Highly Sensitive Refuge
The 8 Steps to Recovering from Anxiety and Depression

The Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide to Anxiety and Depression

There’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution to anxiety and depression. Instead, here’s what actually works, according to an HSP psychotherapist.  

These days, more people are suffering from anxiety of all kinds. If you are paying attention, which you know you are, you are likely to have moments, days, maybe even weeks, when you are worried or frightened or concerned about your particular life, your family’s well-being, and, perhaps, the future of all life on planet earth. 

And, because you are a highly sensitive person (HSP) — meaning, you are empathetic, deep-thinking, and aware — you have a more finely-tuned nervous system than others. So you are more easily thrown off-course, more easily sent out of whack. If you had a seriously unstable childhood, as well, your anxiety might come with a strong undercurrent of hypervigilance, necessary to (try to) manage the chaos in your family. It was an important coping strategy then, but not so helpful now. 

Anxiety and Depression May Go Hand-in-Hand

Anxiety’s cousin is depression, and there are certainly reasons you might be sad, grieving, or, on some days, sinking into despair. Your depression, then, might be an attempt to numb these emotions, to avoid the intensity that comes with high sensitivity.

In my experience as a psychotherapist, HSPs are not more prone to depression than others. But your compassion, empathy, and awareness of issues beyond your personal world might bring it on more easily. And, again, if you grew up in a family with abuse or neglect, depression could be a real possibility. 

My first request, then, is that you understand that there are real reasons for your anxiety and depression. You are not “too sensitive,” “too dramatic,” or “too high-maintenance.” And you don’t overthink too much, either. Recognizing that your anxiety and depression often makes sense, you can stop berating yourself about them. That is a good beginning. But what are some tools and techniques that will help reduce your anxiety and depression? Good question. Below, I have outlined several strategies you can employ, as there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, nor is there an instant “fix.”

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8 Ways Highly Sensitive People Can Alleviate Their Anxiety and Depression  

1. Read authors who inspire you and lift your spirits. 

Highly sensitive people usually love to read. Books can be a healthy escape from daily pressures, provide a vision of a positive future, and be intellectually satisfying. They can also give you hope, because the authors are people you can respect and admire.  

Memoirs, such as Deep Creek by Pam Houston, Maid by Stephanie Land, or Unbound by Tarana Burke, are uplifting. Susan Cain’s book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, is a deep-dive and puts a very positive spin on sensitivity. Cain shares her own story and her book normalizes and celebrates the challenges of sensitivity. 

2. Accept help from friends, family, and mental health practitioners.

As a highly sensitive soul, you have great compassion for others — and now it’s time to get some of that compassion back. Pay attention when friends and family reach out to help you. Let them. Of course, you will need to be selective. Not everyone’s support will feel nourishing. You have a right to set boundaries and to only let in the people who feel safe, knowledgeable, and kind. If family members are part of the problem, you may have to limit your contact with them.

And don’t just wait for them to come to you. Seek out their counsel, too — but, again, be selective.

If your depression or anxiety are interfering with everyday tasks, it will be important to find a good psychotherapist. You may even want to consider medication along with the therapy if you are having serious trouble with day-to-day functioning. There are times when medication is needed to provide enough relief so that you can even benefit from the therapy. Your therapist can help you figure this out. 

Events in your present life can also trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, wherein you unconsciously reexperience past trauma. Maybe some of your anxiety or depression makes no sense — your actual day-to-day life might seem just fine. But a pandemic, for example, might trigger memories of being trapped and out of control. Of course, you may feel anxious during a pandemic. But if your anxiety or depression is very intense and unrelenting, it might be PTSD. Psychotherapy can help you identify the triggers, so you realize you are not in danger and not powerless like you were when you were young and felt trapped.

Over time, there might be other practitioners you will want to work with, too. Luckily, there are quite a few possibilities, including: naturopaths, physical therapists, acupuncturists, energy healers, shamans, teachers, coaches, and artists. You do not have to be alone with your anxiety and depression. Even though you tend to solve problems for others — and you may be the smartest person in the room at any particular time — do not give up on finding help for yourself.

3. Check to see if the anxiety and depression is all yours — or if you are carrying someone else’s burden.

When you are an HSP, you are probably an empath, too. You may be feeling the anxiety in the room or in your friends and relatives. You might feel depressed because one of your parents was unavailable and shut down, depressed or anxious themselves. Remind yourself that you are not responsible for other people’s feelings or for solving their problems. It is not your job to rescue your relatives or your friends. You can be supportive, sure, but you do not need to be self-sacrificing. There is a difference.

