Has anyone ever told you to “stop being so sensitive”? Or perhaps that you need to “toughen up and develop a thicker skin”? If you’ve spent much of your life feeling like you’re much more sensitive and responsive than others to the things going on around you – physically, mentally, and emotionally – you might just be what’s known as a highly sensitive person.
And while the world can sometimes make it seem like being sensitive is somehow weak or not as valuable as being tough, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, if you learn how to tap into your uniquely delicate nature, you can actually turn this sensitivity into your superpower.
Today, we’re going to dive into exactly what a highly sensitive person is, the great and not-so-great aspects of being so sensitive, and most importantly – some ways you can leverage your sensitivity to make it one of your most valuable and powerful strengths.
What Does It Mean to Be A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
A highly sensitive person, or HSP, is a characteristic discovered and coined by the well-known psychologist Elaine Aron. This distinct and inborn personality trait is also known as sensory-processing sensitivity, or SPS, and is estimated to be present in about 15-20% of the population. So what exactly does it mean to be a highly sensitive person?
In simplest terms, HSPs have a greater responsiveness and sensitivity to stimuli. That means as an HSP, you’re significantly more perceptive and reactive to the world – which can be a double-edged sword. So how do you know if you are in fact a highly sensitive person?
What Are the Signs of A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
Some clues that might indicate that you are indeed an HSP include:
- Being easily overwhelmed by things like strong odors, bright lights, abrasive fabrics, or loud noises
- Feeling rattled or unnerved when you’re rushed and have a short amount of time to do a lot of different things
- You dislike violent, scary, or disturbing movies and make a point to avoid them
- You need to take breaks and withdraw into bed or a quiet, darkened room on busy days to have a little privacy and relief from others
- You make it a high priority to avoid abrasive, upsetting, or overwhelming situations
- You have a rich and complex inner life
- You’ve been told by parents or teachers that you were a sensitive or gifted child growing up
Are you nodding your head yes to any of these? The more of these traits that you said yes to, the more likely it is that you are a highly sensitive person. Now, as with most things in life, there are some positives and negatives when it comes to being in the small percentage of people who are highly sensitive.
So before we dive into all the positives and how you can harness your sensitivity as a superpower, let’s take a look at some of the not-so-great aspects of being an HSP.
The Downside of Being A HSP: What Do Highly Sensitive People Struggle With?
Remember when I said being an HSP could be a double-edged sword? That’s because being highly sensitive can have its own unique set of challenges and struggles. As an HSP, some obstacles and disadvantages you’ll likely face include:
- A teacup-sized toxin bucket: Your “toxin bucket” is your body’s specific capacity to hold and process environmental toxins that inevitably flow into our bodies on a daily basis. As an HSP, your toxin bucket is more than likely significantly smaller than non-HSP’s – meaning you’re likely much more impacted by exposure to these harmful compounds. Click here to learn more about environmental toxins and how they can impact your health.
- Toxic stress: While stress is an unavoidable part of life, there is a distinct difference between normal and healthy stress levels and stress that tips the scales and becomes toxic. As an HSP, your stress levels can much more easily tip into the danger zone and begin having detrimental effects on your well-being.
- Imbalances and dysfunction: There is an intricate and inseparable connection between your mind, emotional well-being, and your physical health. Meaning as an HSP, your body can be more easily thrown off-kilter if you’re not intentionally caring for your mental health – showing up as things like hormonal imbalances, digestive issues, and more.
- Overstimulation: As an HSP, things like large groups of people, loud noises, noxious smells, and too much activity can leave you feeling like your head is spinning. This can make things like parties, large events, and certain social gatherings feel overwhelming and draining rather than fun.
- Being misunderstood: Sometimes HSPs unique perspective and way of moving through the world can be misunderstood by others – with certain traits being misinterpreted as shyness, cowardliness, and weakness. As an HSP it’s crucial to surround yourself with people who understand, respect, and value your unique perspective.
While being a highly sensitive person may have some downsides and sometimes be misunderstood by others, we also have some superpowers hidden within our delicate constitutions.
How to Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person and Make Your Sensitivity Your Superpower
Now let’s dive into the positives of being an HSP and how you can lean into your unique gifts to make your sensitivity your superpower. As a highly sensitive person, some of your most potently powerful positive traits include:
You’re Exceptionally Empathetic:
As an HSP, you’re a natural at putting yourself in other’s shoes and being empathetic. This ability to tune into others’ emotions is highly valuable when it comes to relationships of any kind – whether it’s romantic, friendships, with co-workers, or in a leadership position.
While leveraging your empathy to thrive in relationships is certainly a superpower, it’s crucial to be intentional about setting clear boundaries to protect your own well-being and prevent your empathetic nature from getting you into unhealthy or toxic situations.
You’re Highly Observant and A Creative Problem Solver:
HSPs are highly observant and often pick up on subtleties and nuances that others might miss. Because your sensitive brain observes, processes, and synthesizes information in a uniquely complex way, you’re adept at seeing gaps in a plan, spotting fresh opportunities, exploring creative angles, and coming up with innovative solutions. These traits can give you a major edge in your workplace, running your own business, and/or in creative endeavors.
