Highly Sensitive Refuge
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5 Ways for Highly Sensitive People to Navigate Anxiety

When your anxiety becomes overwhelming as a highly sensitive person, choose a favorite hobby — it’ll reroute your anxiety to something more productive.

Quarantining due to the COVID-19 pandemic was good for my family. Our schedules screeched to a halt and we found ourselves plunked down at home together. Life slowed and simplified. My background anxiety disappeared, and in its place, I discovered a contentment with life I had been looking for over the years.    

While I know this was not everyone’s experience, it was mine, and I loved it.

Now, months later, we wear our masks and go about our daily business again. My planner is marked up with appointments, schedules, school, work, and vacations. I collapse into bed at night exhausted, but unable to sleep (and we highly sensitive people (HSPs) need more sleep than others anyway). A creeping restlessness and anxiety have wound their way back into my heart.

For HSPs, these fluctuations of time and schedule affect us deeply. Moments to rest and reflect and the ability to invest in relationships are high priorities for us. They also take time and quiet. With the noise of social media, the news, and our own schedules, rest and interpersonal relationships take a beating.

Is your anxiety rising just reading these words? Slow down, friend. You are not alone. Here are a few tools to navigate anxiety in the busyness of life.

5 Ways for Highly Sensitive People to Navigate Anxiety

1. Assess where your time is going.

When we feel anxiety and restlessness growing and our schedules filling up, it’s time to check our “Yes!” It is always important to reevaluate our priorities and purpose when busy seasons find us. During the holidays or high vacation seasons, the demands on our time skyrocket. 

Everyone wants a piece of the pie: school parties, work engagements, holiday prep, vacation planning, and family obligations, to name a few. If we say “Yes!” to everything, chances are we are saying “No!” to a few very important aspects of our life and health.

Ask yourself these questions to check your “Yes!”

  • What are the three most important priorities of my life right now? 
  • Does this “yes” fall in line with one or more of my priorities?
  • What is the cost of saying “yes”?
  • What are the benefits of saying “yes”?

These questions act as a filter in your decision-making process. With greater clarity on your priorities and purpose, you can navigate your schedule with greater ease and confidence. And, as a sensitive person, this will evoke more calm and peace

2. Schedule “white space” — time to just relax and recharge.

As a writer, I love white space. When I open my computer to a clean, white new document, my heart flutters with hope. Possibility lives in that big, empty space. My mind kicks into gear, my imagination sparks to life, and my fingers begin to tap a beat on the keys. Ahhhh, white space.

However, when I look at my planner, there is little of this precious commodity. It makes my heart race with dread and a constant feeling of being behind. My schedule cannot be my boss; it needs to be a useful tool that I wield.

When I sit down to plan my week on Sunday, I intentionally schedule white space — which some call “blank space.” In those chunks of time, I choose to say a hard “No!” to anything or anyone who would claim it. (This isn;t always easy for HSPs since we’re such people-pleasers!) Normally, I shoot for a mid-week check-in and a weekend slot. This allows me to have time to recalibrate and recenter. For me, that looks like reading, painting, exercise, or time with my husband. For you, it may be a walk in nature, completing a project, or dinner with friends.

You choose how you spend your white space! Just make it a priority. Take action today by setting aside an hour or two with absolutely no agenda attached to it! Use the time to regroup, recalibrate, rest, recharge, and restore balance. I’ve heard it said that if you work with your mind, rest with your hands. If you work with your hands, rest with your mind. Which are you?

And don’t be discouraged if your scheduled white space gets written on! White space also creates a buffer for the unexpected! Life happens, but we can make room for life’s reroutes by scheduling white space. Take a breath, then look at your calendar and try again.

3. Process your pain points.

As HSPs, we feel and process everything deeply — even at rest! Overwhelmed by the input, we find untangling the root of our pain points quite challenging. This can escalate our anxiety. However, when we can identify and name the root source of our pain, then we can seek help or adjust our lifestyle accordingly.

Here are a couple of tips for learning to process your pain points.

