Today, you’re going to discover the top 10 qualities of a highly sensitive person traits and highly sensitive person coping strategies to thrive in life.
Are you a highly sensitive person?
Highly sensitive people (HSPs) vary in the way they deal with their emotions.
Some are openly irritated and angry much of the time, while others would hide most of their anger and irritation.
Some are friends with everyone they meet, while others prefer being alone.
However, there are certain characteristics that most HSPs share.
What Does It Mean to Be Highly Sensitive?
A highly sensitive person (HSP) is a term for those who have an increased or deeper central nervous system sensitivity to physical, emotional, or social stimuli.
The HSP trait is a combination of:
An increased depth of processing,
A tendency to be easily overstimulated,
A higher level of emotional intensity and empathy, and
Increased awareness of and sensitivity to environmental subtleties when compared to non-HSP groups (Aron, 2010).
1. Depth of Processing
Research has shown associations between the HSP trait and increased activity in brain structures related to cognition, attention, and sensory and emotional information processing (Greven et al., 2019).
HSPs are deep thinking. They consider all sides of a situation and are more aware of the contextual layers of experiences, including long-term consequences.
All of this requires spending enough time reflecting and can also be exhausting.
Because of their increased brain activity, HSPs are more impacted by input from their five senses, which can lead to overstimulation (Aron, 2010).
Overstimulation can result from high-intensity stimuli (e.g., a loud noise or strong smell) or prolonged low-intensity stimuli (e.g., a soft ticking sound in the background).
Without appropriate coping strategies, this overstimulation can cause chronic stress and anxiety.
3. Emotional Intensity
HSPs experience an increased emotional response (e.g. being moved to tears) to both positive and negative emotional experiences.
HSPs can also be more aware and affected by the positive or negative moods coming from other people, which can be described as “intuition.”
4. Sensitivity to Environmental Subtleties
HSPs are highly perceptive of subtle changes in their environment.
This sensitivity is associated with how the sensory information is processed in the brain rather than to the sensory organs themselves (Aron, 2010).
This means that when an HSP is bothered by background noise, it’s not because they have an extra-sensitive hearing but because their brain is processing the information in a deeper way.
Are Introverts HSP?
While HSPs may use coping mechanisms in overstimulating social situations, like leaving a party early and decompressing afterward, these behaviors do not necessarily mean that the person is an introvert.
While about 70 percent of HSPs identify as introverts (Aron, 2010), the HSP trait and introversion/extroversion measure different things.
Introversion and extroversion describe psychological preferences for what energizes a person. Introverts become exhausted by a social gathering, while extroverts draw their energy from these social gatherings.
10 Qualities Of A Highly Sensitive Person
Characteristics of highly sensitive people have both an upside and a downside, but you can still experience more of the positive effects, while reducing the negative effect of each trait.
#1. A Deep Sensitivity Towards Nature
Simple events, such as watching the waves, viewing fall foliage, or snuggling a pet can be a moving experience.
Your connection to nature has a calming and grounding effect on you and can offer you a sense of belonging.
At the same time, these deep emotions can become exhausting, especially when nature isn’t respected by others. Seeing hurt animals or oceans filled with waste can send you into deep sadness.
#2. Sensitivity to Others’ Feelings
Being HSP makes you highly alert to the emotions of others. Any time others are upset, you may feel just as upset as they are, or even more so.
That helps you offer support and the comforting words the other person needs.
You may even remain concerned and worried for hours after seeing someone crying. This may affect your physical health too, causing an upset stomach or chest pain.
At the same time, your emotional sensitivity can mean that people have far too much influence on your feelings.
You find yourself overanalyzing people’s words and behaviors and overly worried about what others think of you.
#3. A Love/Hate Relationship with Your Own Emotions
Being HSP can be both a gift and a curse.
You may view your sensitive emotions as a gift when you see how caring you are about others and when you experience intense joy and feelings of connectedness that add a sense of meaning and contentment to your life.
However, when intense emotions repeatedly overwhelm you, you may begin to view your emotional sensitivity as a burden.
At times, you may find yourself wishing you didn’t have feelings at all.
#4. Sensitivity to Rejection
Negatively seeing yourself as different from others, can increase your sensitivity to rejection and make you work hard on hiding your intense emotions.
However, hiding your emotions for fear others may see you as weak or less intelligent only leads to rejecting your emotions and difficulty in coping with them.
You might start dreading socializing because of the possible pain involved. Even mildly critical statements may lead you to believe you’ll never fit in.
Being HSP, you may interpret someone’s words, actions, and even tone of voice as meaning they don’t like you or accept you.
#5. Emotional Fatigue
Spending so much time with other people or even “in the world” in general can be exhausting and leave you emotionally drained.
You may find yourself craving solitude or needing to be with “safe” people to cope with the emotional overload.