Be sure you’re tapping into this superpower by practicing speaking up, expressing yourself, and sharing your invaluable insights with others.
Your Intuition Is Spot On:
Because you’re so in tune with your surroundings and yourself, your intuition is almost always spot on. As an HSP, your exquisite level of attunement gives you almost a “sixth sense” – allowing you to instinctively pick up on information and have an uncanny ability to understand a situation.
But because HSPs can also be “overthinkers” and may have learned to silence, ignore, or overrule their intuition, it’s important to nurture this unique strength. To nurture and strengthen your intuition, prioritize quiet alone time, practice tuning into your heart and inner voice, and regularly tune into what your body and soul are telling you.
You Embrace Life and Aren’t Afraid of Change
As an HSP, your extraordinary empathy, your unique connection with others and your own emotions, and your ability to view, process, and create meaning out of the subtleties and nuances of life allow you to fully embrace the true depth of life while finding meaning and purpose in life’s obstacles.
And because you feel things so deeply, it also means that you more openly embrace change and are more willing to make changes that can improve your life and well-being. In fact, most HSPs, over time, become experts at shaping and altering their lives in ways that help them thrive through things like minimizing their exposure to irritating and harmful toxins, reducing their stress while finding healthy ways to manage unavoidable stress, and finding ways to preserve and enhance their mental and emotional well-being.
Feel Like You’re Not Tapping Into Your Superpowers As An HSP?
If you’re an HSP and feel like perhaps you’re not tapping into these superpowers, I can certainly relate. The idea of being a highly sensitive person was unheard of when I was growing up and my delicate and sensitive nature felt more like a burden than a blessing for many years of my life.
So if you have an inkling that you may also be an HSP but are struggling to harness the power and positivity that can come with this unique trait, not to worry – with some practice and some time you can absolutely learn how to lean into your strengths and start seeing your sensitivity as your superpower. In addition to some of the suggestions mentioned above, it can also be highly helpful to incorporate some or all of the following:
- Meditation and prayer: Meditation can calm your nervous system, help you better tune into your own intuition, and combat toxic stress. And connecting to and trusting in a Higher Power can help you feel more grounded, supported, and inspired.
- Practicing daily gratitude: What you focus on expands. So taking some time each day to focus on the things you’re grateful for and all the positives that come with being an HSP is a powerful way to build more confidence, appreciate your unique gifts, and lean into your sensitivity.
- Prioritizing self-care: As an HSP, it’s especially important to prioritize self-care – physically, mentally, and emotionally. So be sure to make time each and every day to incorporate things that help you feel your best – whether that’s planning healthy meals, taking a quiet walk in solitude, or spending time doing something just for fun.
- Nurturing healthy loving relationships: As an Highly Sensitive Person, you’re highly sensitive to the energy of others and the dynamics of your relationships. So it’s crucial to not only set clear boundaries but really nurture the healthy, loving relationships that leave you feeling supported and connected.
- Choosing your thoughts intentionally: No one speaks to you more than that little voice in your head. And if you’re consistently playing thoughts through your head that put you down, focus on the negative, or make you feel inadequate, it’s inevitably going to have a toll on you. Deliberately choosing and practicing positive, supportive thoughts can help rewire your brain to be more positive and help you see your gifts and strengths more clearly.
- Making plans and taking action: As an Highly Sensitive Person, we can spend a lot of time “in our heads”. But if you find yourself spending more time daydreaming and planning than actually taking action on your goals, dreams, and aspirations, it can make you feel disempowered and frustrated with yourself. But if you start making plans and holding yourself accountable to taking action on those plans, you’ll feel empowered, in control, and optimistic about your own capabilities.
Incorporating tiny shifts like these have had a monumental impact on my life and have allowed me – after many years of trial and error – to view my sensitivity as one of my most beautiful and most valuable qualities.
Are You A Highly Sensitive Person?
If you’re a highly sensitive person – or have an inkling that you might be one – it’s so important to learn to embrace who you are and to leverage your unique gifts in empowering ways. As an HSP myself, I know firsthand how challenging it can be to spend so much time and energy fighting yourself and trying to suppress your sensitive nature. It can feel defeating, frustrating, and downright lonely.
But you, my friend, are far from alone. If you need a reminder that you are not alone, a little dose of inspiration to continue overcoming, or perhaps a little encouragement to continue creating that version of you you’ve been dreaming of, I encourage you to pick up a copy of my book Unexpected: Finding Resilience Through Functional Medicine, Science, and Faith. This book details my journey as a highly sensitive person and how, over the years, I have learned to harness this sensitivity to create a life that’s even bigger and more beautiful than I could’ve dreamed.
But I also go much, much deeper, and peel back the layers of my life – giving you a glimpse into the numerous health challenges, hard-learned lessons, and heartbreaks that have shaped who I am today. I poured my heart and soul into this book with the intention of giving you not only practical, straightforward advice that can be used to help heal and enhance your health, but also to offer a reminder that you are not alone in this journey and inspire you to continue fighting for the life you envision.
