Background on Highly Sensitive People


Highly sensitive people, or HSPs, are those who have a strong response to stimuli, such as sound, light, space, touch, and temperature. It’s a physiological response rather than a personality type.

People who are easily overwhelmed in crowded, loud, bright spaces might be highly sensitive.

I know I am highly sensitive. I have had to develop many strategies in my life to manage over-stimulation and anxiety in certain contexts. For example, you will never find me in a Costco, or parked in a parking garage. These are small things, but the larger things are life choices, such as where I choose to live and how I socialize.

Feldenkrais has helped me with the physiological stress of being highly sensitive, as well as created space to make better, less stressful choices for my life.

Take the Highly Sensitive Person test by Dr. Elaine Aron

1. HSPs: A wrong sense of being flawed 

Answer T/F

  1. I am easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input.

  2. I seem to be aware of subtleties in my environment.

  3. Other people’s moods affect me.

  4. I tend to be very sensitive to pain.

  5. 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.

  6. I am particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine.

  7. I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells,coarse fabrics,or sirens close by.

  8. I have a rich,complex inner life.

  9. I am made uncomfortable by loud noises.

  10. I am deeply moved by the arts or music.

  11. My nervous system sometimes feels so frazzled that I just have to go off by myself.

  12. I am conscientious.

  13. I startle easily.

  14. I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time.

  15. When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment I tend to know what needs to be done to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating).

  16. I am annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once.

  17. I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things.

  18. I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows.

  19. I become unpleasantly aroused when a lot is going on around me.

  20. Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me,disrupting my concentration or mood.

  21. Changes in my life shake me up.

  22. I notice and enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, works of art.

  23. I find it unpleasant to have a lot going on at once.

  24. I make it a high priority to arrange my life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations.

  25. I am bothered by intense stimuli, like loud noises or chaotic scenes.

  26. When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.

  27. When I was a child, my parents or teachers seemed to see me as sensitive or shy.

If you answered more than fourteen of the questions as true of yourself, you are probably highly sensitive. But no psychological test is so accurate that an individual should base his or her life on it. We psychologists try to develop good questions, then decide on the cut off based on the average response.

If fewer questions are true of you, but extremely true, that might also justify calling you highly sensitive.

See the HSP website

Excerpt from recommend books for HSPs

1. From The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, by Dr. Elaine Aron

  • Everyone, HSP or not, feels best when neither too bored or too aroused. Furthermore, people differ considerably in how much their nervous system is aroused in the same situation under the same stimulation.

  • The difference lies in a more careful processing of information, whether sights, sounds, space, temperatures, emotions, physical sensations, etc.

  • Being an HSP is not the same as being an introvert. Extroverts and introverts can both be sensitive, they can both be over-stimulated, they just relax differently. Extroverts relax with people, introverts alone.

  • If you can find an environmental factor for your over-stimulation this makes social situations easier.

  • Do not confuse being sensitive with being shy. Sometimes you just don't want the extra stimulation.

  • Do not associate over-arousal with fear or anxiety. It can relate to any number of emotions.

2. From Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

A cultural analysis of systems, beliefs, and structures that support extroversion.

  • Actual research confirms that talking more does not equal more insight.

  • Open plan offices have been found to impair memory and reduce productivity.
    In one study, programmers with quiet, private workplaces outperformed other programmers by a 10:1 ratio.

  • Excessive stimulation impedes learning: people learn better after a quiet stroll through the woods than a walk down a busy city block.

  • One design company has “no-talk Thursdays” where creative people aren't allowed to talk to each other so they can concentrate and get things done.

3. From Solitude: A Return to the Self, by Dr. Anthony Storr

  • The individual can suppress his inner world in such a way that he becomes over-compliant with external reality. If the individual regards the external world merely as something to which he has to adapt, rather than as something in which his subjectivity can find fulfillment, his individuality disappears.

  • The capacity to be alone is different than the need to be alone...the capacity to be alone thus becomes linked with self-discovery and self-realization; with becoming aware of one's deepest needs, feelings, and impulses.

  • A contented, relaxed sense of being alone allows us to discover what we really need and want, irrespective of what other may expect or try to foist upon us.

  • An inhibition of motor activity occurs when we are thinking. We are scanning possibilities, linking concepts, reviewing strategies. Eventually, this results in physical action. Many people find this postponement of action difficult.

  • Some development of the capacity to be alone is necessary if the brain is to function at its best, and if the individual is to fulfill his highest potential. Human beings easily become alienated from their own deepest needs and feelings. Learning, thinking, innovation, and maintaining contact with one's inner world are all facilitated by solitude.   

4. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience journal article: Highly Sensitive People Use Their Brains Differently


Researchers from Stony Brook University in New York, and from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Southwest University in China found people with sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) took longer to make decisions, needed more time alone to think, were more conscientious, and became more bored with small talk than other people.

Previous studies have shown that people with SPS are also more affected by caffeine, are more easily startled, and are more uncomfortable with noise and crowded situations. The researchers said these effects could be due to an innate preference for paying more attention to experiences.

Over 100 other species are known to have individuals with the sensitivity trait, including dogs, fish, primates, and even fruit flies. Individuals exhibiting the sensitive trait are always in the minority, but they may give the species an evolutionary advantage at times, since highly sensitive individuals tend to explore with their brains first, while others rush in, and this can be advantageous when a more thoughtful approach is better or less dangerous.

This paper was published in March, 2010.