A highly sensitive person (HSP) is someone whose nervous system is believed to be literally more sensitive1 to certain things, whether it be their environment or emotional state.
Research has found this sensitivity is actually due to increased blood flow in the areas of the brain that process emotions, awareness, and empathy. In other words, HSPs are born with a brain and nervous system that’s different from the rest of the population. “It’s a nervous system that is more reactive to stimuli—it’s a nervous system that can feel things more deeply,” psychologist and relationship counselor Margaret Paul, Ph.D., previously told mbg.
According to research conducted by Elaine Aron, Ph.D., a psychologist who authored The Highly Sensitive Person and The Highly Sensitive Child, about 15 to 20% of the population is born with this unique, more reactive nervous system.
While high sensitivity does allow these people to be acutely aware of what’s going on around (and within) them, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. As psychiatrist Judith Orloff, M.D., previously wrote for mindbodygreen, “Highly sensitive people are particularly vulnerable to other people’s stress and emotions. This can result in panic attacks, depression, exhaustion, and a range of physical ailments.”
But when HSPs know how to properly avoid triggers and stressful environments and, further, take the time they need to recharge, Paul says being highly sensitive can be a gift. “[HSPs] have an easier time tuning in to other people’s feelings and feeling that empathy and that compassion,” she explains.
That said, research has found that highly sensitive people do tend to have different brain activity than others, so there does seem to be a neurobiological basis for the predisposition.