The Highly Sensitive Person and OCD: Is There a Link?

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Jaimie Eckert

Published on Jan 5, 2020; Updated on Aug 4, 2020

If I plan a meetup for people who over-process information, there would be two kinds of individuals to show up. Highly Sensitive People (HSP’s), and folks with OCD. So, what are we talking about — HSP and OCD? Let’s start with a few facts.

What Is a Highly Sensitive Person?

HSP’s make up about 20% of the population. This is too large a number for it to be a disorder. Instead, High Sensitivity is considered a normal variant of the human personality. HSP is based on something called Sensory Processing Sensitivity. This is a trait involving “an increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social and emotional stimuli.”

Highly Sensitive People are the ones who stop and think before acting. They are the ones who process slowly but very deeply. They are more empathetic and attuned to the emotions of others. Unfortunately, they are also the ones who are more likely than others to be accused of being “too sensitive” or “too emotional.

(Wondering if you’re a Highly Sensitive Person? Pause for a few minutes to take this brief HSP test.)

In a 2011 study, researchers tested HSP’s and non-HSP’s in a functional MRI so they could scan the subject’s brains while they completed change-detection tasks. Each subject viewed two almost-identical landscape images and had to identify the difference. For example, one farm scene had a missing fencepost, or a field of hay bales had an extra bale. The researchers discovered that HSP’s took longer to respond, but their brains lit up more. The researchers interpreted this to mean HSP’s process information more elaborately.

But what about people with OCD? They also are heavy processors. Is there a difference?

How Do People With OCD Process Information?

In contrast to the 20% of the population that is Highly Sensitive, only about 2.3% of Americans have chronic Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Like HSP’s, individuals with OCD are heavy processors. They tend to think in repetitive and cyclical patterns in their attempt to solve problems. On this website, we talk a lot about religious forms of OCD, also known as scrupulosity.

According to some research, brain structures may be responsible for the cyclical thought patterns of OCD. For example, people with OCD appear to have faulty wiring in the part of the brain that deals with reward anticipation and impulse control. Other research notes abnormalities in serotonin receptors in the OCD brain (this is the main theory behind why many OCD patients are prescribed SSRI medication). However, there are still many inconclusive hypotheses about what exactly causes the OCD brain to behave as it does.

What we do know is that people with OCD over-process information to the point that they cannot stop themselves.

So What Is the Difference Between HSP and OCD Processing?

Interestingly, both obsessive-compulsives and HSP’s demonstrated higher brain activation when viewing emotional responses in other people. This signifies that they process emotions differently than the rest of the general population. But ultimately, the main difference between the way HSP’s and obsessive-compulsives process information is that at the end of the day, one is productive while the other is not.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is in the DSM-5 as a “disorder” because that’s what it is: a faulty processing glitch in the human brain. Sensory Processing Sensitivity — the trait that makes a Highly Sensitive Person — is not in the DSM-5 nor is it considered a disorder. However, both individuals might receive criticism that sounds the same: stop overthinking it. You’re being too sensitive.

Obsessive-compulsives process in repetitive cycles are often aware that their obsessions are illogical. However, they just can’t stop themselves. OCD thinking usually does not lead to productive ends — only more rumination, ritualization, or anxiety.

On the other hand, the deep processing of an HSP is proven to be extremely effective. In one study, a depression intervention program was initiated for 11-year old girls in a poor London neighborhood. Researchers had observed that many at-risk girls become depressed at age 12, so they implemented a barrage of tactics to help prevent this emotional plunge.

Before starting, each girl was tested to see how she ranked on the HSP scale. One year later, after the girls had gone through the intervention program, they were tested again for HSP scores and for depression levels. Not surprisingly, depression had been reduced only in the girls who scored in the top one-third most highly sensitive. The low-scoring or non-HSP girls were not helped at all. Dr. Elaine Aron analyzes the results by writing,

This is another example of how HSPs pick up especially well on good things, probably in this case by processing the program’s information deeply. This gives us real hope that an intervention can help us if we need it, even more than it would help others.

Dr. Elaine Aron

What If I’m an HSP with OCD?

If you find out that you’re a Highly Sensitive Person who also has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, it’s time to celebrate! ???I write this article as an HSP who has gone through my fair share of OCD. I wouldn’t say that I am “cured” from OCD, because I don’t believe it’s something that ever just goes away, but I now cope with my OCD extremely well. In times of stress it might flare up, but it has generally become a very manageable part of my life, so much so that I no longer identify as an obsessive.

