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What is a highly sensitive person?

Collegian | Trin Bonner

You have probably been called sensitive at some point in your life — intended as an insult instead of a compliment. Being sensitive is not a negative trait, though, and a personality type called “highly sensitive person” looks at what being sensitive means in a new light.

HSP was coined by psychologist Elaine Aron and her husband, Arthur Aron, in the ’90s. It became an official term in 1997 when she and Arthur Aron found that sensory processing disorder appeared to be not just a defining trait of highly sensitive people but a different concept altogether.


SPD, also called sensory processing sensitivity, is considered a symptom of autism spectrum disorder; it is also common in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and can be found in those without any diagnoses at all.

“High sensitivity is not a disorder or mental health condition but rather a trait that makes up about 20% of the population,” said Katarina Ament, a licensed psychologist.

HSPs are pretty common, but the trait is not well known by both highly sensitive people and mental health providers.

“HSPs seeing providers less familiar with the trait may be misdiagnosed with anxiety, ADHD or an autism spectrum disorder,” Ament said.

“When I have helped clients determine if they are also an HSP, it has brought so much clarity and validation to the way they have experienced the world.” -Allison McQuaid, licensed professional counselor

This might lead you to wonder, “Am I an HSP?”

“A good way to summarize what it means to be a highly sensitive person is the acronym DOES, which stands for Depth of processing, Overstimulation, Emotional reactivity/empathy and Sensing the subtle,” Ament said.

Ament described these experiences as spending a lot of time reflecting on feelings and experiences. This higher level of awareness and depth of processing makes HSPs more prone to overstimulation. Emotional reactivity might show up as stronger reactions to experiences, such as tearing up over a sunset or having greater empathy for others. Lastly, HSPs may notice subtle details that those around them do not, and they may be more sensitive to certain scents, tastes and sounds.

“Identifying with these traits can also be part of another mental health condition,” said Allison McQuaid, a licensed professional counselor. “They aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.”

When working with HSP clients, she attributed their experiences to being neurodivergent. Neurodiversity is a wide spectrum that often correlates to how a person processes and responds to stimuli.


This is seen especially with HSPs, in which the intersection of mental health conditions is an important and often missed part of seeking out help.

“When I have helped clients determine if they are also an HSP in addition to having ADHD or anxiety, it has brought so much clarity and validation to the way they have experienced the world,” McQuaid said.

Being an HSP can be an isolating experience, with some noticing differences from others as early as childhood.

“In addition to giving them language and letting them know that they are not alone, I think it’s important to help HSPs find their supports who understand them,” McQuaid said. “I empower my clients to set boundaries with those who do not support them and process the grief and/or loss that may occur as a result of being misunderstood and accepting that they are worthy of love and support.”

Being able to put a name to these experiences and emotions is incredibly validating for clients, whether they may have multiple mental health conditions or just simply are a highly sensitive person. Identifying as an HSP allows many individuals to experience the world in a more rich and in-depth way than most, and that should be something to celebrate, not be ashamed of.

“We need to think of sensitivity not as someone who is weak or overly emotional but as someone who is thoughtful (and) in tune with their emotions and cares deeply for others and the world around them,” Ament said.

For those left with curiosity about themselves or a loved one after reading this, McQuaid has a few suggestions to find out more: First, it can be very beneficial for HSPs to seek out therapy McQuaid suggested one that specializes in neurodiversity. There are also many books on HSPs from mental health professionals, including Elaine Aron’s books. McQuaid also recommends finding an HSP group or community to build a positive support network.

“Learning about yourself is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself,” McQuaid said. “(Give) yourself permission to learn how your brain works and what best supports that instead of trying to fit a mold that you think you should be in.”

Reach Caden Proulx at or on Twitter @CSUCollegian.

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About the Contributors
Caden Proulx
Caden Proulx, Print Director
Caden Proulx is a human development and family studies student at Colorado State University pursuing his passion for graphic design at The Collegian. Originally from Austin, Texas, Caden's journalistic journey began in the high school yearbook department, where his passion for design grew. This led to him to seek out student media when he got to Colorado State University. Starting as a page designer in his first year, Caden found a home at The Collegian. This led him to the position of print director his sophomore year. Despite majoring in HDFS, Caden seamlessly integrates his hobby of graphic design with his academic pursuits. The Collegian has become an integral part of his success at CSU. Now firmly rooted in Colorado, Caden is eager to contribute to the student media landscape, The Collegian and its success. He loves working alongside other excited students who are talented and have a lot to teach and push him to continue to grow as a visual journalist.
Trin Bonner
Trin Bonner, Illustration Director
Trin Bonner is the illustration director for The Collegian newspaper. This will be her third year in this position, and she loves being a part of the creative and amazing design team at The Collegian. As the illustration director, Bonner provides creative insight and ideas that bring the newspaper the best graphics and illustrations possible. She loves working with artists to develop fun and unique illustrations every week for the readers. Bonner is a fourth-year at Colorado State University studying electronic arts. She loves illustrating and comic making and has recently found enjoyment in experimental video, pottery and graphic design. Outside of illustration and electronic art, Bonner spends her free time crocheting and bead making. She is usually working on a blanket or making jewelry when she is not drawing, illustrating or brainstorming.

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