What It’s Like to be a Highly Sensitive Person
14th September 2022 - By Prof Corina U. Greven; Prof Anouke W.E.A Bakx; and Sharell Bas
About the authors
Prof Corina U. Greven holds a Chair in Environmental Sensitivity in Health at the Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands. She brings expertise in developmental psychopathology, Sensory Processing Sensitivity, mindfulness and ADHD. In particular, her research is dedicated to understanding inter-individual differences in traits relevant to mental health problems in the context of normal variation from positive functioning to psychopathology.
Prof Anouke W.E.A. Bakx has a Chair in giftedness at the Radboud University, The Netherlands. Her work at the Fontys University of Applied Science focuses on “good teaching, good leadership”, with special attention for gifted students and highly sensitive students in primary schools.
Sharell Bas was research assistant on the project.
In our study, we interviewed highly sensitive adults regarding how they perceive and experience their sensitivity. We identified six themes that were mentioned by nearly all participants as key characteristics of being highly sensitive. However, there were also important differences in how people experience their sensitivity.
Study background and aims
Have you ever wondered how it feels and what it is like to be highly sensitive? Although research in the field of sensitivity has identified multiple characteristics associated with this trait, the main aspects that characterise the day-to-day experiences of people with high sensitivity are yet to be uncovered.
Our study (1) is the first systematically-reported interview-based research study about what highly sensitive adults themselves see as important characteristics of their sensitivity. Our research was aimed at exploring the everyday life and experiences of highly sensitive people, and provides a representation of the voices of highly sensitive people in the scientific literature.
How we conducted our study
We interviewed 26 highly sensitive adults selected from a larger pool of 494 volunteers. Participants were men and women of different ages (between 25 to 48 years) and different educational levels.
All participants considered themselves as high on the personality trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity, which was also confirmed by scoring high on the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) scale.
The interviews lasted on average 75 minutes, were audio recorded and typed out word for word. These typed out interviews were analysed using a technique called thematic analysis.
The six core characteristics of being highly sensitive
From the interviews, six main themes were derived that were mentioned by nearly all participants as important characteristics of being a highly sensitive person. These characteristics were: 1) emotional responding, 2) relatedness to others, 3) thinking, 4) overstimulation, 5) perceiving details, and 6) global aspects.
This suggests that high sensitivity is experienced as a specific combination of these characteristics. Details about each characteristic are found in the infographic below (see Additional materials section), but examples include:
- having stronger positive and negative emotional reactions
- paying attention to other’s needs even at the costs of one’s own’s needs
- reflecting and thinking a lot
- being easily affected by sensory and social stimuli
- perceiving a greater quantity and more detailed information
- the idea that that high sensitivity encompasses your entire being and personal identity.
Other characteristics associated with high sensitivity
We also identified substantial variation in how highly sensitive people experience their sensitivity. Several meaningful characteristics were only mentioned by a subset of our interviewees.
The following are a few examples of sensitivity aspects that were important to some participants, but not others:
- difficulties with (pressure from) work or study
- creativity and a greater quantity of ideas
- both introversion or extroversion
- working hard and perfectionism
- intense experiences and a rich inner world
These suggest that there are important differences in how highly sensitive individuals experience their own sensitivity.
Dealing with ease of overstimulation
We also asked people how they deal with being more easily overstimulated. The main strategy mentioned by almost all participants was the reduction of sensory input, such as the need for solitude and a quiet environment, and actions to reduce specific sensory input (e.g., wearing sunglasses).
A second main strategy mentioned by people were psychological strategies, such as seeking support from others, techniques such as mindfulness, meditation and yoga, as well as positivity, acceptance, and reflection.
A smaller subset of people also mentioned the ability to act autonomously, selecting a career that fits with being highly sensitive, exercising and a healthy diet, routine and structure, and avoiding watching the news or violence.
Finding out you are highly sensitive
Our participants were on average 30 years old when they found out about being highly sensitive. Finding out about their high sensitivity gave people an explanation for their feelings and behaviours and made them feel recognised.
Moreover, they described being better able to cope with overstimulation, and for many it was a pathway to higher levels of well-being.
This study makes a contribution to bringing the perspectives of highly sensitive people into the scientific literature.
The findings from the interviews generate new hypotheses about key characteristics of being a highly sensitive person that can be followed up in further research.
The study also suggests that new avenues to deal with overstimulation, backed up by scientific research, are an important future research direction.
Our participants found out relatively late in life about their own sensitivity, but many experienced positive effects when finding out about their sensitivity. This suggests that raising awareness and educating the general public about this fundamental trait is important.
Please click on the link below to open infographic (link opens in new tab):
Infographic: Experiences of highly sensitive (HSP) adults
To access the original post, please visit the Donders Wonders website (link opens in new tab).
- 1. Bas, S., Kaandorp, M., de Kleijn, Z. P. M., Braaksma, W. J. E., Bakx, A. W. E. A., & Greven, C.U. (2021). Experiences of Adults High in the Personality Trait Sensory Processing Sensitivity: A Qualitative Study. J Clin Med, 10(21):4912. doi: 10.3390/jcm10214912.