While there is nothing wrong with that, this becomes a problem when you feel shame about withdrawing and judge yourself.
#6. Difficulty Making Decisions
Having intense emotions can be paralyzing and confusing, especially when it comes to making decisions or taking action.
Sometimes you may take feelings as facts, which leads to self-doubt. Other times, your intense emotions may cause you to react too swiftly without thinking through the consequences.
#7. Intuitive Thinking
Intuition is the ability to understand something instinctively, without needing conscious reasoning.
HSPs, being intuitive, might know certain things to be true without being able to explain how they reached that understanding.
If you’re HSP, you’ve probably experienced “knowing” that someone’s lying, or that you’re in danger without being able to explain the logic of your understanding.
Intuitive thinking is a valuable resource. However, when intense emotions interfere, it might distort your thoughts.
For instance, when you’re experiencing intense feelings of anxiety, you might find yourself attuned to your friend’s negative feelings and thoughts and less aware of the positive ones.
If you’re an HSP, you may exhibit some creative talent, be it music, writing, interior design, a vivid imagination, etc.
These skills can serve you well in your life, whether you make a career out of it or not.
#9. A Strong Sense of Justice
HSPs have a strong sense of justice, which makes them ready to stand up for those they think were wronged.
Whether the injustice affects them directly or not, HSPs would usually feel upset and fight for justice.
At the same time, your concern for justice might cause you to become overprotective and even controlling with other people.
#10. A Fluid Identity
Your personal identity is how you see yourself as a person. This includes your values, desires, and your personality characteristics.
Intense emotions can interfere with the way you see yourself as a person. As an HSP, you might feel pushed here and there by circumstances and other people.
9 Highly Sensitive Person Coping Strategies
If you’re HSP, your emotions will come on more quickly and more intense, and will last longer than other people’s emotions.
You probably struggle each day to cope with your overwhelming emotions and the consequences of acting on your emotions.
People in your life may not understand or accept your emotional sensitivity. You probably have been repeatedly told that you’re overreacting, too sensitive, or even too dramatic.
You may see yourself as different from everyone else, most likely in a negative way.
Maybe you believe the problem is a lack of willpower to stick to what you said you were going to do.
But willpower is not a sustainable way to deal with your intense emotions. You may keep to your promise for a few hours or days, but sooner or later your emotions will overwhelm you again.
The key here to reduce suffering while enjoying the gift of emotional sensitivity is to learn how to manage your intense emotions.
Managing your emotions involves identifying and accepting your emotions, and using healthy coping strategies to process them.
The following techniques will help you learn how to deal with your intense emotions in a healthy way and feel more in control.
#1. Identify the Cause Behind Your Emotions
Experiencing intense emotions that you are unsure about what triggered them will add confusion and may even lead to panic or depression.
When you identify what triggered your intense emotions, then you’ll know better how to cope effectively.
For instance, if you figure out that the reason why you’re feeling anxious is because of the upcoming snowstorm, you can then stock up on food and put snow tires on your car. These are constructive steps to take to reduce your anxiety.
If there’s no action you can take:
If you realize you’re anxious because you’re waiting for the exams’ result, then there’s nothing you can do to change the situation.
But keeping in mind that the reason for your anxiety is time-limited and that you’ll only have to cope with it temporarily, will help you find ways to distract yourself.
Practical Exercise 1 – Connect the Emotion with the Cause
Whenever you experience an intense emotion, grab your journal and write down answers for the following question:
* What emotion am I experiencing?
* What event triggered the emotion (be specific)?
* Can I solve or lessen the problem? Is there any action to take?
* If there is nothing I can do but the problem is time-limited, how can I comfort or distract myself?
#2. Recognize That Your Feelings Aren’t Necessarily Reality
Your thoughts are largely shaped by your emotions.
When you’re feeling happy, you tend to think positive thoughts. When you’re upset, you may believe that you may never feel good again, even though nothing in your life has significantly changed.
You may find yourself thinking, “I feel miserable because the world is a horrible place.”
For HSPs, this can create an emotional roller coaster.
Practical Exercise 2 – Emotions Diary
One way to remind yourself of the fleeting nature of emotions and stop yourself from catastrophizing your emotions, is to keep a diary in which you write about your emotions and the thoughts you had each day.
After a couple of weeks, review what you’ve written.
You’ll notice that your thoughts tend to change with your feelings.
This will help change your beliefs about your emotions and help you recognize that your thoughts when you’re feeling down, are not necessarily the facts of your life.
#3. Develop a Pause
Developing a pause before you act, will help you make more effective decisions.
Practical Exercise 3 – Develop a Pause
Before you act, pause for a moment and notice your thoughts and feelings.
This might seem hard at first – you’ve been acting on your emotions for years. But think about the many times you regretted actions you took when you were emotional, and how much it would have helped if you took a moment to think about it before acting.
