Are You An Introvert Or Just A Highly Sensitive Person?

snow in Bournemouth
I am often overwhelmed, but you wouldn’t know it. When the world is bombarding me with stimuli my brain responds with a ‘nope I’m not dealing with this’ and inside at least, I will shut down and do my utmost to ignore everything around me.

At least I make an attempt at doing so.

Crowded spaces are the worst. Busy town centres or nightclubs where you are literally being barged out the way every 5 seconds. But I am not claustrophobic in the slightest. Sometimes just the knowledge that someone is in my presence is enough for me to start looking at the nearest exit sign for a reprieve from the stress this brings.

God knows what my previous flatmate thought about me, always hiding in my room when his friends were round. But I’m not shy at all.

How on earth are you supposed to relax when someone is sat just feet away, knowing they can see you in the corner of their eye, listening to your every breath, interjecting your thoughts with banal small talk and the occasional moan about their day.

Living alone is where it’s at, bliss.

So what on earth is wrong with me?

I’m just a highly sensitive person

Apparently, 20% of the population are highly sensitive people.  The term “highly sensitive person” was created by Dr. Elaine N. Aron and it is characterised by the ability to process sensory data more thoroughly than other people.

It’s actually thought to be an evolutionary trait that enables us to think before we act; kind of like a survival instinct that helped us grow as a species.

If you are someone who has always struggled with the feeling of being uncomfortable in social settings, often without knowing why, then you could be one of these people too.

Of course you could just be an anxious person but the two go hand in hand, so what are the signs?

  • The most obvious one; do you struggle in crowds or in loud environments?
  • Do you prefer hanging out with just one friend rather than a group?
  • Are you quite happy in silence, without the need for stimulation?
  • Are you fairly sensitive to violence, whether on screen or in real life?
  • Do you try your utmost to hide away from small talk?
  • Are you highly empathetic and responsive to subtle stimuli?

What does this mean?

Well, obviously being a highly sensitive person has both good and bad points. The ability to be more in tune with your surroundings is great if you are creative as you will take in a lot more information than most people. You will also see the world differently and may even pick up on certain things that wash over everyone else. Yet the downside is that it is easy for others to see you as shy or even somewhat antisocial, which couldn’t be further from the truth. How often has someone said ‘come on, stop being so sensitive’ or ‘relax, you seem tense’? Annoying isn’t it?

I’ve been there so many times.

It’s important to remember that these feelings are totally natural and so what if you like to live your life a little differently than every else, if we were all wild and outgoing then the world would be a far crazier place than it currently is.

So how do we cope with this?

1. Take some time out every day to relax

As we’ve already established that the world is totally bonkers, we need to have our space just to get away from it all. It doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing, always take time out to relax and clear your thoughts.

2. Make the most of your quiet time

When you finally get to be alone, make sure that you really are relaxing. Turn off the TV, put your phone on silent and if you can, wear some noise cancelling headphones that plays some mellow chilled music. Let yourself go and allow your mind to wander.

3. Cut out the clutter in your life

It’s very easy to become stressed and overwhelmed and a large portion of this is due to the people and the activities that you allow into your life. Figure out what the major triggers are in your life and begin to eliminate them one by one. Hang around people who make you feel positive and find a job that is more in line with who you are as a person.

4. Exercise regularly, especially when you feel stressed

It is well known that exercising releases endorphins and reduces cortisol, which is the stress hormone. Some people prefer to exercise in the morning to put them in a good mood for the day ahead while others like to hit the gym after work to unwind. Find out what works best for you and make this a regular occurrence.

5. Start desensitising yourself to common stimuli

I believe that it is healthy to occasionally confront your demons head on. For example I truly hate talking on the phone so a few years ago, whilst unemployed, I rang about 30 companies one after another in an attempt to overcome my ‘phone shyness’.

It wasn’t a permanent change but for a short while I definitely found using the phone to be somewhat tolerable.

Does this describe you?

If you’re a highly sensitive person like me then I’d like to hear your thoughts below. Do you have a coping mechanism for when life gets a bit too much? Do you recognise this in others? Is this the first time you have noticed this in yourself?

