What to Know About Sex as a Highly Sensitive Person
It may surprise you to learn that 15 percent to 20 percent of folks in the United States identify as a highly sensitive person (HSP), also known as possessing sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS). But don't think of this as a disorder or medical condition. It's a series of traits that form the personality.
"It's more like a self-identification process. Does the description of an HSP resonate with the person or not?" said Sonia Wright, M.D., a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based board-certified radiologist, sexual counselor and medical advisor for the Body Agency, an online femtech platform.
Wright added that being an HSP is not something a medical doctor would specifically diagnose.
"You can find out if you are highly sensitive by taking the HSP assessment online," said Lauren Wild, M.Sc., a therapeutic coach and well-being psychologist in the United Kingdom who specializes in helping highly sensitive people.
What does it mean to be highly sensitive?
"An HSP is someone who is more keenly aware of any type of stimulation in their environment than the average person," Wright explained. "They might be more sensitive to sounds, temperature, foods or other physical stimulation, such as touch."
Wild noted this awareness can lead to possible overstimulation, a deeper processing of everything, lower triggers for stress responses, increased emotional reactivity and empathy, and a heightened perception of subtleties.
"You could say it's like the volume, brightness and intensity of any experience is turned up for an HSP," she added. "Without awareness and acceptance of this as an inbuilt set of traits, an HSP has very little control over their perceptions and reactions to their environments."
According to Wild, the main traits of a highly sensitive person are:
- Being more deeply affected by emotional events
- Heightened awareness of risk, food textures, temperature changes and pressure changes
- Feeling overstimulated in nonsupportive environments that are noisy, busy or demanding
- Intolerance for gore and horror, either real or fictionalized
- Feeling the effects of movies, music and art more intensely than other people
- Potentially being risk-averse more than most people and/or having a tendency to overanalyze a situation before becoming a part of it
"An HSP may need to regulate themselves and process stimulation in a manner that differs from others," Wright said. "There's nothing wrong with being an HSP. It's simply a different way of being, such as someone who is left-handed or wears glasses. An HSP just experiences the world differently with a more intense response to stimulation than others might."
How sensitivity affects life in general
Wild explained high sensitivity could affect every part of an individual's life, especially how they react to emotional situations.
"For example, being an HSP can lead to fussy eating due to heightened awareness of textures," Wild said.
"One person can hear the sound of nails on a chalkboard and not respond, while an HSP might go running from the room screaming in pain," Wright said.
Wild said she believes being a highly sensitive person can increase the likelihood of experiencing a traumatic reaction to an event or a difficult childhood. This response is due to the depth of processing and has been associated with an increased possibility of conditions such as myalgic encephalomyelitis (chronic fatigue syndrome), fibromyalgia and anxiety.
On the flip side, Wild also said an HSP can have a disproportionately positive response to supportive and positive childhood experiences. This is a relatively recent theory in psychology known as vantage sensitivity.
Highly sensitive people and sex
"An HSP is going to need a deep connection to their sexual partner, coupled with a supportive environment according to their specific needs, and deep concentration," Wild said.
"Being an HSP can really affect sexual intimacy," Wright explained. "There are a lot of stimuli to be processed when engaging in sex. An HSP might need more time to block out some stimulation, such as outside sounds, temperatures and even the touch of the sheets."
At the same time, an HSP needs to be able to identify the stimuli they would like to augment, such as pleasurable touch, Wright added. Thus, preparing and engaging in sexual intimacy for an HSP requires a combination of concentration and relaxation.
"A tendency to overthink and analyze situations can leave HSPs too 'in their own heads' to enjoy the physical intensity of great sex," Wild said. "So anything that minimizes concerns or worries before sex will help an HSP be mindful and present in the moment."
Some HSP might avoid sex due to overarousal, she added, advising that if this is the case, attention must be given to their work or home environments so they can be adapted for less stimulation.
"It's a juggling act to make sure that sexual pleasure doesn't cross the line over into pain," Wild explained. "An HSP could instantly become uncomfortable if this line was crossed, leading to overwhelming feelings."
If this all sounds like too much of a juggling act, know that there are many positives to having sex either as an HSP or with an HSP.
Enjoying sex as an HSP
The empathic traits of an HSP make them wonderfully responsive and intuitive sexual partners if the environment is right and their partner helps to create a positive experience.
"Practicing mindfulness and becoming aware of your own body in the present moment is something an HSP can benefit from, but it's most important to develop mindfulness when having sex," Wild explained, adding that mindfulness in sex deepens and intensifies the experience for everyone.
Wright said it's essential for an HSP to have a "zone of sexual safety," where combined concentration and relaxation become the central focus.
"Partners can help their highly sensitive loved one by providing the time and space needed to relax into that safe, sexual place," she said.
Good communication before having sex with an HSP is key, according to Wild. She recommended limiting distractions caused by the environment, such as noise from the TV or music, the temperature of the room, pets being present, uncomfortable bedding and so on.
"It will also help to establish what both partners enjoy sexually so that second-guessing doesn't cloud any pleasure during the session," Wild said. "Due to their depth of processing, this redirection of thoughts from the external environment to what's going on in their bodies can lead to the most intense and gratifying orgasmic sex for an HSP."
If you manage to balance communication and mindfulness, sex with an HSP can benefit everyone involved.
"Sex with an HSP can be amazing due to their ability to sense what you like and both mirror and match the intensity a partner brings to the bedroom," Wild explained. "Being highly empathic and intuitive can make for a deeply pleasurable sexual experience for both parties involved."