Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive woman experiencing anxiety

Am I a Highly Sensitive Person — Or Do I Have Anxiety?

There are some overlapping similarities between being a highly sensitive person and having anxiety, like becoming easily overwhelmed. But here’s how to tell the difference.

If you were ever in grade school, I’m sure you fondly remember mandatory school assemblies (okay, maybe not fondly). There was one assembly in particular that I will always remember. At one particular gathering, the principal had a student play the drums for us as a performance. 

As he played, I couldn’t stop focusing on the banging and loudness. I grew uncomfortable. I looked around the room. I asked a teacher if I could go to the bathroom. The teacher said no, and I had to sit through the performance. 

Even though it was great, I hated it. I remember my heart beating fast — I couldn’t focus on anything other than the noise

As an adult, I now know that I have anxiety. I struggle with general anxiety and panic anxiety. I am also a highly sensitive person (HSP). Even though I have anxiety, I also know that many reactions of mine to the environment are because I am an HSP, not because I have anxiety. 

But how exactly do you differentiate the two? How do you know if you’re an HSP or have anxiety? Or both? Keep on reading to find out…

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High Sensitivity Vs. Anxiety

A highly sensitive person experiences their environment, thoughts, and feelings more intensely — and processes things more deeply — than the average person. HSPs people are often more sensitive than others, both emotionally and physically. While others may be able to watch a horror movie and forget about it afterwards, an HSP may think about the film for weeks, unable to get the disturbing scenes out of their mind. 

Meanwhile, the American Psychological Association defines anxiety as an emotion that incorporates recurrent worried thoughts, tension, and physical symptoms, like a rapid heartbeat or increased blood pressure. Anxiety differs from fear because fear is logical; the threat that invokes fear is usually something you should be scared of. 

On the other hand, anxiety is often characterized by a fear of something that is not dangerous. Anxiety can take different forms, which is why there are multiple anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder, to name a few. 

Similarities Between Highly Sensitive People and Those With Anxiety

While the definitions of an HSP and anxiety may not look all that similar, the way these two things manifest may have more similarities than you think. Let’s look at some of them.

(I would like to note that not all of these things apply to everyone with anxiety — anxiety can come in different forms and manifest in different ways. This list is based on my experience as someone who struggles with anxiety.)

  • You feel most comfortable at home, in your safe space. While this can be true for many reasons, HSPs — and those with anxiety — often feel most comfortable at home. You are used to the environment, there are no strangers around, no surprises, and you can relax in your favorite comfy chair. You can also create your very own HSP sanctuary, a refuge from the overstimulating outside world.
  • Going out drains you. Going out means leaving your comforting space and entering a new environment. New environments often come with new noises, new people, and new stimuli, all of which can increase overwhelm and anxiety.
  • Loud noises bother you. Loud noises and sounds can be uncomfortable or anxiety-provoking, whether it’s a train, music, construction, thunder — you name it. 
  • Your emotions and feelings are deep. HSPs, and those with anxiety, experience feelings more deeply than others. While HSPs may mull over emotion, making them tear up with joy or feel sad for days afterward, those with anxiety may hyperfocus on emotions, leading to an increase in anxiety symptoms or even a panic attack. 
  • You often engage in overthinking and introspection. You often think about one thing in particular for hours on end. Why did he say no to the movie date? Why did she respond that way to my text? HSPs, as well as people with anxiety, may also engage in introspection, paying close attention to their internal thoughts and feelings.

Want to reduce stress and thrive as a highly sensitive person? We recommend these online courses from psychotherapist and sensitivity expert Julie Bjelland. Click here to learn more.

Differences Between Highly Sensitive People and Those With Anxiety

If you relate to many of the items above, you may be wondering whether you are an HSP or if you have anxiety. In this section, I will review a few key things that differentiate anxiety from HSPs. (Again, this is based on my personal experience, although I feel others will be able to relate.)

  • Stimuli may lead to panic attacks. When it comes to anxiety and anxiety disorders, certain stimuli may trigger panic attacks. On the other hand, while HSPs may not like loud noises or crowded rooms, it doesn’t necessarily bring on panic. 
  • Anxiety can incorporate strong physical symptoms. Many people with anxiety disorders experience physical symptoms, such as rapid heartbeat, sweating, shaking, dizziness, shortness of breath, and muscle tension, to name a few. 
  • You may be afraid of certain situations or stimuli. While this typically only applies to those with certain anxiety disorders — like panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, or a specific phobia — some people with anxiety fear certain stimuli or situations. Feared stimuli may include elevators or social gatherings, for example. 
  • Anxiety can greatly interfere with daily living (in a negative way). While highly sensitive people may have preferences regarding how they spend their time, anxiety can prevent people from leaving the house, going to work, or doing other daily tasks, such as shopping for groceries. While anxiety may not affect everyone this severely, it can also lower one’s quality of life in many different ways. 
  • Anxiety can be labeled as a disorder. Being highly sensitive is not a disorder. However, depending on the severity, anxiety may develop into an anxiety disorder. (Thankfully, there are treatments for anxiety disorders!) 

Moving Forward as an HSP — Who May Also Have Anxiety 

Dr. Elayne Daniels, a psychologist, explains that highly sensitive people may be prone to anxiety. As we have discussed, there are many similarities between those with anxiety and HSPs. Often, an HSP experiences more anxiety than the typical person. 

As a highly sensitive person, it is important to practice self-care — it’s a mental health game-changer — and be aware of how your sensitivity trait can manifest in the form of anxiety. This may require using certain techniques, including muscle relaxation, journaling, or even cognitive restructuring (addressing unrealistic thoughts — even though they seem very real to you). 

At the end of the day, highly sensitive people, those with anxiety, or those experiencing both, have a lot of strengths. Play on your strengths, utilize helpful resources, practice self-care, and, most importantly, be proud of who you are. 

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