About Jamie

Jamie is a guitar teacher and writer who hates the typical 9-5 existence. After quitting his job to enter the world of guitar tuition, he created this blog to document his thoughts and struggles as he takes on societies norms armed with nothing more than his cheeky wit and undeniable charm - Give his Facebook page a like, add him on Twitter or follow his Google+ page and he will repay you with even more awesome words!


  1. I really appreciated this article!
    I would say that I am both highly sensitive and an introvert. I don’t know that desensitization is working so well for me. I have 6 children, 5 of whom are boys. They are loud and active and noisy and with me 24/7. I am not used to them. 🙂 I find myself plugging my ears and closing eyes to get a second of relief in the midst of a crazy moment. Story time often ends in mommy closing a book halfway and asking everyone to go to their rooms because she can’t take another moment of the constant noise and movement. I hide in my room many an afternoon to take a quiet moment, often to read, but end up just closing my eyes because I can’t relax enough to read. (The minute my eyes close, they all realize that I must need them to come and chat or climb on me!)
    At least 2 of my kids are also highly sensitive, the 4 year old uses constant movement, usually bumping against me or climbing, to cope with extra stimuli, as well as constant chatter. He about makes me batty! I am trying to find some other outlets for him, stress balls squeezing and ball sitting perhaps? Anyhoo… Life with a busy house of kids and a loud, extroverted husband makes for very few moments of quiet to recharge and cope. I love them all to pieces, but noise cancelling headphones are sounding like a good investment. And yes, bedtime is my favourite time of day.

    • Six children? No wonder your brain is frazzled. I couldn’t cope with that much going on so you must be doing pretty good! Thanks for the comment!

  2. I answer a strong “yes” to about half the questions. I can sometimes shut down completely in crowds, I prefer being alone or just with a single friend, and I’m happy in total silence (although I also often have music on while I’m working). I’m less sensitive to violence than a lot of my consciously aware friends though… I enjoy action movies, and kickboxing is one of the ways I destress and channel out my frustrations/annoyances. And how empathetic I am seems to vary from day to day.

    As far as I can tell, I’m introverted (i.e. being around people drains me, and being alone with time to reflect recharges me), but I’m also HSP (too much sensory stimulation – especially across a combination of senses, e.g. lots of bright colours, loud noise AND strong scent all at once – overwhelms me and shuts down my ability to filter and prioritise ANY sensory stimuli)

    Interestingly, I find I can manage either on their own, but when I have to deal with both at once – crowds AND a combination of intense sensory stimuli – I’m next to useless. I really do just shut down. So for me, it’s not just the intensity of the stimuli around me, but what else they’re combined with that seems to determine my sensitivity.

    • Yeh I know exactly the feelings you go through as I see a lot of that in myself. It comes and goes though, depending on my mood to begin with I think.

  3. insightful post, highly sensitive people can find life harder if they didn’t learn how to deal with their sensitivity, thanks for your post : ))
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  4. Great pointers you got there for “recharging”. All of them sure have worked on me to keep me going after prolonged interaction with other people. After all, it is crucial for introverts to relax in a calm environment after a demanding day in this extroverted world! 🙂
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  5. Very interesting! I love the idea of extroversion and introversion, but you just added a whole new dynamic to it!

    It’s strange, at times I have the traits of an extrovert, but I also really cherish my time alone like an introvert and a highly sensitive person. I often make time for myself to enjoy doing nothing and the sheer silence of an empty house. I really need to take point two to heart and begin to remove clutter. Lately, there’s been a lot more clutter than there was just a few months ago. Thanks again, Jamie!
    Vincent Nguyen recently posted..The Friendship Equation, How to Get a Social LifeMy Profile

    • True, I don’t think anyone is truly 100% introvert or extrovert and I definitely have various Extrovert traits. Thanks for your comment!

