Scientists believe that highly sensitive people are more likely to develop anxiety in stressful circumstances. But are they also better at overcoming it?
We’re all familiar with the feeling of anxiety. You have to give a presentation at work or school. Or you’re planning on finally telling that person who makes your heart flutter how you feel. Or you wake up from a dream that you were being chased by a clown waving an axe.
In the moment, you notice your heart racing, your palms sweating, your mouth going dry, and your mind running a mile a minute. You might feel slightly sick to your stomach, as you think, What happens if my presentation goes badly, or that person rejects me? What a scary dream, but why am I dreaming about axe-wielding clowns chasing me?
How Anxiety Tries to Help Us (Even If It Fails)
The anxiety-induced reactions above are actually our body’s way of preparing us for danger. Humans, along with many other species, are primed to be prepared for, and remember, situations that we perceive as dangerous. It’s what kept our ancestors safe in a time and place where getting eaten by a predator was a real threat. It’s a survival mechanism known as “fight-or-flight.” The “freeze” response is another facet of this that occurs when someone is feeling anxious — they will freeze when they feel threatened, just as animals might if they are being attacked.
Ultimately, your ancestors staying safe was what enabled your beautiful self to be in the world. And when we face threats in our modern era, our body’s danger warning system does the job it was designed to do, and does it wonderfully.
It’s okay to be scared of rejection from our crush or having people laugh at us after giving a speech or presentation. Running from a clown chasing you with a weapon is generally a good idea, too, even if it’s only in a dream. Those are normal, healthy reactions to keep you safe, and are known as defense behaviors.
But when you feel your body preparing for danger that doesn’t seem that, well, dangerous, a normal healthy response to danger can become harmful. You might become so afraid of telling your crush your true feelings that you completely stop talking to them. (Or put the conversation off until they eventually announce that they’re dating someone else.)
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is considered the gold standard for diagnosis of mental, emotional, and behavioral illness. The criteria for diagnosing an anxiety disorder consists of various factors. The main two symptoms are excessive anxiety and worry, and three or more of the following six symptoms must be present: restlessness or feeling on-edge; easily fatigued; difficulty concentrating or mind going blank; irritability; muscle tension; and/or sleep disturbance.
The manual also states that symptoms of worry need to be present “more days than not” for at least six months, be difficult for the person to control, be out of proportion to the situation, and cause difficulty functioning.
Temporary feelings of stress are normal, but when anxiety becomes severe enough to be diagnosed as an anxiety disorder, it can make you (and others around you) miserable.
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Are HSPs More Likely to Have Anxiety?
Yes, actually. Studies show that highly sensitive people (HSPs) are more likely to respond negatively in stressful situations, making us more prone to developing anxiety. We also get overstimulated easily on a day-to-day basis — and are greatly influenced by environmental factors — so you can just imagine how our anxiety escalates when we get stressed.
We do this because our brains deeply process all of the information we receive. Scientists are still trying to learn exactly why this is, but research published earlier this year suggests that there are simply more connections between our brain cells, especially in regions of the brain that handle memories and emotions, especially fear.
More connections between brain cells means that our brains are able to be more efficient in how they handle information. The connections between brain cells can be thought of as similar to telephone wires or train tracks. Each connection allows specific bits of information, packaged as electrical impulses, to travel down the line in order to get where they need to go in the brain. Different regions in the brain receive these bits of information and react accordingly through the use of hormones and other chemicals.
This is true for all brains, but especially so in the brains of HSP’s, where more connections mean more bits of information are available for the brain to work with, and use, when processing how to react to a certain situation. If neurotypical brains are similar to a pair of train tracks alongside a roadway, HSP brains can be thought of as Grand Central Station, only on a larger scale.
As luck would have it, research has found that these extra brain cells are mostly found in the region of the brain that handles emotions and memories of emotions. This means that, although humans as a species are prone to remember dangerous situations in order to avoid them later on, HSPs are even more prone. The extra information brought in by the increased brain connections just gives our brains more threats to act on.
An HSP’s Anxious Brain in Action
Let’s look at an example of the anxious HSP brain at work. At a previous job, I was late to a shift one time after being scrupulously early or on time for a year. I raced into work afraid that I would be fired, or at least be given a talking-to by my manager. What would I do if I was fired? I didn’t want to look for a new job, especially during a pandemic.