Whether you’re skeptical of the idea of mind-body-medicine or a firm believer. Whether you’re a highly sensitive person or far from it. And whether you’re in the trenches navigating a health obstacle or simply looking to elevate your well-being to the next level – there’s something in this book for you. Because at the end of the day, we all have healing to do and are all worthy of a life full of hope, love, and unexpected miracles.
Click here to learn more about my upcoming book and get your exclusive bonuses when you order today!
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In Unexpected: Finding Resilience through Functional Medicine, Science, and Faith, Dr. Jill Carnahan shares her story of facing life-altering illness, fighting for her health, and overcoming sickness using both science and faith so that others can learn to live their own transformative stories.
Dr. Jill’s riveting and compassionate exploration of healing through functional medicine demonstrates how to replace darkness and fear with hope and find profound healing, unconditional love, and unexpected miracles in the process.
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.
Propre who have the Ehlers Danlos syndrome fit this description.
Some may have these tendencies but not all people with Ehlers Danlos are HSPs
Dr. Jill, Thank you for sharing this with us. I am an HSP as well that had mold illness and toxic relationships. I have followed your work for a long time. I am so looking forward to reading this!
I follow your speaking/presenting on the many Dr Talks and Health Means ‘summits’ and always enjoy hearing from you. I appreciate your kindheartedness. All my best to you for a continued wonderful and happy life.
Thank you so much for your kind words, Marshall!
Hi Dr Jill, While several of the points indicating a HSP, they also are indicators of my High Functioning Autism, which I have been ‘diagnosed’ with as a 60+ years old, several years ago. I am 75 years old now, have been highly sensitive to bright lights since my early childhood, which earned me a nickname for my ‘ugly face” (wrinkled up nose and upper lip, to try and keep the sunlight out of my almost shut eyes). and loud noises (I used to stick my fingers in my ears when the noises were too loud and avoid such noisy places ever since), and more signs that can be part of both conditions. My older sister came across a book about autiism, acquired it and lent it to me, for she saw that it described me. I also came to the same conclusion. She asked my mother once many years ago why I reacted so different from my siblings, and my mother said :she is different”, and my sister didn’t undersrand how. I was terribly shy as a teenager, later adapted some, but always felt different. Nevertheless I became a bible translator and worked in the jungle in the northwest of our country, until because of a brain infarction I lost the concentration necessary for my work, It was only after all that, that I discovered my condition.
Thank you for sharing your experience, Tine. You are correct there are some similarities but they are certainly not the same. Here is a great article from Psychology Today that shares how they are similar and also very different: For example: While there is certainly a major overlap in sensory processing experiences of both autistic and highly sensitive individuals, specifically sensitivity to sensory information, this does not mean they are the same thing.
Dr Jill, Thank you for this article/book report. I can’t wait to read it! I am an HSP and have MCS and EHS, and had toxic relationships too. 7 years of tinnitus was eliminated by getting toxic-high copper level in balance by changing water and diet, taking supplements to balance mineral ratios, near infrared sauna, and ‘earthing’. Toxic relationships have been/continue to be kept at bay with meditation/prayer, counseling, (I found an HSP counselor in my state!), support groups, gratitude, and lots of time in nature.
Thank you for commenting, Ellie! I wish you the best on your healing journey. Thanks for your interest in my new book, Unexpected: Finding Resilience Through Functional Medicine, Science, and Faith.
Thank you. I guess I am a HSP. I have always felt like a canary in a Cole mine. I have been sick with undiagnosed Lyme for 40. Only diagnosed 5 years ago. Still I am not well
Hi Dr Jill.
Very interesting. So many resonations here. And yet. No mention of I-ppl or E-ppl…Introverts & Extroverts.
I believe your HSPs are the Introverts.
The power of Dopamine receptors….if one has them in sufficient numbers.
This is a total fascination to me in our modern world; an almost complete silence on the existence of these character traits & the IMPACT they have on our lives.
The brain chemicals of Dopamine for Extro’ & Acetylcholine for Intro’s; the different brain wiring between the 2. Refer to Marti Olsen Laney’s “The Introvert Advantage”. Workman Pub ISBN 978-0-7611-2369-9.
Her book blew me right off my perch, at 65yo. Answers I had needed all my life.
Why things had given me such a hard time. Why my father was a double suicide. Success ? on the 2nd attempt.
Clearly there are genetic differences between Innies & Outies, which must be within our neurotransmitters. Knowing about these, needs to become a life-skill, not just mere knowledge. I have seen too many sad cases in peoples’ lives, simply because they had no knowledge of & made no allowance for, someone else’s Introversion OR Extroversion.
If you have indepth knowledge about human neurotransmitters, please may we hear it.
Thanks for sharing, Ric! You might also enjoy Quiet: The Hidden Power of an Introvert in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Thank you for taking the time to share about HSP. I have always know. I’m unique and that there were pros and cons. You gave me a way forward. Thank you ever so much!!
Bless you, Rachelle!