  6. Hi Jamie,
    I found your blog via an article you wrote on Change Your Thoughts Change Your Life. I am both an introvert and a highly sensitive person. I like what you said about desensitising yourself to common stimuli. I have dedicated 2013 as the year of fearlessness and have been aggressively confronting my fears. Interestingly, I love being on stage and at the same time, public speaking scares me. It is so weird how that works. For example, several prominent actors are introverted.

    As far as being highly sensitive, I am working on not taking everything so personally. LOL. Getting better at it, but still have quite a ways to go. Glad I found your blog.

  7. This article hit head on for me. I am an introvert and HSP so I get overwhelmed very often. I only learned about HSP a few years ago after my mom kept calling me sensitive and I was often deemed a snob b/c I did not want to talk. All. of. the. Time! When I found out I was not some strange creature, I felt so much relief I cried.
    Now I cope by literally going into another room if things get to be too much. Or I just leave the sit’n and close the door. Ie, this past weekend was my nieces 1st bday held at my parents place and it was LOUD. Too many kids, too many people milling around. I coped by staying away from people and being in the kitchen (as I literally could not leave the party). I kept busy cleaning dishes and running upstairs when the noise level (my dad and his friend were so loud at times) got to be fever pitch. At the end of the night, being closed up in my room (visiting for the weekend) was bliss. I was so happy when everyone left.
    I personally do not like complete silence but just having the radio on really low is bliss for me at home. The TV irritates me so I only have it on when I am watching something. In my parents house it is always on and that is horrible to me. Too much. I love scary movies (but took me a long time to get there) but cannot watch cop shows. Too real and people are very mean to eachother and I cannot let visuals go in my head of real murders etc so I don’t watch anything real-life violence.
    Another way I cope is by not dating and I will never have kids. Idk if that is a real coping mechanism but it works for me. As an introvert the thought of a man around me day in and out, sends me into the shakes. And kids. No! I date very little also b/c it is a lot of trouble with little payoff (to me) and I love being alone. Plus, I am afraid of my heart breaking so why try.
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    • Hey Rhona. I would say try to get past the dating thing as it sounds like you are holding back through fear of getting hurt. While I empathise with how you feel (I’ve been there) it’s worth giving it a shot. Besides who says you have to move in with someone? Having your own space is good!

      High risk – high reward after all.

    • Nichole says:

      Hi Rhona. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I think there is someone out there that would compliment you wonderfully. I know how it feels not to want to share your space. I find myself in the bathroom far more often whenever I have to attend a child’s birthday party or a crowded event. I also have no children and never plan to have any. My husband is borderline highly sensitive, but he has less overload with social interactions. He understands how sensory overload shuts me down and doesn’t push me when I need space and time alone. People can be very understanding if you’re honest with them. If they aren’t willing to listen then they are probably not worth the energy investment.

      The world is poorer when we don’t share our unique traits with someone. We just have to know our limits. Heartbreak is very difficult to overcome, but a life filled with regret because you were to afraid to live is even worse. Be brave and find someone who will appreciate your beauty.

  8. Thank you this was very helpful, I am invert but was unsure as to whether I am a HSP. I wasn’t sure as to what to look for and what constitutes as Highly Sensitive so this has really helped in trying to understand.

  9. corrie criswell says:

    Like others here have mentioned I tended to just believe I was an extreme introvert. That is until my sensitivity to stimulai and light started to effect my work. Ironically I work at a huge inbound call sales center and not only am I surrounded by over a hundred people but I am barraged with calls all day and a blaring computor screen in my face trying to drown out surrounding noise pay attention to my customers navigate my system and it sends me into panic mode…Ive been able to cope for a while but lately its been harder and harder to go in to work…Its a blessing sometimes like being able to read people and situations or pick up on subtle social cues but I fear it may be time to start typing up a resume…I really love my coworkers and supervisors though…any advice on how to handle all the overload while at work?

    • Hi Corrie, I have had jobs like that, where I’ve been swamped with customers, overbearing managers and stimulation non stop throughout the day and my only solution was to remove myself from that situation. If you want to stay though, it’s best to really make the most of your break time and get out to a park or something, lie down and just relax as best as you can. Also make sure your private life is as stress free as possible to contrast your crazy work hours. If you’re coming home to stress after a hard day at work then you will have no time to reset your brain back to ‘safe mode’.

