What it Means to be a Highly Sensitive Person

By: Jen McWaters, Psy.D. | January 29, 2019

You probably know what it means to be an introvert versus an extrovert. Such psychological terms are now mainstream. They help us understand and empathize with one another’s differences. Few people, however, know what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) versus a non-HSP.

Psychologist, Dr. Elaine Aron, wanted to better understand herself and others with this unique trait of sensitivity, so she researched to identify a subset of the population known as “highly sensitive.” Dr. Aron estimates about 15 to 20 percent of people could be classified as HSPs (Aron, 2016). In her book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, she provides the useful acronym, DOES, to help describe the major characteristics of highly sensitive people:

D: Depth of Processing

HSPs process information more deeply, and are therefore more aware of what is happening both internally and externally. This trait has been studied using brain scans measuring brain activity of HSPs vs. non-HSPs while they processed certain information.

O: Overstimulation

Because HSPs process input more deeply and thoroughly, they wear out more quickly and get stressed out. Although most people can relate to this from time to time, HSPs feel this way often and may avoid intense or stimulating activities as a result. This stimulation can include sensory input — loud noise, for example — or social activity.

E: Emotional Reactivity

HSPs have stronger reactions to both positive and negative experiences. This also means that they empathize more strongly and feel the emotions of others more intensely. HSPs typically have lower thresholds for pain.

S: Sensing the Subtle

According to Dr. Aron, this HSP trait has been scientifically defined in research as “sensory processing sensitivity.” HSPs notice the details, information, and nonverbals that others might miss.

In her book, Dr. Aron goes into detail about each of these qualities but stresses that diversity exists among HSPs, meaning that many unique factors contribute to how HSPs experience and express their sensitivity. In addition, although most HSPs have qualities that also align with the characteristics of introverts, Dr. Aron found that about 30% of HSPs are extraverts! The book is helpful in identifying tools to help HSPs become more resilient in coping with experiences such as overstimulation, but it also helps HSPs normalize and even celebrate their unique qualities. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of Aron’s suggested coping skills involve tools such as self-care, a cope-ahead plan, skill practice, self-compassion, and setting boundaries when necessary.

If you see yourself in the description of the DOES, know that you know are not alone and that these experiences are normal. I encourage you to pick up The Highly Sensitive Person to further explore and understand what it means to be an HSP or in a relationship with one, such as a partner, parent, or friend. If you are interested in learning more about Dr. Aron’s work on HSPs, various books exist on the topic, including The Highly Sensitive Child, which is relevant for parents, teachers, and caregivers. You can also find details on research and HSP self-tests on her website, hsperson.com.


Aron, N. Elaine, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive when the World Overwhelms You, New York, Harmony Books, 2016.


Image: Sophia Louise on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0


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