As an HSP, you have a really powerful ability to benefit from useful information. You can actually benefit more from good things than your less sensitive peers. That puts you in a great position to apply interventions that will help you cope with the challenges of OCD. When I went through therapy for clinical depression and OCD, my therapist told me she had never had a client who worked as hard as me at implementing positive practices. That was long before I’d read the study about the 11-year-old HSP girls. It was my HSP depth-of-processing practices kicking in, even though I wasn’t aware of it yet.

If you’re HSP and struggle with OCD, it may be difficult to separate between the deep processing of your HSP side and the racing, cyclical processing of your OCD side. Don’t worry about that for now. Just work hard at implementing positive advice from your therapist or support group and you will come out the other side.

I also wonder how many people have been misdiagnosed as OCD when in reality, they are just demonstrating the heavy processing of an HSP.

And if you only have OCD but not HSP, don’t worry. Having High Sensitivity isn’t the silver bullet for success. It certainly can help, but it isn’t the only precursor to successfully coping with OCD.

What Do You Think?

What has your experience been? Has anyone ever mistaken your HSP processing to be OCD? Have you experienced both? Have coping mechanisms for one been helpful for the other? Let me know in the comments below.

At the end of the day, there’s no way of knowing how much crossover there is between Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. There are a few striking similarities — the fact that both process emotions very differently than others, and the fact that we are both heavy processors. But as far as I know, no scientific research has corroborated overlap between the two.

Is there a connection? There might be. There might not. What’s more appropriate to say is that there are some similarities in the way these traits manifest themselves. In my view, if you’re someone who can’t shut off your thinking processes, you might want to do a little research to investigate both possibilities.

Best wishes on your journey,


  • Thank you Jamie!
    This was helpful. I definitely have both HSP and OCD issues. I appreciate you and all you do. Keep fighting this fight for all of us.
    You are a blessing!

  • This is a very interesting and informative article. Being an HSP with OCD can be a real challenge. It's like having two full-time jobs at the same time. On the one hand, your mind is constantly processing everything around you in high detail, which can be exhausting. On the other hand, your OCD tendencies can make you feel like you have to control everything around you, which can be equally exhausting. It's a constant balancing act that can be difficult to manage. I have a friend who is an HSP with OCD, and I've seen firsthand the difficulties she faces. She struggles with sensory overload and is easily overwhelmed by certain situations. At the same time, she feels like she has to control everything around her to feel safe and secure. It's a constant battle, but with the right support and understanding, she is learning to manage her condition and live a fulfilling life.

  • This is very informative and helpful. I have heard almost identical things about how I have handled my ocd most of my life. One doctor told me I was as closed to cured she had ever seen. With the caveat there is no cure. One word used to describe me was coachable. I had this strange ability to do exactly what I was told the next time I tried something. Gymnastics for example, my coach could say on your next trick, straightens your toes, bend your legs, arch your back and look forward. When broken down in specific actions I could do it almost instantly. I think it was that awareness of my body, surroundings and process that made it easy for me to implement complex feedback quickly.

  • i am both. I can check off all but one or two questions on the HSP self-test. Before I worked in the IT field, I believed that I was deeper and more analytical than my peers because I was not in IT. Once in IT, I figured out that I was still the same way compared to many of my peers.

    OCD started for me near adolescence. i was TORMENTED and truly wondered if I would survive to adulthood. Pastors didn't understand it was OCD and couldn't do much to help. My mom, much later formally diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was no help.

    God provided youth pastors who loved me and constantly encouraged me. Later, He sent this person or that to keep me from giving up. I learned mental tricks to cope. In my 20's, I found some relief by letting myself weep before God as I exposed my fears to him in prayer. An aspect of my OCD is a terror that something is awfully wrong with me, and I have to fix before it makes me unacceptable to God. Of course, I intellectually understand the right answers, but OCD fears are not logically appeased.

    These days, now in my 40's, I have found amino acid supplements that I can continually adjust to better cope with OCD thought pattern "pressure", depression, and the emotional drain I feel from being around other people. In some ways, being an HSP has made it easier to learn about mental health and therapeutic options. In other ways, it has made it harder because most people who know me have no clue of how I have struggled and cannot comprehend it even I tell them.

    I am confident, in spite of HSP wiring and my OCD miswiring, that God has a special purpose for me to fulfill that my strengths and struggles will play into.