  10. Hey Jamie,

    Superb post! Number 2 and 4 are very crucial to me. Like Connie, I work in a call center and on every break, I completely leave the enviornment. I go outside in my car or just walk, 10 or 80 degrees. I found out that I had inherited my extreme introversion from my mom. My dad and sister are complete opposite. I work out about 3-4 times a week and on my down time, I throw in some Coltrane or soul jazz and I finally start to get recharged (which is not a fast process). It became so bad that I actually moved away from many of my peers because it just became too much with them always wanting to hang out. After I read “Quiet” by Susan Cain, the light bulb turned on. It was like reading an autobiographical account of myself. I did research prior to reading but I didn’t know the biology behind HSP or introversion. As you mentioned above, no one is 100% introverted. I would probably be between 85-90% but I’m very, very sensitive. The remainder is mostly attributed to social stimuli that I’m comfortable in (which is less than 3 settings) and my girlfriend. It’s a struggle but I learned how to embrace it.

    • Hi Chris, thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I have considered call centre work many times in the past but it was the feeling of being ‘trapped’ in a stressful environment that always put me off. I think I would need 10 minutes to myself following every call just to chill out.

      It is a process though, learning what makes you fee at ease and the triggers that make you feel anxious and then adapting your life as a result.

  11. Great post! I decided to try and find some inspiration through Google after a tough few days, and I must say that your blog has taken so much weight off of my chest.

    While reading through this post in particular, I realized that I fit into every single one of your criteria perfectly:

    The most obvious one; do you struggle in crowds or in loud environments?
    Definitely. I find groups of people I’m not VERY well acquainted with to be ridiculously overwhelming. The only exception to this rule, as you can tell, would be people like my family.

    Do you prefer hanging out with just one friend rather than a group?
    This is HUGE for me. When I’m one on one with someone, whether it be in class or at some coffee shop, I’m all about exploring who they are and how they think; my excitement and creativity goes way up, even if they’re someone I barely know.

    Are you quite happy in silence, without the need for stimulation?
    Of course. It’s my primary method of decompressing and just letting my mind go wild for a bit.

    Are you fairly sensitive to violence, whether on screen or in real life?
    Always have been. The notion that people could hurt each other without what I would consider proper justification has always been very disconcerting to me. Whenever I hear about some unprovoked assault or, on the purely despicable end of the spectrum, rape, I go through a surge of emotions a kin to a mixture of anger, sadness, and disappointment.

    Do you try your utmost to hide away from small talk?
    Depends on what you mean by small talk, but generally yes. As I mentioned above, what I really love to do is get on a personal, one-on-one level with people and discuss more meaningful topics. Small talk is the complete opposite; you linger on things that don’t matter very much and most of the time I feel as if the practice is one of courtesy more so than infatuation. Thus, when possible, I try to avoid it along with people who don’t want to sit down for a real conversation every now and then.

    Are you highly empathetic and responsive to subtle stimuli?
    Probably a bit too much. Unlike the others, I have an example that occurred just a few minutes ago. After getting home from work (which I highly dislike, though that’s for another post) I learned from (insert family member here) that my tiny gesture of caring on (special day here) was actually disliked. Now, what bothered me wasn’t the fact that (insert menial yet thoughtful gesture here) wasn’t appreciated from a materialistic standpoint, but rather that no recognition was made to the fact that it was the best within my means at the time and that I cared enough to at least do something. Very fine point to consider, but this one and many like it really tug on the heart strings.

    I guess I’m just really glad that I’m not the only one who approaches life like this. The overwhelming pressures of society – get this job, go to that school, etc – have been draining my soul, and just learning that others might understand where I’m coming from is revitalizing.

    • Hey Nikola, thanks for such a well written and thought provoking comment. It’s like a blog post within a blog post! Maybe you should start a blog yourself (if you haven’t already).

