Highly sensitive: defi­nition, characteristics and tips

A woman is standing in a crowd at the airport and is stressed by the situation.

Being highly sensitive is not a sickness but a personality trait. This is why there is no diagnosis or symptoms. So what exactly are the signs of high sensitivity in children and adults? And what should such people be mindful of?

What does it mean to be highly sensitive?

Street noise is painful to their ears. They feel other people’s feelings as strongly as if they were their own. And large crowds leave them feeling utterly overwhelmed. Highly sensitive people experience the world a little differently, more intensely than others. But what exactly do we understand by the term “high sensitivity”?

Not a disorder, but a personality trait

High sensitivity is a personality trait marked by an intense perception of sensory input. It's not a disease or disorder, but rather a natural gift and innate aspect of a person's character. Highly sensitive people react more deeply and with more nuance to both internal and external sources of sensory input, processing them in a more complex manner.

According to various studies, approximately 15-30% of the population are highly sensitive.

What the science says

The concept of high sensitivity traces back to the American psychotherapist Elaine N. Aron. In 1997, she first defined the term “Highly Sensitive Person” (abbreviated as HSP) and conducted research on people’s different sensitivity levels when processing sources of sensory stimulation. Through her research, she discovered that highly sensitive people process sensory input with heightened levels of sensitivity: Compared to averagely sensitive people, the filters of the nervous system in HSPs are much more permeable to sensor input, which is why they perceive more.

Current state of research

Currently, research on high sensitivity is being conducted in neuroscience, genetics, stress research and personality psychology. However, no coherent picture has been discovered to date.

Characteristics displayed by highly sensitive people

Since high sensitivity is neither an illness nor a disorder, there are no symptoms, only characteristics or signs. The characteristics displayed by HSPs can be divided into 4 categories: how they perceive sensory input (sensory characteristics), how they think (cognitive characteristics), how they feel (emotional characteristics), and how they react to sensory overload (hyperexcitability).

Sensory characteristics

  • Acutely perceptive to sensory inputs, such as a certain scent
  • Sensitive to sound, light and noise
  • Consciously aware of internal signals from the body, such as a nervous heartbeat
  • Feel touches or sensations such as a scratchy jumper with heightened intensity

Cognitive characteristics

  • Intensely perceptive to details
  • Habitually reflect over matters and analyse them in depth
  • Profound need to delve deep into issues and understand their full scope
  • Tendency to brood

Emotional characteristics

  • Perceive their own feelings as very deep
  • Highly empathetic towards others
  • Often cannot distinguish the emotions of others from their own
  • Strongly affected by various moods and atmospheres
  • Highly intuitive and experience premonitions


  • Due to the amount of sensory input to be processed, highly sensitive people quickly feel overstimulated and overwhelmed
  • Are more susceptible to stress
  • Experience inner agitation
  • Feel tired and exhausted

Highly sensitive men

Although the signs of high sensitivity are identical in women and men, highly sensitive men usually find it more difficult to show their high sensitivity to the outside world. This is because the many characteristics of high sensitivity, such as emotionality or greater sensitivity to pain, don’t comply with society’s standard idea of what it is to be male. For this reason, many highly sensitive men struggle with their masculinity. “The crisis can be resolved with highly sensitive men authentically embracing their predisposition, as this will remove the taboo around sensitivity and emotionality among males,” says Tom Falkenstein, psychotherapist and author of the book "Hochsensible Männer – Mit Feingefühl zur eigenen Stärke".

It makes a great difference if a non-highly sensitive man approaches a highly sensitive man with acceptance and communicates that being upset or emotional is okay.
Tom Falkenstein, psychotherapist and author

Can children be highly sensitive?

The characteristics described above apply not only to adults, but can also be observed in highly sensitive children. In addition, highly sensitive children are:

  1. particularly imaginative
  2. have a wide vocabulary at an early age
  3. enjoy sharing
  4. avoid competitive situations
  5. often have intense dreams
  6. tend towards perfectionism
  7. often suffer from headaches, stomach ache or nausea when stressed, as stress affects the gut

Am I highly sensitive?

There is no clear diagnosis for high sensitivity as it's not a disease or disorder. There also isn’t one singular form of high sensitivity, as it’s expressed in differing ways. If the above-mentioned sensory, cognitive and emotional characteristics and hyperexcitability apply, then the person is very likely to be highly sensitive.

Identify high sensitivity

In psychology, high sensitivity is measured using the Highly Sensitive Person Scale (HSPS). It contains 27 statements that measure a person’s sensory processing sensitivity. This is the test recommended and used by experts to identify high sensitivity.

Caution with self-tests for high sensitivity

Various self-tests for high sensitivity are found on the internet and in books. However, caution is advised here as certain aspects of high sensitivity are also displayed by people with psychological problems. In other words, abnormalities can be interpreted as signs of high sensitivity, when they’re actually symptoms of a mental disorder.

Make it your goal to create good boundaries. They are your right, your responsibility, your greatest source of dignity.
Dr Elaine N. Aron, Founder of High Sensitivity

Tips for managing your own high sensitivity

Everyday life as a highly sensitive person can be very wearing. The following tips will help you find good ways to manage your high sensitivity:

  • Create an environment with low sensory input: Avoid multiple and simultaneous sources of sensory input (for example: no TV while eating).
  • Keep to fixed daily structures with set break times.
  • Make sure you have periods of retreat and rest to recover from too many sources of sensory stimulation.
  • Allow enough time: Don't pack too many tasks and appointments into one day. Set boundaries and have the courage to say “no” if you are asked to do extra work or are invited to a big party.
  • Distance yourself from other people’s feelings so that you don't unconsciously take them on. This will enable you to conserve your own strength.
  • Promote self-awareness: Think about what does you good, and what not.
  • Reduce stress, for example with relaxation techniques or yoga.
  • Learn to appreciate the positive aspects of high sensitivity. The intensity of your perceptions means that you take real delight in beautiful things such as pleasant music or a good meal. High sensitivity also boosts creativity.
I'm deeply moved by things. I’d hate to miss the intense joy of that.
Dr Elaine N. Aron, founder of high sensitivity – is highly sensitive herself

Causes of high sensitivity

Most researchers currently assume that high sensitivity is inherited. This is indicated by twin studies that show that high sensitivity occurs more frequently in families. In some HSPs, high sensitivity is evident from birth, while in others it increases over the course of their lives. In some cases, environmental influences – in addition to genetic predisposition – can contribute to the development of high sensitivity.

High sensitivity as a symptom of ADHD, autism or burnout

High sensitivity can occur in connection with psychological problems or various diseases. It is a symptom of trauma, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), burnout and depression.


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