Depression Hits Differently When You’re an HSP. Here’s How to Handle It.

A highly sensitive person gazing to the side, looking strong as he works to overcome his depression

Nearly 1 in 3 people are wired to feel emotions very strongly. So what does that mean for depression — and overcoming it?

I am no stranger to depression. I experienced my first major depressive episode when I was a sophomore in college and was bewildered by the symptoms: my sudden inability to focus in class, sleep well, or enjoy my usual activities.  

Depression hit me hard and fast, and the physiological, mental, and emotional changes I experienced were bewildering and, quite honestly, terrifying at times. There was so much I couldn’t understand about it — why was I suddenly earning C’s instead of my typical straight A’s? Why wasn’t running, the exercise that always made me feel better, no longer cutting it for me? Why was it so hard to fall asleep and get up in the morning?  

There were days when simply getting out of bed was nearly impossible, and if it weren’t for the support of my family and friends, a therapist, and a fierce commitment to my studies, I might have dropped out of college. Luckily, I managed to come through the other side of my depression and graduate in a timely manner. 

Since that time, over twenty years ago, I often wonder what precipitated that event. With distance and time, I understand that it was a combination of factors: unaddressed past trauma, genetics, a recent stressful experience, and living in a culture that is not particularly validating of highly sensitive people (HSPs) like me.

I’ve also come to understand, through the work of Johann Hari, author of the book, Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope, that depression is not an enemy to be slain, but it “is a message, and we must listen to the message,” as it is trying to tell us something important.

So the question is: Does depression hit harder for those who are highly sensitive?

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Does Depression Hit Highly Sensitive People Harder?

For a long time, researchers thought highly sensitive people may be more likely to suffer from depression, because there is some data to suggest that. And, it’s true that sensitive people can be affected strongly by negative experiences, and feel emotions intensely compared to others. This means that depression may indeed hit highly sensitive people “harder,” in the sense that they may feel more mired in it. But, according to authors Andre Sólo and Jenn Granneman in their new book, Sensitive, that may be only part of the story. In reality, they say, HSPs are more influenced by anything in their environment — the supportive things as well as the stressful things. That means that HSPs who cultivate sources of support in their own day-to-day lives may actually be more capable of overcoming depression than less-sensitive people are. 

I have experienced both parts of this equation. Since my sophomore year, I have experienced depression on and off again. Once you’re in it, you’re in it. Like a warrior-surfer, you have to ride the big wave until you’re through to the other side, and that may take a few days, a few weeks, or even a few months.  For some, even a few years! 

At this point, you can’t fight it, so don’t even try — trust me, I know! — but you can make changes that start to reduce the pain, improve your daily experience, and help you get through depression faster and in better mental health. As I’ve learned to listen to, and honor, the valuable messages underlying depression, I’ve become much more skilled at preventing it, as well as lessening its intensity when I’m in it. Here are the five things that have helped me with my depression the most.

5 Ways to Beat Depression as an HSP

1. Practice radical self-compassion and treat yourself with kindness.

According to Kristen Neff, author of Self-Compassion, “[it] is one of the most powerful sources of coping and resilience we have available to us, radically improving our mental and physical wellbeing.” Know that you are absolutely worthy of treating yourself with the kindness you would bestow upon a child or a best friend, especially when you are going through a depressive episode.

Even when you feel like you don’t have access to your own self-compassion, that’s okay, too. In that case, imagine what a loving, caring person in your life would say to you, and start from there.

2. Turn to social supports, such as trusted friends or loved ones who “get” you.

Surrounding yourself with at least a few people and/or beloved animal companions — sensitive people have a special bond with animals anyway! — who understand and care for you is critical, especially when you’re depressed.  

Whenever I’m in this state, I call my best friend and unashamedly ask her to tell me what she loves about me, and she always delivers! She knows that when I’m feeling low, I need extra love and words of affirmation. And, interestingly, by turning to her for support, I actually am giving her the gift of being a good friend to me.