  • Talk to a therapist/counselor or trusted friend about your circumstances and feelings. Ask them to help you gain perspective. Why? Clarity is powerful. This allows us to process feelings that do not accurately reflect our reality, and it gives us the grace to respond thoughtfully to difficulty. For example, I tend to minimize my challenges. At the end of the day, I’m exhausted, emotional, and powering through like a champ. My husband, however, knows me well and notices the frenzied activity and barely contained storm beneath it. As we talk through our day after dinner, he points out the hard phone call, unexpected emergency with a child, and the chronic health issues I’ve been dealing with for weeks. In that moment, I can see that my feelings of exhaustion and sadness are based on real circumstances that need acknowledgment. At this point, I gain clarity on why I am anxious and am given a safe space to respond to the pain in my life. Freedom!
  • Identify and list the trigger points in your day. Do you see a pattern? Often, our pain stems from a very specific circumstance outside of us or a particular response from within us. When we locate those patterns and triggers, we can begin to process and handle them in new ways. Although I tend to be very task-driven, meaningful relationships motivate and reinvigorate my life. When my family is so overscheduled that we do not have any time for family meals, genuine conversation, or fun together, I find myself getting irritable, resentful, and anxious. Once I identified this trigger point, I adjusted our schedule to create space for relationships to flourish. This benefitted every member of my family. What are your trigger points? Take a week to thoughtfully observe your schedule, your relationships, and most importantly, your responses to each. 

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4. Find your focus, whatever fortifies your mind and heart.

Did I mention my youngest child is also a highly sensitive person? This year he transitioned from homeschooling to traditional school. I’ve watched him handle the changes like a champ, but I’ve also noticed how deeply exhausted he is at the end of the day. Spending seven hours a day navigating academic pressures and middle school social drama exerts a lot of sensory input on an HSP. Then add in the extra factors and stress that a pandemic brings to the day and you’ve got a perfect storm of anxiety.

My son gathers all of this input throughout the day. His emotions and responses to the stimuli park in his heart and mind — unprocessed. By the time he gets home, he needs a way to allow the accumulated anxiety and exhaustion to find a way out of his mind. As adults, we are no different.

Have you noticed how the struggle with anxiety is internal? Our hearts and minds bear the weight of our fears, questions, and uncertainty. Left unchecked long enough, this anxiety begins to affect our bodies, too. With this in mind, one of the best tools my son and I have found for rerouting that internal anxiety is to find our focus.

For him, it’s soccer and fishing. He loves it! Whether he is in our backyard kicking the ball or inside watching a fishing video, these hobbies reroute his anxiety to a productive and meaningful activity. While the focus is off his anxiety, my son’s mind and body rest. Later in the day, we can circle back to his pain points or triggers and work through them with greater clarity. 

Finding your focus works for adults, too. When I discover anxiety mounting in my own life, a walk in nature or sitting down to watercolor paint quiets my mind. While the anxiety may not disappear, it is paused and quieted. My heart and mind are fortified, so I can then reevaluate my situation and choose how to move forward. 

How can you find your focus? Take inventory of the activities that stimulate your mind and engage your body. When anxiety mounts, refocus your attention to a hobby or interest that will bring you joy and relax your body. It can also help if you H.A.L.T. — ask yourself if you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired and then adjust accordingly. 

5. Lean on your relationships for support.

Anxiety, by its very nature, causes us to feel unsettled and vulnerable. Trapped by our busy schedules and our active responses to them, we find ourselves in need of a safe place to land. But we cannot always take a vacation from our busy lives or pause in our day to find our focus. 

However, one beautiful gift to an HSP is a person who sees, knows, and loves us. Hearing my husband’s voice on the phone in the middle of the day is a sweet reminder that life is more than my busy schedule or the anxiety that lurks in the corners. When my son comes home after a long day of school, I grab him in a big hug and sit with him while he eats a snack. That comforting touchpoint reminds him he is safe and seen in his overwhelming day.

Whether it’s here on Highly Sensitive Refuge, where you can relate to people like you, or in your own life, seek out the joyful respite of your personal relationships when life gets busy. We do not have to navigate anxiety alone.

In my writing life, I often say, “I’m only as good as my tools and my team.” I’ve found this to be true in my life as an HSP also. It was only five years ago that I discovered I was an HSP. However, in that time, I’ve found the above tools have helped me create support structures in my life and have minimized my anxiety. 

But tools only work when implemented. Which of these five tools suits your needs and schedule today? Choose one to try. Then, as it becomes a habit to “Schedule white space” or “Find your focus,” slowly add a new tool to your box.

Fellow HSPs, what tips do you have for quelling your anxiety? Feel free to share them in the comment below!

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