I first got acquainted with depression when I was around 11 years old. I didn’t recognize the symptoms for what they were because mental health wasn’t something you heard much about in those times, and certainly not at that age. If you went to therapy that meant you were crazy (whatever that meant), so when my parents took me to see a therapist, I hid it from everyone I knew. As if having depression wasn’t bad enough, the stigma made it worse. (How many of us have spent our entire lives feeling there is something wrong with us?)
It wasn’t until many years later, in my late 20s, that I learned about high sensitivity, and how some people — roughly 20 percent of the population — have stronger emotional, mental, and physical reactions to certain stimuli. Highly sensitive people (HSPs) feel things acutely, and as a result can become more overwhelmed in specific situations.
(Sound like you? Find out if you’re a highly sensitive person.)
I was going through my third or fourth long depressive episode, and suddenly all the pieces fit into this puzzle that comprised my personality. For the first time in my life, I understood how my mind worked, why I was prone to sink into hopelessness, and what I needed to crawl back to the surface.
Why Depression Affects HSPs Differently
Depression can affect anyone, but those of us who are highly sensitive share certain characteristics that make this experience resemble an epic descent into the pits of hell:
1. Our mind is a double-edged sword.
We are deep thinkers, which means we have bright, creative minds capable of conceiving powerful insights. On the flip side, we can also ruminate over our faults and failures for days, weeks, months, years — even our entire lifetime.
2. Emotions overwhelm us.
We are deep feelers and can experience pure bliss just by listening to a particular piece of music we love, but it also means that fear, sadness, guilt, or shame can shatter us into a thousand pieces.
3. Being different feels lonely.
It’s been estimated that only 20 percent of the population is highly sensitive, so there is a big chance we will feel like the odd one out. Unless we grow up in a healthy environment where we are praised for our differences, chances are we will interpret those differences as faults: The majority must be right, therefore, I am wrong.
4. We have different needs.
The world caters to a different percentage of the population, so we often find ourselves struggling to adapt to a fast-paced world full of stimulation, competition, and messages that encourage us to “toughen up.” This lifestyle is not suited to our sensitive needs and it’s easy for us to reach burnout. Similarly, we have a strong need to make our lives purposeful and an environment that feels devoid of meaning and purpose to us is simply soul-crushing.
5. We care deeply about the state of the world.
Personally, this has always been a big struggle for me. Watching or reading the news fills me with a deep sense of sadness for all the terrible things that happen on a daily basis. Our strong empathy makes us care about everything and everyone. This is a wonderful trait, but it makes it easy for us to take on the feelings of those around us and feel responsible for them, which can overburden us.
The Shadow of Depression Loomed Over My Life
My descent to depression hell was always slow and quiet, like a cold shadow creeping up on me day after day, stealing my joy, my appetite, my rationality. By the time I realized what was happening, I felt so numb that I couldn’t function. The stream of negative thoughts overpowered me and I couldn’t see a way out. When I finally managed to find a clear path, somehow I always ended up falling back in.
Ultimately, I felt trapped in a world where I thought it was wrong to be me, and I couldn’t see that I wasn’t my thoughts or pain. Until the day I found myself thanks to my sensitivity.
Depression has a special grip on the highly sensitive, but it is precisely through our sensitivity that our road to healing lies. In the right environment and with the right tools, we can even heal faster than non-HSPs. If this is not a reason to celebrate our trait, even in our darkest moments, then I don’t know what is.
To those of you who are currently struggling with depression, I promise life can be different. You might not think it’s possible right now. I know I didn’t. But I believe there is a strength in all of us that, when accessed, can unleash the magnificent force of our true nature.
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How I Used My Sensitivity to Help Overcome My Depression
1. I gave myself permission to feel it all.
The more I resisted my intense emotions, the more they persisted. I needed to grieve my past. I spent an entire year crying all the tears I hadn’t allowed myself to shed as a kid. I put my emotions on paper. I wrote about my fears and frustrations. I opened up to a therapist like I had never opened up before, which brings me to the next point…
2. I sought help.
At one point I realized I couldn’t recover by myself so I decided to look for a therapist who was kind and gentle, someone who would make me feel safe. I put myself in her hands and together we made sense of the past and built the basis for a healthy future. Later on, I worked with a coach who gave me additional help with practical tools I implemented daily. Reaching out to people in our life who care about us is also key in our recovery. We don’t have to heal in isolation.
3. I educated myself.
I read about high sensitivity and psychology. Our deep thinking is a very valuable trait so I read and read — and read some more — to make sense of my inner struggle. Then I used all this knowledge to make a list of simple tools to help myself feel better every day.
4. I created a self-care routine.
My list of simple tools became a self-care routine that involved eating healthy meals, writing whenever I needed to navigate my feelings, listening to music that made me feel good, exercising followed by inner child work, listening to affirmations, and going for walks in nature with my dogs. A healthy diet, resting, nature, animals, and art are usually good companions for HSPs.
5. I did something challenging every week.
In order to come out of my cocoon of numbness and over-protection I needed to challenge myself. I was not only struggling with depression, but also with anxiety, and social anxiety in particular, so I set small goals for myself.
The goals, for me, were as simple as eating something on public transport (which I struggled with), or going to a vegan food fair by myself. Each social or socially set activity laid the groundwork, and eventually I was able to do things that seemed more daunting, like joining a singing class and attending language exchange events.
The final touch was writing down one thing I had done and was proud of every day.
6. I fell in love with the present moment.
As HSPs we are observant and detail-oriented, and this is, in my opinion, our biggest asset when it comes to healing. Living in the past or the future only brings us anxiety and despair — our road to healing lies in the present moment.
I started noticing and appreciating the beauty around me. Something as simple as enjoying the sun on my skin, watching my dogs play, listening to the sound of the trees as they swayed in the wind, observing a smile on a stranger’s face. There was beauty all around me and when I opened my eyes to it, my entire life changed.
7. I committed to a life of purpose.
Like most HSPs, my life needs meaning. I need to feel that what I do has value and benefits the world in some way. When the opposite happens — when I feel that my job is failing to meet this requirement — I change jobs as soon as I can. That may not always be possible for others, but we can find meaning and purpose outside of our job, too, by volunteering, creating and sharing something that can help others, or simply filling our life with activities that give us joy. Like magic, our joy impacts the world like a ripple effect.
Depression taught me that things can be huge and daunting, but there’s hope and that key lies in your sensitivity. Yes, the world is sometimes bleak. And yes, the world is also beautiful and miraculous. We get to choose which version to focus our attention on. This doesn’t mean we don’t see the bad things, it means we continuously choose hope, and that the question we ask ourselves is not “why is the world so bad?” but “how can we make it better?” Sensitive people, I think, are built for that.