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  • Writer's pictureCiara

What is an HSP? And how to know if you are one.

Ever find yourself feeling overwhelmed in certain situations? Maybe you consider yourself an introvert and rather be at home snuggled-up reading a book than at a social gathering on a Friday night. What if you actually love those social gatherings and consider yourself an extrovert, but go home at the end of the night and still need hours to “brain drain” from all that you heard and all that you saw?

If any of the above sounds familiar, you might describe yourself as an HSP – a highly sensitive person. About 15-20% of the population process external influences more deeply on the nervous system. Loud noises, high energy situations, and even a jam-packed weekly schedule can be seriously detrimental, or at least partially overwhelming for those that consider themselves highly sensitive.

I chatted with Debi Reis, health coach and self-identified HSP to discuss how she discovered she was an HSP and how she has been able to use being an HSP as a tool to better react in triggering situations.

What is an HSP in your own words?

An HSP, highly sensitive person, is someone who is sensitive to environmental odors, sounds, crowds, or maybe sensitive in general. An HSP may respond in an emotional way or a physical way to people or things around them. They may become emotionally overwhelmed by someone who is depressed, anxious, or displays loud, high energy. People that are highly sensitive may respond differently to different stimuli depending how sensitive they are.

So HSP’s can respond to both loud and happy AND quiet and sad?

Yes! Every HSP will respond differently to different stimuli depending on their experiences and backgrounds. And if they are introverts or extroverts. There are no cookie cutter straight answers as to how each HSP will respond. However, it's been scientifically proven that an HSP’s mirror neurons in the brain are more activated than a non-HSP's when looking at another person's face demonstrating happy or sad emotions. The mirror neurons "imitate" the emotion being witnessed in the HSP's brain. In turn, the HSP observing the emotions actually feels the emotions of the other person to some extent. They don't just observe them.

In what ways do you consider yourself an HSP?/What type of HSP are you?

Yes, I am a highly sensitive person, full blown in fact. I have many sensitivities that when exposed to them, find myself needing to be alone and quiet to decompress. During this time, I find it hard to have too much coming into my head and become shut down due to emotional exhaustion. It may take a week or more to reset my emotions. I respond differently to situations depending on if I'm eating well and getting enough sleep. Meaning, I may not always respond to the same trigger the same way. If I'm rested, nourished well, and prepared emotionally, my response may not be prolonged. 

Minimally, I can be triggered by someone clicking the end of a pen repeatedly, loud gum or food chewing, the smell of exhaust, loud music or a loud room. Sometimes, it could be just having one more thing added onto my day that makes me exhausted. I have deeper emotional responses as well, where I can easily be sent into tears watching someone else cry from sadness or a joyful moment, (this includes TV!) certain types of music can make me cry just by hearing a couple of notes, and being around people with negative energy can overwhelm me.

How did you discover you were an HSP? How long have you been navigating with this tool in tow?

I discovered that I am an HSP while in school at IIN. The topic was discussed in one of the lectures I studied. I always knew I was a sensitive person. In the past, I described myself as someone who feels more than others do but I didn't know why or what the extent of it was. I didn't know there was a name for it until last year. Once I started reading more and talking to other HSP's, I was able to understand myself more, learn and identify my triggers and be better able to prepare for them. It truly was a key to understanding myself better and enabled me to start to practice self-care.

What situations are particularly difficult for you as an HSP?/What situations are ideal for you as an HSP?

Situations that are ideal for me are low stimulus environments, or a place where I can escape to take space if I need it. I do much better in a smaller group than a larger one, especially indoors. I find it difficult to manage when several conversations are happening at the same time because I pick up pieces of all of them and can become overwhelmed and tired. So, 1:1 conversations or conversations with a few people at a time are ideal for me. Overall, I try to limit exposures to highly triggering situations and really try to prepare myself emotionally when I do have to be in a highly stressful situation or event, like the holidays.

You mentioned predicting triggers and practicing self-care. What are some examples of this that you’ve discovered to be particularly helpful?

I work in a very stressful work environment and I've learned that I need to limit my schedule on work days to only work, and not add other things on at the end of the day, if I can. If I know I have to do something where there's a lot of people or it's going to be over stimulating in general, I'll take a nap before hand, if time allows. I also will prepare myself to leave the event after a short time to not over do it.

Self-care is so important to me now. I need the extra time to re-center myself and regroup. My favorite thing to do is pray and spend time alone with God. I meditate, journal intermittently, exercise 5-7 times a week, and eat whole foods. If I can get extra sleep that really helps my brain reset and also prevents me from getting sick, if I'm too run down.

What is your best advice for someone who thinks they might be an HSP?

My best advice to someone who thinks they're an HSP is to find a questionnaire and complete it to find out what type of HSP they are. Read up on it, there's great literature out there. And, find yourself some like-minded HSP friends. Having someone to talk to who understands how you experience things from first-hand knowledge makes a world of difference. Not everyone understands it.

What are some specific resources you recommend for people starting their HSP journey?

Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person and Judith Orloff’s The Empath’s Survival Guide. These books are very comprehensive and both authors provide self-assessments that can be accessed online.

*Author’s note: Check out Elaine Aron’s site here and do some more self-exploration on Judith Orloff’s site here.

You can find out more about Debi and her health coaching practice at


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