries and take care of their own needs.

For HSPs to thrive, they need to:

  • be aware of their tendency towards overstimulation

  • learn how to regulate their nervous system

  • set healthy boundaries

  • practice self-compassion towards their sensitive nature

Part of the reason being Highly Sensitive is so challenging is that we live in a world that expects HSPs to be like the 80% majority.

When HSPs understand their unique challenges and embrace the strengths of their sensitivity, they are able to make choices for themselves that foster balance and wellness.

5. High Sensitivity comes with a set of strengths

This might surprise you, but there are just as many benefits to being Highly Sensitive as there are challenges!

HSPs' ability to pick up on subtleties in their environment means that they often notice things that others miss.

HSPs take all the stimuli they pick up from the world around them, process it deeply, and craft truly beautiful things.

They are creative problem solvers who often bring different ideas to the table than non-HSPs due to the fact that they experience in the world in a different way.

Having a deep capacity for empathy means that HSPs can often understand and relate to the feelings and needs of others. This is likely why many HSPs are drawn toward helping professions and social justice initiatives.

When I say that HSPs feel emotions more intensely than others, I mean ALL emotions! One of the most beautiful things about being a Highly Sensitive Person is feeling intense joy at small every day events. HSPs can lean into the wonder of a sunset or the beauty of a flower in a truly deep way.

HSPs will find that they are more easily overstimulated than non-HSPs. They will also find that they are intuitive, empathetic, creative, finely-tuned with the world around them, and able to establish deep connections with others.

Wondering if you're a Highly Sensitive Person?

If you resonated with the 4 characteristics, you might be a highly sensitive person!

Take the HSP Self-Test and find out! Understanding what this means for you is a great first step to embracing your sensitivity and learning to thrive in your day-to-day life.

If you're looking for support with embracing your sensitive nature and developing skills to protect your sensitive needs, so that you can reduce overwhelm and regulate intense emotions, check out my Counselling Services for Highly Sensitive People to see if it's right for you.

Head to my Resources Page for further reading about the Highly Sensitive Personality Trait.

When HSPs understand their unique challenges and embrace the strengths of their sensitivity, they are able to make choices for themselves that foster balance and wellness.

Amy Pinnell, MSW, RSW Brave Spirit Counselling

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