The term “highly sensitive” has been used to describe several different personality types—people who overreact, for instance, or people who get upset easily. But the true, research-backed definition of a “highly sensitive person” is an individual who “has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his or her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment,” according to Elaine Aron, PhD, a psychologist who has studied high sensitivity since 1991.
This personality type is actually pretty common. In fact, about 20 percent of the population identifies with it, says Aron, which is why it isn’t classified as a disorder. And oddly enough, about 30 percent of people who are highly sensitive are also classified as extroverts, so it can be difficult to discern if high sensitivity is something you live with, says Aron.
So, how can you tell if you are a highly sensitive person? Here’s how to spot the most common qualities of the personality type—and what you can do to live better as one.
What are the common traits of a highly sensitive person?
Being highly sensitive isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s a personality that’s entirely innate. But in order to be classified as highly sensitive, you need to have four specific characteristics. “If you don’t have all four, you’re probably not what we’re defining as highly sensitive,” says Aron. These characteristics, known as DOES, include:
Depth of processing
This simply means that you process things more deeply and observe more carefully before you act. The result? You tend to react more cleverly to situations, says Aron. “This is the most important one,” she says. “This is a survival strategy found in at least 100 species.” And although we don’t know exactly what the purpose of this characteristic is in highly sensitive people, we do know that it has some kind of advantage to survival.
For example, if you’re packing for a trip, you may think, plan, and imagine everything that you might need while you’re away—so you end up being the person who comes equipped with the items others forgot about.
Thinking about things so deeply means you tend to notice every single detail, which can tire you out more easily. “That is the only downside of the personality,” says Aron. “We’ve done studies in which we find that sensitive people are noticing subtleties and their brains are processing things at a higher level in the sense that it’s not just their eyes and ears and noses that are so sensitive, but it’s noticing subtle aspects of a complex situation.” And that keen observance is ultimately what leads to overstimulation, causing a highly sensitive person to sometimes feel frazzled, rushed, or drained.
Emotional response and empathy
Highly sensitive people have strong emotional responses in order to deeply process the things and situations they’re experiencing, says Aron. They also tend to be more empathetic than average, both to people they know and to strangers.
For example, you may be preparing for a job interview and start worrying about all the questions you have to prepare for, causing you to slow down—but then your empathy kicks in when you think of your family, who is depending on you to succeed, so your brain tells you to keep going.
Sensitivity to subtleties
This characteristic is ultimately what breeds overstimulation, says Aron: being sensitive to all the small things that may be occurring at any given time that other people don’t tend to notice.
But picking up on subtle details has quite a few upsides that could help you both personally and professionally. According to Ryne Sherman, PhD, a psychologist and chief science officer at Hogan Assessments which runs personality tests, these positive traits include:
- Being able to find problems and spot issues easily
- Being dissatisfied with things, leading to progress and change
- Trying to improve the way things are
The easiest way to find out if you’re a highly sensitive person is to take Aron’s self-test, which includes research-backed questions to find out where you land in terms of the above characteristics. But there are some key indicators that could help you determine if you’re highly sensitive, including if you identify with any of the following:
- You think deeply about things and life has to be meaningful.
- You’re easily overstimulated and avoid noisy places.
- If you’ve had a full day, you’d rather stay home than go out.
- People say you have a lot of empathy for others.
- You cry easily.
- You notice things other people miss.
The trouble is, most of us have a hard time recognizing our own tendencies and reactions to things, because “we tend to think other people see us just the way we see ourselves,” says Sherman.
This is where getting some outside perspective to determine if you’re highly sensitive could be helpful. Try to think about yourself and your reactions to things from other people’s perspectives, and think about how they’d react in a given situation. If it feels like you react more strongly than those in your inner circle or you notice more than those you surround yourself with do, that could provide some insight.
How to adapt to your emotions if you’re highly sensitive
If you’ve found that you identify with being highly sensitive and have been looking for an excuse for a lazy Saturday, here it is: The key to coping with your high sensitivity is getting plenty of downtimes. “Everyone talks about downtime these days, but it’s important for highly sensitive people that it be really quiet,” says Aron. “You need quiet downtime to allow that overstimulation and depth of processing to overstimulation to wind down.”
Make time for rest
Whatever your version of self-care is, prioritize that. This might mean that when you go on vacation, it’s more important for you to catch up on sleep and rest rather than participating in a full day of activities, says Aron. Or, it might mean that instead of going out and playing tennis with friends or going to a party after work on a Friday, you go home and have some time to yourself. The important thing here is making sure you get quiet time to let yourself reset.
Meditation is a great way to soak in the quiet. “I think meditation is really important, and I think transcendental meditation is the best because it’s the most restful,” says Aron. “Mindfulness involves observing your breathing or your body or your thoughts, and transcendental meditation doesn’t include any of that.”
Try doing transcendental meditation—which simply includes focusing on a mantra or sound and letting your mind fall to silence—for about 15 to 20 minutes per day.
Consider seeing a therapist
It’s important to remember that being highly sensitive isn’t a bad thing. “People shouldn’t feel hopeless,” says Aron. If it’s something you’re struggling with, start attending sessions of psychotherapy, which sensitive people are naturally more responsive to. “We think that sensitive people do better than others in intervention like psychotherapy because they’re paying more attention,” says Aron. “If they’re seeing a good therapist, they’re paying more attention to the therapist’s feedback and feelings about them and should get more from that.”
You can find a therapist in your state who has been trained in high sensitivity through Aron’s site, The Highly Sensitive Person.