Watch the emotion.
Take a step back and observe your experience of the emotion – how the emotion feels in your body, what triggered the emotion, your thoughts about the emotion, and any urges you have to act on it.
The emotion may ebb and flow, getting stronger before it gradually decreases in strength.
Accept that you’re having an emotion.
Acceptance means letting the emotion be while recognizing that you don’t have to act on it or against it.
Investigate what information does the emotion give you?
If you’re upset with someone, perhaps your hurt is telling you it’s time to look for you to have an honest conversation with that person.
The information your emotions provide can lead to effective actions that will help you move forward in your life.
Remind yourself that your emotion will pass eventually. If possible, don’t take any action until you’re calmer.
#4. Don’t Feed Painful Emotions
This might seem logical. The last thing you want to do is to add to those painful emotions or make them stronger.
But this is harder than it sounds.
When you’re feeling down, naturally, you won’t choose to be around cheerful people, you probably will be drawn to sad songs, and even start dwelling on negative thoughts.
This only feeds your painful emotions.
Practical Exercise 4 – Mindfulness
Instead of ruminating about what happened and replaying it over and over in your head, looking for additional evidence to support and justify the way you feel, choose to become present.
Focus on the here and now.
One way to help you with that is practicing mindfulness.
You could also try the following informal mindfulness exercise:
1. Notice your thoughts about the upsetting event.
2. Examine whether the thoughts are helpful. Describe the thoughts as such—say to yourself, That’s a helpful thought, or That’s not a helpful thought.
Practical Exercise 5 – Acceptance
Another way to stop feeding painful emotions is to practice acceptance (Linehan 1993).
Acceptance doesn’t mean that you approve of or agree with what happened. It simply means that you acknowledge that it occurred.
When you accept, you stop wishing it was different, believing it shouldn’t have happened, or blaming others.
You stop fighting your thoughts and each time you have a thought, you simply label it—“That’s a thought”—and unstuck yourself from the “what if” thinking pattern. You recognize that your thoughts don’t always reflect reality.
#5. Abandon Emotional Reasoning
Emotional reasoning is when you believe the thoughts that accompany your intense emotions.
Emotional reasoning is different from intuition. When you use your intuition, you experience a calm sense of knowing (Linehan 1993). Despite not being able to tell how you knew something is true, there’s little emotion associated with that knowledge.
However, when you’re using emotional reasoning, you often experience intense emotions.
For instance, when you experience intense anxiety, you may begin to believe that something awful must be happening or about to happen despite having no evidence to prove that.
Believing these emotionally generated “facts” can only add to your painful emotions.
Practical Exercise 6 – Dealing With Emotional Reasoning
If your thoughts are accompanied by intense emotions, then you’re probably using emotional reasoning.
1. Deep Breathing
Use this deep breathing exercise to regulate your intense emotions.
1. Try doing this exercise lying down on the ground and notice how that provides a sensation of being grounded to the earth.
2. Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your heart.
3. Inhale deeply through your nose as you silently count to three.
4. Exhale through your mouth as you silently count to six.
5. Repeat this six more times, and then see if you can work up to a four-count inhale, followed by an eight-count exhale, and then five-count inhale, followed by a ten-count exhale.
Once you’re done, notice how you feel calmer and more present.
2. Visualization or Guided Imagery
Using your imagination to picture relaxing memories or places can help ease your intense emotions.
1. Get in a comfortable position.
2. Start breathing deeply and slowly and feel your body as you release any tension in your muscles.
3. Once you feel relaxed, picture yourself walking toward a long, sandy beach. The sand is soft and warm under your bare feet. The air smells salty and fresh. As you move closer to the water, you notice the brilliant water is crystal clear with shells of all shapes and sizes glistening beneath the waves. The sun feels warm on your skin. You hear the far-off high-pitched cry of a gull. You breathe in and out, letting go of all stress.
3. Challenging Your Distorted Thoughts
Once you bring your awareness back to the present moment and become aware of your negative, irrational beliefs, you begin to replace them with more positive, accurate thoughts.
For instance, when you find yourself thinking “What’s wrong with me,” or “I’m worthless,” replacing these negative thoughts with more positive ones, such as “It’s okay to be nervous,” “Mistakes are proof that I’m trying.”
Challenge your distorted thoughts by asking yourself the following questions:
1. What evidence do I have that what I believe is actually true?
2. Do I know for certain that the worst will happen?
3. Is there another possible explanation for that person’s behavior that isn’t about me?
4. Am I confusing a thought with a fact?
5. Am I falling into a thinking trap (e.g., catastrophizing or overestimating danger)?
6. What would I tell a friend if he/she had the same thought?
7. Am I 100% sure that ___________will happen?
8. How many times has __________happened before?
9. Is __________so important that my future depends on it?
10. If it did happen, what could I do to cope with or handle it?
11. Am I condemning myself as a total person on the basis of a single event?
12. Am I concentrating on my weakness and forgetting my strengths?
13. Am I blaming myself for something which is not really my fault?
14. Am I taking something personally which has little or nothing to do with me?
15. Am I assuming I can do nothing to change my situation?
#6. Remember the Big Picture
Your emotions can narrow your vision and prevent you from seeing the big picture.
