What Does It Mean To Be Highly Sensitive?

If someone were to call you ‘highly sensitive,’ how would you feel about it?

I know in the past I would have taken it as an offence, as I’ve always associated it with being overly (and outwardly) emotional, touchy and perhaps even explosive at times. For this reason, I’ve never considered myself as ‘highly sensitive’ since, being an introvert, I tend to process my thoughts and emotions internally.

Over the past few months however, I’ve been learning more about what it really means to be a ‘highly sensitive person (HSP),’ and to my initial surprise, I tick many of the boxes. The biggest realisation I made was that it’s not just about being emotionally sensitive but also mentally and physically sensitive, and that it applies to both external and internal stimuli.

According to Dr Elaine Aron, author of ‘The Highly Sensitive Person,’ HSPs make up about 15-20% of the population, and although many HSPs are also introverts, it’s not always the case.

Have a read of the following traits to see if you identify with being an HSP:

  • You are sensitive to the energy and mood of others – as an HSP, you might notice that when someone is in a bad mood, you sense it and it affects your mood too. As a strategy for this, instead of engaging in it, you might withdraw or leave the room. Alternatively, if you’re listening to someone talking negatively, you may feel it starts to drain you quite quickly

  • You are sensitive to the words and tone of voice of others – you might think this is universal but HSPs really take it to heart when criticised. Equally, receiving praise, a compliment or motivation can really light you up and make your day. You might also pay careful attention to the lyrics of songs or poems because of their emotional effect on you

  • Your emotions are easily triggered when watching movies, reading books or listening to music– a particular scene might bring you to tears; you might be jumpy and tense when there’s suspense; you might not be able to tolerate violence or goriness; and music can really move your soul and heighten your emotions

  • You are sensitive to your environment and physical senses – you might notice that bright lights hurt your eyes, loud noises hurt your ears, certain smells are overpowering, certain tastes linger in your mouth, and big crowds overwhelm you or drain your energy

  • You are sensitive to stimulants such as alcohol and caffeine – you might notice that when you drink alcohol or caffeinated drinks, you get jittery, headaches, a red/hot face, or you can’t fall asleep easily if you drink caffeine in the evening

  • You are sensitive to foods such as gluten and dairy – you might get indigestion or feel bloated after eating particular foods

  • You are sensitive to changes in blood sugar levels – you might notice that you feel shaky, lightheaded or irritable when you haven’t eaten in a while

  • You are sensitive to temperature, body products or certain materials – you might notice that when you have a hot drink or as soon as you start to exercise, your body gets overheated quickly and when you’re in an air-conditioned space, you get cold very quickly. Your skin may also react to certain products or materials e.g. by producing redness or itchiness

Personally, I can relate to all of these!

If you can relate to some or all of these too, don’t see them as a weakness. See them as your body’s way of communicating with you about your unique needs and as an opportunity to understand yourself better, mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually.

Once you are aware of your own sensitivities, you can consciously choose to seek environments, activities, people and dietary habits that you thrive on whilst reducing your exposure to the ones that have a negative effect on you.

On a personal note, when it comes to tone of voice and criticism, I know that if I sense anger or annoyance in someone, I tend to take it personally. However, now that I realise I am sensitive to these things, I remind myself not to jump to conclusions. I either use my own judgement to determine whether the person is projecting their personal emotions onto me or I ask them if they’re upset about something.

I know that it can feel challenging to probe deeper with a question like that when you’re worried that it’s about you, but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s the gift of clear communication – for everyone concerned. Not only does it prevent you from overthinking and making misguided assumptions that you’ve done something wrong, but it also gives the other person the opportunity to process or express whatever is going on for them.

I must also say that there are many more positive HSP traits such as being deeply insightful, empathetic and highly creative. I just wanted to focus on the actual sensitivities here 🙂

Can you identify with being an HSP too?


  1. Gerard Schreyer on March 27, 2019 at 8:14 am

    Oh yes, I recognize most of the mentioned examples, except coffee. But I use to drink a little bit. Being now 75 years old, I’ve learnt to avoiid loud noises, mass meetings concerts. In general I still prefer making bike tours in nature, sitting on a bench, enjoing silence and wuite

  2. Rick Stickney on March 30, 2019 at 6:31 am

    I am aware of being an HSP AND an INTROVERT. The combination (for me) has always been most difficult. I tend not to engage in conversation that would clarify difficult situations such as the sarcasm and criticism that I seem to constantly hear about myself. I think that I am too self-absorbed but of course cannot stop thinking about the things I might have done to offend someone else. It still hurts to the point of tears, sometimes. I’m also afraid that if I took the amount of alone time I think I need, i would just drive people away. Interestingly, I took about 2 hours of time to myself when I had a little time from work. It was the first time I have done something I ALONE wanted to do in about 7-8 months. And THEN I felt guilty about taking this time! And it was nowhere enough time for me. I would love to do that once a month, (or even more) but there is always some things standing in the way. My counselors give me different ways of dealing with this, but it’s a constant struggle. I try to consider by HSP characteristics as a positive thing, but it’s clear that no one else does. And so the struggle continues.

    • Margaret on March 31, 2019 at 6:16 pm

      I think accepting the way you truly are and adapting your environment as much as you can can go a long way in helping you to cope.

    • wellnesswithalie on March 31, 2019 at 8:35 pm

      Thank you for sharing that Rick. I’d like to put my coach hat on and challenge you on your statement that ‘there is always something standing in the way’ which prevents you from having more alone time. I totally get it that our to do lists are endless and that there are constant distractions, however what I’ve learnt is that it’s our responsibility to set personal boundaries around our time. I would suggest taking an inventory of everything you do in one day (you could also do this over the course of a week) and then see which activities are not actually necessary (and can be replaced with alone time), which can be delegated or which you can ask for support with so they are completed faster. If you truly want to have more alone time to do what makes you happy (which you are totally worthy of!), then you can find a way of scheduling it in 🙂

  3. Margaret on March 31, 2019 at 6:14 pm

    I can relate to most of these things. Some of which I find almost unbearable. Especially very loud busy eating places.

    • wellnesswithalie on March 31, 2019 at 8:38 pm

      Indeed, they can be quite overwhelming. Thanks for sharing Margaret!

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