Highly Sensitive People: Am I Highly Sensitive?

29 Sep ‘22
5 min
Annemarie Andre
Reviewed by psychologist Eva Rüger
You used to hear people say things like, “Don’t be so sensitive”. Or, “You need to get a thicker skin”. But in recent years, the concept of being highly sensitive has gained more recognition as a personality trait and there’s less stigma around it. Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by external stimuli, do you feel things more intensely than other people, or do you need to take time to recover after intense experiences? Then you might want to ask yourself: Am I a highly sensitive person? 


In this article, we’ll share the signs that you might be highly sensitive and explain more about what causes someone to be highly sensitive. What’s more, our psychologists will give you some tips for living a more comfortable life as a highly sensitive person.


How can I tell if I’m highly sensitive?


Around 20 to 30% of people are believed to fall into the category of highly sensitive people. Here’s how you can tell if someone is highly sensitive:


  • Strong reactions to environmental influences (like noise and light)
  • Processing information intensely
  • Increased empathy


Would you like to document these feelings and create some order in the chaos? Journaling can help to reduce stress and anxiety and it also has a positive effect on your mental health.


However, highly sensitive people obviously aren’t just stressed out all the time. They also feel the wonderful things in life more intensely and can really appreciate beautiful music or good food. This means, being highly sensitive isn’t really positive or negative. It’s also not a disorder or a disease, it’s just a personality trait. 


Highly sensitive people were first researched by American psychotherapist Elaine N. Aron, who first mentioned the term “Highly Sensitive Person” in a scientific paper published in 1997. Here, she distinguished between internal and external stimuli. External or environmental stimuli could be noise, light or temperature. Internal stimuli are bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings.


What causes someone to be highly sensitive?


Research into highly sensitive people is still relatively new. So, it’s difficult to say what exactly causes it. However, studies show that people are genetically predisposed to being highly sensitive and that there are often multiple highly sensitive people in the same family. 


Studies using magnetic resonance imaging have also been able to determine that certain areas of the brain are more active for highly sensitive people.


In addition, different stimuli affect different people differently. This seems to be intensified in cases involving highly sensitive people. However, this topic hasn’t been well-researched on an academic level. Read on to discover how you can find out if you’re a highly sensitive person.


Diagnosing” highly sensitive people


As already mentioned, being highly sensitive isn’t an illness, so it can’t be diagnosed as such. However, Aron put together a questionnaire about highly sensitive people that you can use to test yourself. Although, it’s worth pointing out that results aren’t always conclusive because they can be obscured by other mental health challenges. 


This means that if you feel you’re highly sensitive, it’s best to talk to a therapist or a psychologist about it. Together you can figure out what will work best for you in your particular situation.


Tips for highly sensitive people


Our world is moving at an increasingly rapid pace and we’re now facing completely different challenges than we were ten years ago. So, it’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed by stimuli and it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re highly sensitive. If you notice that certain events are draining your energy or that you’re reacting strongly to particular situations, you can try these tips.


1. Make sure you’re taking time to step back and rest


Do you work in a hectic open-plan office? Then keep searching for a quiet corner or a relaxation space to recharge your energy reserves. You can also set up a quiet corner reserved for relaxation or meditation at home. But it’s not just spaces that play a big role, your schedule does too. Do you have a job that requires you to sit through lots of meetings and constantly bombards you with new information? Then schedule plenty of breaks that allow you to relax again.


2. Optimize your work area and private spaces


Whether it means getting rid of a particularly colourful picture, clutter, or background noise, try to make your work area calm and minimalistic. The fewer stimuli bombard you, the better. If working in an open-plan office isn’t good for your productivity, you can arrange to work from home more often. You can also create a neutral workroom so that you’re not overwhelmed by stimuli.


3. Learn to say no


Setting boundaries can work wonders. Take plenty of time for yourself and don’t let yourself be persuaded to do things that aren’t good for you. For example, say no to that extra project you don’t have time for or to that hectic Saturday shopping trip.


4. Discuss your problems openly


Are you struggling with a certain situation or behaviour? Then discuss this problem openly with your family, friends or work colleagues. Also, speak up if something is too much for you at the moment. This allows people around you to be considerate and to get to know you better.


5. Maintain a healthy emotional distance


Due to their pronounced empathy, highly sensitive people in particular have a tendency to get bogged down in the thoughts and feelings of other people. Make sure to maintain a healthy distance. This won’t just be helpful to you, but also to others.


6. Try not to take everything personally


Taking a step back will also help you to process criticism. Remember that criticism isn’t necessarily a personal attack and that it’s intended to help you. Highly sensitive people have a tendency to question themselves and to rethink all of their decisions when they’ve been criticized. So, be conscious of this and try to create a healthy distance.


7. Incorporate stress reduction exercises into your daily life


As is often the case, prevention is better than cure. Effective exercises can increase your resilience and become stronger, even when you’ve had a stressful day. Regular yoga or mindfulness sessions can help you stay in the here and now.


Discover this 10-minute meditation by our psychologist Pia Linden, which will help you to let go of the day’s stress. 


Here’s how OpenUp can support highly sensitive people


Hopefully, this article has helped you to understand what it means to be a highly sensitive person and given you some tips to help you relax. Of course, you’re always welcome to book a consultation with one of our psychologists, if you want to discuss your individual concerns. Or you can take part in one of our regular mindfulness sessions if you’d like to give your mental health a boost.