What Does It Mean to Be Highly Sensitive? Understanding the Four Primary Traits

HSPs continue to live in a noisy world, feeling as if we’re different or that something is wrong with us. This confusion of who we are and the unawareness of our greatest strengths leads to so much misopportunity.

Fortunately, we now have an abundance of scientific research that indicates that being an HSP is so much more than simply being “sensitive,” a word that’s tied to negative connotations in our culture.

For this reason, having the knowledge to fully understand what it means to be an HSP is crucial as it shines light on the strengths and benefits of being an HSP that go much deeper than simply being “too sensitive.”

The four primary traits of an HSP

Understanding the primary traits of an HSP can be complex. Because of this, the true meaning of what it means to be an HSP is often simplified and misunderstood. This oversimplification dilutes the strengths and benefits of being an HSP, which causes them to be unseen.

To help simplify its meaning without diluting the essence of the HSP, Psychologist Elaine N. Aron came up with the acronym “DOES” to help HSPs and non-HSPs fully understand the four primary highly sensitive traits.

D is for Depth of Processing

Depth of Processing is the primary trait of a highly sensitive person. It refers to the tendency to process information at a much deeper, emotional level.

When given new information, HSPs process it by relating and comparing it to past experiences and other similar things we already know. Because of this, we’re able to make stronger connections between existing and new information, which can ultimately lead to epiphanies and fresh ideas.

Most often, the depth of processing is done at a subconscious level. When this happens, our intuition kicks in, which allows us to make rational decisions based on a gut feeling.

O is for Overstimulation

Since we tend to process information on a much deeper level, it’s no surprise that we tend to easily get overstimulated. Just think of how much information we process every day, more than ever before in history. When we’re highly aware and our energy levels are up, we have a knack to notice every detail, which allows you to pick up on things others overlook. But if we’re processing too much detail at once, it can make us feel drained.

Let’s say you’re listening closely and making eye contact with the person talking to you. While listening, you’re picking up on non-verbal cues and facial expressions all at the same time. Listening and watching non-verbal cues are great social skills that help us connect and understand the other person. But it can also be emotionally draining at the same time.

E is for Emotional Intensity (or Reactivity)

HSPs tend to feel on much deeper level. We have an increased emotional response to both negative and positive emotions, and we rarely feel just happy or sad. This can make it more difficult to recognize how we’re really feeling. At the same time, if we’re given the right tools, we’re able to identify our deep emotions and label them.

This way, we can share our true feelings effectively with others to create deeper understanding, and it also helps us make better decisions using both the emotional and logical side of our brains, known as the wise mind.

Because of this, HSPs tend to have higher self-awareness than non-HSPs (one of the five characteristics of emotional intelligence). The emotion wheel is a great tool for an HSP to keep handy. By identifying and labeling our deep emotions, we can learn how to better manage them.

S is for Sensory Sensitivity

We’re highly sensitive to small details and subtle changes in our environment. Based on Aron’s research, this is because of how the sensory information in processed in our brains than to the sensory organs themselves.

Referring back to the conversation example, this trait comes in handy when we’re watching someone’s non-verbal cues and picking up on their mood or trustworthiness. But unfortunately, if we’re exhausted by sensory overload, we tend to become much less aware, which dilutes our sensitivity superpowers.

It’s important for HSPs to create boundaries, know when to take a break, and make time for reflection so we can maintain our HSP superpowers and use them effectively.

Are you an HSP?

If these four primary highly sensitivity traits resonate with you, you might be an HSP. To help self-identify, Aron offers a simple and free HSP test here. If you identify as an HSP and want to learn more about your sensitive traits, I recommend:

  • To use the emotion wheel every day to check in with your emotions.
  • Journaling daily to make space for reflection.
  • Working with an HSP coach to enhance your strengths and work on limitations. Tonia Moon Coaching offers 1:1 coaching and group programs for highly sensitive people. Click here to learn more.