For example, when you’re angry with someone, you’re unlikely to think of all the times that person was kind or helpful, and more likely to see that person as horrible and think of how much you dislike him.
Practical Exercise 7 – Remember the Big Picture
When you find yourself angry or upset with someone you love, pause for a moment and recall all the other good things that person had done for you.
Consider writing a list of the ways the people you love support you and help you and keep that list handy.
When you’re feeling angry or upset with them, read the list.
The goal here is to reach a more balanced and accurate view.
#7. Create a Different Emotion
When a painful emotion is taking a long time to dissipate, despite having no reason for the intensity of your feelings, consider creating a more pleasant emotion.
Practical Exercise 8 – Opposite Actions
Engage in an activity that will create the opposite emotion to what you’re feeling:
* If you feel depressed, watch a show that makes you laugh, or do something to keep yourself active, such as going out for a walk, or even doing house chores.
Change your body posture – walk tall and maintain eye contact, with a steady and clear voice.
* If you feel angry, take a few deep calming breaths, or try to feel empathy for the other person – consider the reasons that might push him to act the way he did.
* If you feel guilty or ashamed, accept the consequences of your actions and learn from them for the future. If there is something you can do about it, like apologizing or fixing your mistake, do it. If not, remind yourself that it’s okay to make mistakes.
* If you feel afraid, do something to increase your sense of control. Facing your fear can help you desensitize yourself and build mastery over your fear.
* If you’re afraid of failure, make a list of all the reasons that you truly are competent and capable of success.
Remind yourself that perfection is not the goal, rather it is the willingness to perform and engage.
Separate your behavior (e.g., studying for an exam) from your emotion of fear, and remind yourself that you are capable of working and tolerating the fear.
Remind yourself that emotions will pass and that they have no more power over you than you are willing to give it. Rather than fighting against it, simply acknowledge it with mindfulness, breathe into it, and let it go.
#8. Think Here and Now
Worrying about the future or ruminating about the past is often what triggers your intense emotions.
The best way to ease these overwhelming emotions is to be present and focus on the task at hand, or your immediate next action.
Doing only what you need to do in the moment will help decrease your sense of being overwhelmed.
Practical Exercise 9 – Informal Mindfulness
Practicing mindfulness will help you shift your focus back to the present moment:
- Choose a task that you normally do on a daily basis, like brushing your teeth or taking a shower.
- Try to focus your attention on the task, bringing all of your senses to the experience.
- If you’re taking a shower, feel and listen to the water pouring against your skin, and smell the shampoo you’re using, and pay attention to the visual details you don’t usually notice, such as the iridescence of the bubbles.
#9. Let Yourself Cry
You may believe that crying is a sign of weakness. But crying is actually a way of coping with strong emotions.
Practical Exercise 10 – Change Your Perception of Allowing Yourself to Cry
There are good reasons to cry.
Crying is cooperative behavior— it signals to others that you don’t want to fight.
Crying signals a willingness to be vulnerable in relationships, which helps build emotional intimacy.
Crying is an effective way to allow the other person to offer help or comfort.
Crying is a great way to calm yourself. Chemicals released in your brain as you cry helps you feel better after crying (Frey 1985).
This makes crying a healthy coping mechanism.
Putting It All Together
Emotions can be overwhelming, pushing you to act in ways that detour you from the life you want to lead.
The best way to deal with your emotions is to pay attention to and understanding them and their effect, before you can find healthier ways to manage them in a way that serves you best.
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- Portions of this article were adapted from the book The Emotionally Sensitive Person, © 2014 by Karyn D. Hall. All rights reserved.
- Highly sensitive person: Signs, strengths, and challenges (medicalnewstoday.com)
- The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others’ emotions – PMC (nih.gov)
- Scans peek at brains of highly sensitive people – Futurity
- New Research on Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) | Psychology Today
- Highly Sensitive Person | Psychology Today
- Being “Highly Sensitive” Is a Real Trait. Here’s What It Feels Li (healthline.com)
- The sensitive brain at rest: Research uncovers patterns in the resting brains of highly sensitive people — ScienceDaily
- (PDF) The highly sensitive brain: An fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others’ emotions (researchgate.net)
Hadiah is a counselor who is passionate about supporting individuals on their journey towards mental well-being. Hadiah not only writes insightful articles on various mental health topics but also creates engaging and practical mental health worksheets.