The acronym HSP has been hitting social media and our pop culture a lot lately. Maybe it’s because we’re questioning labels and expanding our vernacular on how we psychologically define ourselves.
An HSP—a highly sensitive person—is a term that might be having a moment in current cultural climate, but it’s actually been around since the 1990s. Dr. Elaine Aron coined the term to describe people who embody a deep sensitivity to the physical, emotional, and social situations around them.
Mental health experts estimate that about 20% of the world’s population are highly sensitive people.
Do you identify as an HSP? Here are ten signs that can provide some confirmation.
1) You avoid violent movies and TV shows
I can probably count the number of horror films I’ve seen on one hand. I couldn’t get past the first scene of the first Blair Witch and even the mere thought of re-watching The Exorcist gives me extreme anxiety.
If you’re anything like me, you most likely avoid anything violent like the plague. They can feel too intense and leave an HSP feeling unsettled, says stress management psychology writer, Elizabeth Scott, PhD.
“A highly sensitive person will also tend to be deeply affected by violent movies or the distress of other people because they take it on board and spend a lot of time processing it,” adds Dr. Julie Smith.
Not only will they be plagued by nightmares after watching a violent film or show, but it will take a number of days for them to fully get it out of their mind.
2) You are partial to the beauty—so much so that it sometimes moves you to tears
HSPs have a high affinity for nature. They feel it connects them to their senses: because they live so much in their heads, nature has a way of bringing them down into their body. Nature provides an anchor to the present moment.
“HSPs not only enjoy time spent in nature, but we need it,” says Psychology Today writer Deborah Ward. “Our sensitive nervous systems can easily become saturated by the bombardment of sights, sounds, smells and speed of modern life, especially a life lived in a city. Fortunately, nature can give us a break from that stress.”
Highly sensitive people are partial to beauty in all its forms. They’re moved by a beautiful work of art for example, and will spend stretches of time taking in a painting, for example.
3) You are easily unnerved by loud noises and bright lights
One of the reasons HSPs love being enveloped in nature so much is that the quiet and tranquility offers a much-needed reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the city—especially the noise.
“The noise can be taxing to [an HSP’s] sensitive nerves,” says Ward.
Music is like water for their soul: they need it for personal nourishment. HSPs often prefer soft, melancholic, and wistful tunes over head-banging tracks any day.
If you’re one of the lucky few who is invited into their home, you won’t be surprised to see soft lighting such as a couple of soft-glow lamps rather than any harsh overhead lighting.
They’ll also have muted colors for their interior decorating style. It’s all about an atmosphere that brings them peace and calm.
4) You need your downtime almost as much as you need water
The scurrying style of the modern world can simply be too much for an HSP. These are the people who can love their jobs but they still can’t wait to be back home with loved ones or by their wonderful lonesome self.
In the winter, it can be just them and their flannel pajamas and by summer they’re in their element settled on a lounge chair on the porch reading an engaging book.
Sleep is also paramount for an HSP. They can’t function or feel like themselves on anything less than seven or eight hours of sleep.
5) You are prone to anxiety
Things we consider “normal” in the modern world can set an HSP’s teeth on edge and their heart pounding.
Anxiety can come from anything: it could be the rush hour traffic, a loud knocking on the door, or having to make small talk at the work Christmas party.
“Not only are HSPs more prone to develop anxiety, thanks to our deeply processing brains, but we are also more likely to experience its symptoms, physical and mental, more intensely,” says self-development writer Mary Richards.
According to Richards, highly sensitive people are likely to respond negatively in stressful situations. This makes them more prone to anxiety. “We also get overstimulated easily on a day-to-day basis, and are greatly influenced by environmental factors.” Anxiety escalates when HSPs get stressed.
6) You prefer to inhabit your inner life rather than exist in your external world
It’s no wonder HSPs are happier living in their own world: this world is safe, predictable, calm, and imaginative.
They can gaze out a window for hours lost in your own thoughts. They also love to travel solo because it gives you the time and space to people watch or serenely stare at the ocean while you contemplate the complexities of life.
They also love getting lost in a good book as well as reveling in the satisfaction of solving a challenging crossword puzzle.
Highly sensitive people have a penchant for nostalgia and love revisiting their inner child. They relive special moments certainly, but they also like to remember the ordinary days of having fun and feeling carefree.
Similarly, Dr. Elaine Aron, who originally penned the term HSP, says that highly sensitive people like to get reacquainted with their inner child as a way to give themselves the connection they’ve always wanted, but through a more compassionate lens.
7) You consider yourself to be a lifelong learner
Whether they’re relishing a thousand-page novel about 12th-century cathedrals like Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, or taking in a documentary about Apple founder Steve Jobs, HSP’s see life as one big classroom.
They have an insatiable need to learn new things all the time. It’s not uncommon for highly sensitive people to take up pursuing a new degree mid-life, for example.
They love to challenge themselves—particularly in a setting that is predictable to them and they know what to expect for the most part.
That’s why travel is such a turn on for them: they love to learn about different people, places, and cultures.
8) You pick up on stimulus and subtleties that most people ignore
We talked about how noise can be a trigger for highly sensitive people. This can be true also of bold colors. A neon billboard for example might feel assaulting to an HSPs eyes even though most people tend not to be bothered by such things.
All of the revolving text at the bottom of a news channel can also be overwhelming for an HSP to take in.
I know I can feel this way on a busy highway. The sea of cars, trucks, signs, and lanes can make me feel a bit frenzied sometimes. I have to admit that this is a big reason why I avoid driving on highways whenever I can.
“Sounds are louder, colors brighter, scents more pungent,” describes well-being platform Positively Present. “Every detail is heightened so that everything from someone else’s slight shift in mood to the slight flickering of a light is noticed and, odd as this might sound, felt.”
It can even seem like the boundaries between an HSP’s inner and outer world are thinner. “Or, rather, they feel thinner.”
9) You have a number of fallback “mental retreats” to keep you safe
We often associate being at home, in our bedroom, in our car, and being with our pets as our comfort zones for feeling safe.
When we’re out of these safe spaces, highly sensitive people often have “mental retreats” to help calm them down when they start to feel overwhelmed.
“For HSPs, it’s important to have things like that to refer to mentally when you physically can’t remove yourself from an overstimulating situation,” as per Positively Present.
Having intangible sources of safety—such as the visual of petting your dog, for example—is key because they’re always available, unlike tangible safe spaces.
10) You take time to make decisions
HSPs are not ones to be rushed into any kind of decision—big or small. They’ll take their sweet time and get back to you.
“HSPs tend to think about everything very deeply and [are] more sensitive to stimuli both around and inside them,” says Mindpath Health psychiatrist, Zishan Khan, MD.
Khan points to research on how highly sensitive people make decisions and how it differs from the rest of the population.
“HSPs performed better when they were able to make decisions using the deliberation method, where they could use their natural thought process to think through the problem and come to an ethical decision,” he says.
Khan says a lot goes into making decisions. These include an HSP’s needs and values, knowing that it’s not “all or nothing,” as well as talking it out with a trusted family member or friend when it’s about something particularly important.
This approach serves HSPs very well and rarely do they regret their decisions once they’ve made one.