Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) are individuals who experience emotions and sensory input more deeply than the average person. They are often described as being “too sensitive” or “overly emotional.” However, recent scientific research has shed light on the biological basis of HSP, and how it differs from neurotypical individuals.
What is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
HSPs are individuals who have a genetic trait that makes them more sensitive to their environment. Studies have shown that this trait is linked to certain genes that regulate dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain (1). This increased sensitivity can manifest in a variety of ways, including being more easily overwhelmed by sensory input (such as loud noises or bright lights), feeling emotions more deeply, and having a greater sensitivity to the emotions of others. HSPs often have a rich inner world and a strong sense of empathy.
How common are HSPs, and how do they differ from neurotypical individuals?
Estimates suggest that around 20% of the population may be highly sensitive (2). HSPs are not necessarily introverted or shy, although they may be more prone to overstimulation in social situations. They may also be more sensitive to caffeine and other stimulants. Studies have shown that HSPs have a different physiological response to stress, with higher levels of cortisol and greater activation of the sympathetic nervous system (3).
The biological basis of HSP: research studies and findings
Research has shown that HSPs have a different brain structure and function compared to neurotypical individuals. HSPs have a more active amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions. In one study, HSPs showed greater activation in the amygdala in response to emotional stimuli, such as images of faces (4). HSPs also have a greater number of mirror neurons, which enable them to feel empathy more strongly (5).
How HSPs experience and process emotions differently
HSPs often feel emotions more deeply than the average person. This can be both a gift and a challenge, as they may experience positive emotions more intensely, but also be more prone to anxiety and depression. HSPs may also have a greater sensitivity to the emotions of others, which can be overwhelming in social situations. Research has shown that HSPs have greater activation in brain regions involved in empathy and emotional processing, such as the insula and anterior cingulate cortex (6).
Tips for HSPs to manage their sensitivity and thrive in a neurotypical world
Managing sensitivity can be a challenge for HSPs, particularly in a world that is designed for neurotypical individuals. However, there are many strategies that can help HSPs to thrive, including self-care practices, setting boundaries, and seeking out environments that are more conducive to their needs.
For instance, mindfulness practices, such as meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercises, can help HSPs to calm their nervous system and manage their emotions more effectively. Setting boundaries, such as saying no to commitments that don’t align with their values, can help HSPs to protect their energy and avoid burnout. Seeking out environments that are more peaceful and less stimulating can also be helpful, such as spending time in nature or creating a quiet space at home.
Conclusion: Celebrating the unique qualities of HSPs
While HSPs may face challenges in a world that is not always sensitive to their needs, their unique perspective and strengths should be celebrated. With greater understanding and awareness, we can create a more inclusive and supportive world for HSPs and neurotypical individuals alike.
- Acevedo, B. P., Aron, E. N., Aron, A., Sangster, M.-D., Collins, N., & Brown, L. L. (2014). The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others’ emotions. Brain and Behavior, 4(4), 580-594. doi: 10.1002/brb3.242
- , B. P., Aron, E. N., Aron, A., Sangster, M.-D., Collins, N., & Brown, L. L. (2014). The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others’ emotions. Brain and Behavior, 4(4), 580-594. doi: 10.1002/brb3.242
- Aron, E. N. (2010). The highly sensitive person: How to thrive when the world overwhelms you. Broadway Books.
- Strick, M., & Vollmer, C. (2020). The trait of sensory processing sensitivity and neural responses to changes in visual scenes. Personality and Individual Differences, 153, 109639. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2019.109639
- Lüthi, M., & Martin, S. (2019). Emotional reactivity in sensory processing sensitivity: An fMRI study. Scientific Reports, 9(1), 1-10. doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-39954-6
- Schmitz, J., & Grillon, C. (2012). Assessing fear and anxiety in humans using the threat of predictable and unpredictable aversive events (the NPU-threat test). Nature Protocols, 7(3), 527-532. doi: 10.1038/nprot.2012.001
- Henning, E. R., & Bonanno, G. A. (2020). Neuroticism, emotion regulation, and psychopathology in highly sensitive individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 118(2), 329-350. doi: 10.1037/pspp0000265