Understanding the Highly Sensitive Person
People are finding relief in a personality trait that explains their extreme sensitivity (myself included)
Whenever there’s a thunderstorm, I reflexively reach to cover my ears. I’m 29, and this is something I’m generally embarrassed by. It’s also the only life I’ve known. My parents say that a tropical storm rolled through the region during my first birthday party, and I howled the whole way through. I was a sensitive kid, and though I’m less reserved now, I am also a sensitive adult: I flinch at sudden noise, avoid horror movies, and soak up the energy of people’s moods around me with an intensity that overwhelms and distracts me from anything else I’m trying to focus on.
I discovered psychologist Elaine Aron’s 1996 book The Highly Sensitive Person when I was in college, and in internet parlance, I had never felt so seen. The highly sensitive person as a psychological concept was first introduced to the general public through the book before most clinical psychologists had heard of it. The 27-part questionnaire Aron created determines your level of sensitivity with questions that range from specific (“Do you make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows?”) to broad (“Are you conscientious?”).
The definition of the trait — also known as sensory processing sensitivity, another term coined by Aron in the terminology of psychology — is fairly straightforward. “The highly sensitive person (HSP) has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment,” Aron writes.
HSP isn’t designated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and experts agree that there’s more research needed. A 2007 study validated HSP as a distinct personality trait by saying that “the construct is separate from social anxiety, but it is highly correlated with avoidance and agoraphobic avoidance.” But in 2017, an assistant professor of psychology at Beacon College in Florida told Vice that more research was required to fully determine if HSP is its own personality trait or if it’s part of the autism spectrum.
Being a highly sensitive person — which, according to Aron, includes 15 to 20% of…