3. Move your body, whether you go for a run or do yoga.

Even when it feels impossible, befriend and move your body in a way that gets your heart pumping and makes you feel strong. You might try going on a bike ride, taking a walk or going for a run around the block, or doing yoga poses (especially warrior ones). 

Whatever you decide, it’s important simply to MOVE. This way, you’ll help transform any negative thoughts and energy into positive action.

For me, my go-to is to climb the wall at my rock gym to remember what it feels like to be strong and empowered. And if you can’t get yourself to move, engage in some radical self-compassion — and remember that you can try again the next day. 

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.

4. Try out expressive art therapy, like writing, painting, or even dancing.

As an expressive arts therapist in training, I am learning the value of engaging in all art forms, including visual art, creative writing, drama, dance/movement, and music. When I feel depressed, I sometimes turn to singing and dancing to a deeply melancholic or passionately angry song in the privacy of my room, which can feel soooo good. Or, I might draw out some raw emotion on paper using chalky soft pastels… or write some poetry.  

The arts are a safe, contained, and playful way to express even the darkest of emotions, and it is the process, not necessarily the product, that offers the most healing. Plus, HSPs are naturally creative, so now’s the time to channel that creativity!

5. Do dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).  

Originally intended to help people with borderline personality disorder, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) offers incredible psychoeducational tools to help people struggling with depression, too. It provides training in four key modules, including mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness.  

What I particularly like about DBT in Marsha M. Linehan’s book, DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, is its practical approach to dealing with intense emotions, such as practicing “opposite action” or “problem solving.” Sometimes, all it takes is solving a particular problem or gaining a new perspective on it to come out of it. And with our innate deep thinking skills as sensitive people, this is right up our alley!

How to Prevent Depression as a Highly Sensitive Person

Now, while it’s important to have tools to find one’s way through depression, it is equally important to create a life that minimizes depression’s return. Of course, you can’t always control whether or not you will have depression, so it is best to focus on the things you can control. But here are a few strategies I use to keep depression at bay.

1. Plan something to look forward to.  

Due to my years as a teacher, I have learned how to plan well, and that now includes planning for fun and self-care in my life. Every Sunday, I look at my calendar and make sure to plan at least two fun events to look forward to for the week. It can be something as simple as a picnic in the park with a friend or tickets to see a play. This keeps my enthusiasm for life alive and well.

2. Build community and connect with other like-minded people.

As an HSP, it is not always easy to build community, given that we are a minority. Nevertheless, there are many communities that exist that do work well for us! Consider joining a writer’s group, chorus, hiking group, volunteer organization, or try looking for an HSP Meetup group in your city!  

There are many people out there who want to connect with someone just like you — as a sensitive person, you have much to offer! With a community in your life, depression is less likely to encroach. Plus, we HSPs thrive on having a purpose!

3. See a therapist  or coach of some kind, whether it’s a life coach, career coach, or whatever suits you best.

Having a therapist or coach that you see regularly can potentially prevent the spiral into depression, as you have someone to support you as you navigate the ups and downs of life. (Plus, in general, therapy is important for highly sensitive people!)

I personally only see therapists who know what it is to be a highly sensitive person so that I will feel validated and understood with regard to my unique emotions and experiences. Too many medical practitioners don’t get what it’s like to be an HSP!

4. Have a nightly reflection and gratitude practice.  

Every night before bed, I say at least 10 things I’m grateful for, and I have found this to be incredibly helpful for reframing my life. Research has also found that expressing gratitude helps boost one’s mood.

I also reflect on the events of my day and acknowledge all the ways I did something well, and all the ways I contributed something positive to others’ lives. If you write these down in a journal, you will have the added benefit of turning to this list when you’re starting to spiral into a low mood to remind you of how much value you bring to the world.

Depression is not easy for anyone, but it is especially trying for HSPs — we are beautiful, deep-feeling creatures tasked with experiencing both the highs and lows of life. But, with self-compassion, support from loved ones, and effective strategies, we can find our way through it, and gain even more wisdom and a deeper understanding of who we are and what truly matters to us.

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