  • I definitely have both. I've found OCD treatment difficult, as I feel like OCD therapists and groups sometimes treat any kind of heavy processing as OCD,

  • I am definitely HSP and have been wondering for a while if I may also have OCD tendencies. I find when I am super stressed or unable to figure something out, the obsessive rituals start and they are just about enough to drive me batty.

    • Yep, I know what you mean. A very large percentage of the scrupulous clients I meet with are also HSP. Not sure I have the expertise to say why, but I’ve definitely noticed a correlation. It may be that the HSP tendency to process deeply can become obsessive, or it could be that the HSP tendency to be intentional about seeking help and learning from their experiences makes them more likely to reach out for scrupulosity coaching. Not sure, but there does seem to be a correlation!!

  • I am diagnosed OCD and am also HSP. As someone where OCD can easily take over my life, I find it hard to ever say it’s something to celebrate. It’s debilitating and a nightmare. But it was only recently that I started learning more about being HSP and I find it very interesting how HSP and Empaths can be “predisposed” to having OCD.

  • My daughter, age 7, is definitely Highly Sensitive. She recently is displaying OCD behaviors and I’m not sure what to make of it. Thanks for this article!

  • Hi, Thanks for the interesting read

    I think I am also both, HSP and OCD. I have been doing a lot of reflecting and noticing how having these has affected my childhood and relationships a lot. It is comforting to know that other people also might have had similar experiences. I am also now learning to see it not in such a negative way and embracing being a HSP.

    • Absolutely! Being a highly sensitive person has so many positive aspects. Having OCD is a lot harder to embrace — HSP isn’t a disorder, but OCD is. But in both cases I believe we can learn, grow, and become kinder human beings through our struggle.

    • Hi Rudra,
      I did not take any prescription medications while in therapy. However, I did some natural treatments. I increased my daily exercise and aimed for regular sleep cycles (circadian rhythms) which I attained with a medical-grade blue light. I also took NAC, a natural supplement that is shown to affect glutathione levels (researchers have only suggested a link between glutamate and OCD, it has not yet been proven, but for me taking NAC was helpful).

      • I just found your blog and am so excited to find it. I am going through therapy with a wonderful Christian therapist who is an ocd expert, and it has been life changing. I have had ocdundefinedscrupulosity since at least 13 (I now realize probably much younger) but I only realized what it was three years ago after it flared up after having my fourth child. I thank God I finally have a name for what has always plagued me, but now I find God is turning my ocd suffering into something He is using to transform my life! I didn’t know about HSP till just now reading your article. I took the quiz and got a score of 26. I guess I have both! I also recently started eating keto and I feel it is helping with so much. I’m hopeful it keeps helping my ocd as well while I keep pursuing my erp and therapy. Could you tell me more about the natural meds you took? My doc has recommended meds for me because my ocd is biological but I am very health conscious and athletic and I much prefer natural anything, but I will take meds if that’s the only solution. The NAC you mentioned piqued my interest.

        • Hi, Leigh,
          Amazing to hear how God is transforming your life! And very nice to meet a fellow HSP+OCD person. 🙂 I haven’t taken any prescription medications for my OCD, and as far as I can tell, HSP isn’t a disorder that needs medication, so I haven’t taken anything for that, either. For general brain health I take B6, B12 (I’m vegetarian/flex-vegan), NAC, flax seed oil, and zinc. During part of the year I also take vitamin D. But that’s pretty much it. I prefer to get most of my vitamins through whole plant-based sources because it absorbs much better, so that’s all I take at this point. 🙂

  • Really interesting points 🙂

    Yeah I think that I may be both, OCD and Highly Sensitive possibly.

    I’ve been learning a lot from Ali Greyomd on Youtube in regards to OCD. She actually has a thesis that most OCD people has a highly sensitive proclivity.

    Appreciate it you sharing your amazing research! 🙂


    • Thanks, Ralph! I’m familiar with Ali Greymond but I haven’t seen where she makes that connection. Could you link to it? I’d love to check it out. 🙂

  • A very interesting perspective! Thanks for sharing this information. I will have to look more into this topic, to find out if this type of personality is something that characterizes me.

    • Definitely! I think a lot of people are highly sensitive without realizing there’s a “name” for it. There are different estimates based on different studies, but the number is anywhere from 15-35% of the population is HSP. So it’s far more likely than most people realize. Glad you found it interesting!

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