      It’s good to know there are other people who think the same way I do, which I am sure is how you felt when you did your own research. It’s comforting to know that it isn’t some weird form of shyness, but a completely normal personality type that we are pretty much born with. We are just the yin the the extroverted yang!

  12. Interesting range of experiences, I have one to add. It’s an odd combination which is that I behave like a bubbly extrovert, cracking jokes, laughing, and occasionally whistling when I get bored at work. Sometimes I imagine that everyone is in a musical and people just need a cue to join in. This only happens when I’m particularly bored and restless. Any way, on the flip side, I am also very easily distracted, find open plan offices very trying, each time someone walks past my desk, I look up. People who don’t pick up their feet when they walk, or stomp past loudly in heels really irritate me – the whole floor moves. If someone walks past my desk, behind me, I feel the air move on the back of my neck. Transition to home also tricky, often helps if I can sit in the kitchen silently reading for 10 minutes or so before engaging with my other 4 housemates otherwise can be inexplicably snappy.Perhaps it is sensory overload….who knows…

    • Hi Eve, that scenario reminded me of the episode of Scrubs when the patient see the world as a musical and everyone sings instead of talks. I get what you mean by the sensory overload when dealing with housemates – I’ve had many a stressful time dealing with that in the past!

  13. This describes me totally.
    I,ve always been highly sensitive.
    I prefer one to one friendships, But I dont mind being in crowds, or with groups of friends sometimes, but say I was in a nightclub, that kind of environment always feels alien to me, as if Im in a alternate universe.
    Also, I always crave moments of silence and aloneness, its my way of realigning myself, and coping with the stimuli.
    Another great article Jamie.
    Your awesome.

    • Hey Janine, it’s great isn’t it when we can finally escape the hustle and bustle and return to a nice quiet room to ‘recharge’.

  14. yup this is me to a tee! ><

    this is me: i hope u like it, its fun and me down to every example!
    some of it may be a little you (and others) too! ^_^
    Jay recently posted..Straight from my heart to the screen.My Profile

  15. How’s it going Jamie? Your website is one of the best I have come across. I quit my job 6 years ago to do what I love, music. This sensitiveness seems to me to be the gift of Obsessive Compulsive Personality [Disorder] (OCPD). This link to website is very helpful in putting a different perspective on the subject

    • Hey Ian, thanks for your kind words. You have an interesting website – I was a bit OCD as a kid, but I seem to have grown out of it now bar the odd little quirk here and there.

  16. I just realized in the past year that yes, indeed, I am highly sensitive, and have been all my life. I kept misdiagnosing myself as other things, and have been told on numerous occasions that I’m “crazy”, emotionally immature, or even gay, which is not true in the least. I greatly enjoy women, almost too much, to the point of turning them off with too much attention to them. Of course, being anxious all the time doesn’t help. I get very intense in any kind of competition, sometimes to my benefit, and sometimes to the negative, of it actually making me play worse. I call it going “over the edge.”
    It’s one of those things that you can’t really discuss with “normal” people, though, as they just tell you to “stop being so sensitive” and “relax.” It also freaks some people out when you “know” certain things, almost before they happen, or can sense almost immediately how someone is feeling.

  17. Hey Jamie,
    This perfectly explains me, even though I never knew a term for it exist.
    I’m often happy, organised and productive when I’m on my own. When I’m not, I’m a completely different person; scatter brained, lazy, dazed most of the time. I think it’s all part of being overwhelmed.
    Thanks for the enlightening post.

  18. Lady A_A says:

    Ladies & gentleman:

    YOU ARE NOT ALONE !!!!!!

    I’ve been through so much in my life. It’s survival of the strongest in this society. Highly Sensitive people are tossed aside especially if they show a hint of introversion!

  19. Thank you so much for posting this! When I say I have been struggling with this issue all my life…that is an understatement. I have an emotional breakdown about every three months, because I feel so different and strange from everyone else that I constantly ask myself what’s wrong with me. I am 31 years old, and I am finally deciding to accept my sensitivity and introversion, that’s just the way I’m wired and that’s okay. And articles like yours really help me in feeling normal and not alone. Thank you!

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