Plus, how would I support myself while I was looking? I could pull from my savings, but I had just started putting money into them again after draining them during nursing school. This all went back to: Why couldn’t I have just left the house earlier?
In the end, I was not fired, but the feelings of spiraling fear and doom I experienced in that situation also made it more likely that I would become even more anxious in the future if I was ever late again, even by just a little bit. In these situations, and in others, when feelings of anxiety and stress take over your life, it can then become an anxiety disorder. But we’re focusing on “anxiety” as an umbrella term for purposes of this article.
Physical Symptoms of Anxiety Affect HSPs More Strongly, Too
In addition to the feelings of worry and stress that characterize anxiety, the DSM-5 also lists physical symptoms of anxiety in its diagnostic criteria, such as muscle tension and fatigue. Pain and fatigue are known to be strong triggers for HSPs, who, of course, experience these sensations much more than the average neurotypical person. Cortisol, which is the hormone released during periods of long-term stress, also influences eating patterns, and can make you hungry. Elaine Aron, one of the leading sensitivity researchers, included hunger as part of her HSP scale, a test which measures how sensitive someone is. Plus, HSPs are more likely to get “hangry,” hungry + angry, too.
So not only are HSPs more prone to develop anxiety, thanks to our deeply processing brains, but we are also more likely to experience its symptoms, physical and mental, more intensely. Untreated anxiety can make life miserable for those who have both it and high sensitivity.
Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System?
HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?
That’s what you’ll find in this powerful online course by Julie Bjelland, one of the top HSP therapists in the world. You’ll learn to turn off the racing thoughts, end emotional flooding, eliminate sensory overload, and finally make space for your sensitive gifts to shine.
Stop feeling held back and start to feel confident you can handle anything. Check out this “HSP Toolbox” and start making a change today. Click here to learn more.
How HSPs Can Beat Anxiety — And Come Out Ahead
There is actually very good news for HSPs who suffer from anxiety disorders. Anxiety is highly treatable. And, the same research that shows HSPs do poorly in stressful situations, also shows that they do really, really well in supportive environments, better even than their less-sensitive peers. That means that it’s supremely important for us to seek support when we find ourselves struggling with anxiety, as our anxiety is even more highly treatable than the anxiety of our loved ones who are not HSPs.
There are several ways you can manage your anxiety, including:
- Talk to someone: individual and/or group therapy is considered the first line of defense against anxiety. These days, there are lots of tools to make finding a therapist easier. You may see one in person or online, through a service like our partner BetterHelp, which offers reduced-cost telehealth therapy services.
- Practice controlled, deep breathing techniques, which works because it triggers your body to chill out. When your body is chill, your brain will often follow and calm itself down. It also helps get more oxygen to your brain, to enable clearer thinking in your non-anxiety producing regions. A commonly recommended sequence is: “In through your nose for a count of 4, hold for 4, out through your mouth for a count of 4.” This technique is otherwise known as “box breathing.” If you need support in this, the free Calm app has a wonderful guided breathing tool. I’ve found it helpful myself and recommended it to several of my patients with anxiety.
- Mindfulness meditation helps you to train your brain to worry less, and helps to train you to be more accepting of the situations in which you find yourself. Research shows that it can help everyone who experiences stress (aka all of us), but especially those of us who have diagnosed anxiety disorders.
- Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is a specific kind of guided meditation that uses soft, soothing noises to help you calm down. These include book pages turning, whispering, or hair-brushing. The noises are designed to make you feel relaxed and sleepy. People describe its effects as a pleasant “tingling” sensation down their spine. Personally, I use it to help me wind down and relax after a long day. It does not work for everyone, but emerging research suggests that it may work better for HSPs than for those who are more neurotypical. There are lots of free ASMR videos on YouTube, and it is easy to experiment with “triggers” to find what works for you.
- Aromatherapy can help relieve anxiety, as certain essential oils can be very calming, like lavender and peppermint. You can get oils, roll-ons, inhalation sticks, or liquid for a diffuser.
In essence, pick and choose what works best for you. The same, soothing tools that you use for other kinds of HSP overstimulation — such as soft music, a warm bath, or a comforting book or movie — can help alleviate anxiety, too. And, as a result, hopefully, that axe-wielding clown will appear less and less frequently in your dreams.
You might like:
- Do You Cry Easily? You Might Be a Highly Sensitive Person
- 5 Ways for Highly Sensitive People to Navigate Anxiety
- 18 Things That Fill Highly Sensitive People With Joy
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