So, as a result, some of your anxiety or depression might actually belong to your parents or ancestors. You may have taken it on as a very young child as a way to cope, or because, on an unconscious level, it seemed like the right thing (or the only thing) to do. Imagine you can return it to the rightful owner! (Not literally, but…) 

This is a complex process for sure, usually best analyzed with a therapist. It involves designing a ritual where you gather up the anxiety and depression that is not yours — but stored in your body — and hand it back. This is often a deeply emotional experience, so it needs to be carefully facilitated. But just knowing that the burden is not all yours might begin to lighten it. 

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4. Write a list of calming techniques that work for you and add them to your daily routines. 

Taking steps to soothe yourself may be particularly difficult if you are anxious or depressed, especially in the moment. To start, you will want to find something that does not take much energy. Try the different apps that exist, such as Calm, Insight Timer, and Headspace. What else would be an easy start? Perhaps getting outdoors? Walking? Listening to music? Cleaning your kitchen? Doing nothing at all? There are many grounding rituals out there — you just have to see which ones work best for you.

Guided imagery is also a useful process for anxiety and depression. Psychologist Belleruth Naparstek has some guided meditations online, so you do not have to do it by yourself. If you are looking for a science-based approach, Heartmath Institute uses reliable research to develop useful tools and devices, too. Some of my clients have also had good results with Emotional Freedom Techniques (ETF), called tapping. This is a simple tool you can learn online. You can even find therapists on Instagram, such as Nedra Tawwab, who provide quick free tips and reminders.  

5. Welcome the unwelcome — acknowledge your anxiety and depression.

I have found this technique particularly powerful when I slip into a melancholy place or feel anxious. It was called “welcoming the unwelcome” by a Zen priest I met years ago. Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun, explains it well. It is called tonglen and is quite counter-intuitive. 

Basically, you acknowledge your anxiety or depression with a kind of acceptance. You do not push it away. Instead, you breathe in all of the depression or anxiety that exists on the planet and breathe out love to all — and to yourself. It sounds kind of crazy, but I have found it changes my state and eases my discomfort. 

6. Get involved in important issues and speak up for causes you care about.

Some of your anxiety and depression might not be inner turmoil, but the result of disturbing events in your community, country, and our world. There is certainly a lot of suffering and distress, the climate crisis being one of the largest concerns. As an HSP, you feel all of it!

Usually, you may want to stay in the shadows, but these times are different. We all really need to step up and take action on the pressing issues of our time, I think. HSPs are the activists we need and can have a significant influence. Even though it might be uncomfortable, we are needed.  

There are many organizations who could benefit from our participation. Find one that has meaning for you. Taking action might actually be what you need to boost your mood and calm some of your worries. It might help you find meaning and purpose and serve as a distraction from your anxious thoughts. 

7. Engage in intellectual stimulation and creative activities. 

HSPs are often intellectually advanced. You have a very active mind, and if you do not keep it occupied with intellectual and creative projects, it will use its imagination to catastrophize (worst-case scenarios, for example) or fall into despair. 

You may have what I call a “rainforest mind” — and it needs to be fed. Learning and creating are basic needs of yours. Give yourself permission to think, create, and dream. I, for one, know I need to always have a creative project going or else I get restless and irritable. 

Even if you haven’t engaged in creative projects before, try to do so now. Once again, it will get you out of your head. Try writing/journaling, painting, an art class, a music class — the possibilities are endless! Writing in a journal is one of my favorites; I have had journals for many years. You can write conversations with your depression and anxiety and see what you learn. 

8. Mix and match various coping techniques.

There are more obvious suggestions that you will find in other articles, but I will briefly mention a few of them here. Paying attention to your body’s needs — such as food sensitivities, hormone imbalances, sleep, and hydration — may seem like a standard thing to do. But as an HSP, you might forget about your physical well-being. However, do not ignore what your body is telling you. This includes having human/animal contact, like getting hugs or snuggling with your puppy. Even wearing your favorite sweater can ease some of your angst. And, finally, there may be times when you need to cry. It can be such a relief to just let go. And that’s perfectly okay — and healthy, in fact.

And remember: There are real reasons for your anxiety and your depression. You are not “too sensitive,” “too dramatic,” or “too high-maintenance.” Recognizing that your anxiety and depression often makes sense, you can stop berating yourself about it. That is a good beginning. And seeking out help — and self-soothing strategies — is the next step.

For more suggestions and resources, read Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth.

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