Highly Sensitive Refuge
An overthinker looking stressed andtrying to calm down

16 Ways to Calm the Heck Down When You’re a Highly Sensitive Overthinker

There are tried and true ways to change your response to stressful situations, even if you’re a deep thinker — or “overthinker.”

There are so many reasons to be anxious these days. So. Many. Reasons.  

Anxiety is a particular challenge for people with finely tuned nervous systems, acute perception, complex thinking capacities, vivid imaginations, extra empathy, perfectionistic tendencies, or trauma in childhood. People who think deeply about — or “overthink” — everything.

I happen to check all those boxes. I’m a highly sensitive person — and yes, I struggle with anxiety. 

Your anxiety may manifest in any number of ways: Your very active, creative mind imagines unending catastrophes. You feel constantly overwhelmed by the news. You want to strangle your neighbor, who uses her leaf blower to clear the dust off her driveway every morning. You can’t stop ruminating about the sad story you just heard on NPR. The chaos at birthday parties leaves you and your child shrieking. You have migraines, allergies, or insomnia. Or, if you have PTSD from childhood trauma, you may feel grief, anger, depression, or despair for what feels like no clear reason. 

No matter how your anxiety appears, take heart: There are tried and true ways to alleviate your body’s and your mind’s response to stressful situations. Here are 16 suggestions for the next time it all feels like too much. 

16 Ways You Can Ease Your Anxiety

1. Start to break the connection between perfectionism, procrastination, and anxiety.

If a drive for perfection causes you to procrastinate, which in turn creates anxiety, try reading Procrastination by Jane Burka and Leonora Yuen. It is an in-depth description of the many complex reasons for procrastination and perfectionism and how you can make necessary changes.

2. Learn what it means to “self-soothe” — and how to activate it when it feels impossible.

“Self-soothing” means knowing how to do for yourself what we often wish others would do for us: comfort, calm, and reassure. This is the number one skill to use when your mind is racing with worries and doubts — but that’s exactly when it’s hardest to actually do it.

(Example: how many times have we all heard that we should create a daily meditation practice, and how easy is it to actually do it?)

So, instead of relying on sheer will, get the tools that make it easy. Many different apps exist for meditation, such as Calm, Insight Timer, and Headspace. For clarity, some people have found doing morning pages from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way to be useful — which encourages people to write in a stream-of-consciousness style every morning.

You can choose your own tools. The point is: have them ready when everything feels like too much.

3. Collect calming wisdom in the good times, and turn to it in the “overthinky” times.

This can be as simple as a list of reminders from your best self. Here are some examples: 

  • My body tends to be anxious, but I’m actually safe right now. I am not in danger.
  • Am I catastrophizing? Do I need to be this upset? 
  • I’m older now and I have more control over my experiences. 
  • I’m a fallible human — I make mistakes, like everyone. Making a mistake does not make me a bad person. 
  • When I feel peaceful and calm, I am more productive. 
  • Even when outer events are disturbing, I have a right to feel calm. 
  • Self-care and self-compassion will benefit everyone I know. 
  • There are many people who are working to make the world a better place. 

4. Forgive yourself for not being perfect.

You have great compassion for others. Let yourself receive some of that sweetness, too. Ask for help. Pay attention when friends and family reach out to help you. Let them. 

5. Instead of freezing and shrinking — expand.

You know how fear tends to make you want to freeze or shrink or push it away? Instead, notice it and be with it. Where do you feel it in your body? Remember that it is just a part of you — not all of you. And you are bigger than it. As odd as it sounds, welcome the anxiety. Imagine yourself expanding. Breathe and expand and keep expanding. 

The more you practice breathing in the face of fear, the easier it will be to get into a peaceful state. You may even begin to feel more connected to your higher self and the love that’s in you and around you. And if you want to take it one step further, turn it into a tonglen practice (from Pema Chodron) where you breathe in all the world’s anxiety — seriously! — and you breathe out love to everyone, including yourself.

6. Plan your escape hatch before you actually need it.

Keep this one in your back pocket for when social distancing is over and we’re all at big, loud public events again. Sit on the edge of the crowd or closer to the back so you can make a quiet escape. Move chairs around so you aren’t right next to someone. Breathe deeply and imagine undesirable energy moving through you and out into the ground. Let the earth transform it.

7. Walk, dance, shake, exercise, sing!

Do anything vigorous and playful that you’re able to do with your body. Don’t worry if it feels silly. This is how you transform mental anxiety into physical energy, and then let it loose. 

8. Tune into your body’s subtle needs — especially the ones you may have been overlooking.

Speaking of physical energy, be aware of any food sensitivities, hormone imbalances, or sleep deprivation that might be affecting yours. Naturopathy, acupuncture, massages, or energy work can be helpful. 

9. Keep a journal and write heart-to-hearts with your anxiety. 

Visualize the anxiety as a person and get curious. Ask why it continues to hang around. You may be surprised by the answers. Your anxiety may have something to teach you. If you give it attention, it may calm down and even share an insight or two.

10. Experiment with approaches you haven’t tried yet — even if they’re outside the box.

Try one of psychologist Belleruth Naparstek’s guided imagery CDs on anxiety, stress reduction, or healthy sleep. Read about the role the heart plays in health — I recommend the Heartmath Institute — and see about trying one of their devices to improve what’s called your “heart rate variability” and reduce your stress. Look at tapping videos from Julie Schiffman to learn about a technique that many have found quite calming. 

11. Find your sense of humor — especially when it’s absurd.

If you are alone in your car, scream. Maybe even scream obscenities. Avoid eye contact with passing drivers.

12. Go hug someone you love.

This includes your animals. Breathe and feel the connection with another spirit deeply in your body. (For the time being, of course, apply social distancing as appropriate — “air hugs” or a reassuring phone call can also work wonders!)

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13. If striving for perfection causes anxiety, explore whether you have a rainforest mind.

Understand that your perfectionism and anxiety might exist not because of something that you’ve done wrong, but because of the nature of growing up as a highly sensitive overthinker (sometimes called gifted or rainforest-minded). The complications begin at an early age. When you have a mind-heart-spirit that thinks widely and deeply — and which has a larger than normal capacity for analysis, creativity, and emotion — there is more opportunity for worry. You have a right to take the time to focus on your self-understanding and growth.

(You can read more about having a rainforest mind in my book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, and with the activities in my Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind.)

14. Consider working with a team of sensitive and capable practitioners.

Each of us is complicated, so there is no one practitioner or one technique that will be the perfect answer. But you don’t have to be alone with your anxiety. Find the right people to help you by choosing from among the many types of practitioners available: naturopaths, physical therapists, energy healers, shamans, teachers, coaches, and artists who will help you find the best tools for your particular needs. 

15. If you grew up in a seriously dysfunctional family, get psychotherapy. 

Events in your present life can trigger PTSD symptoms in which you are unconsciously reexperiencing trauma. You may feel anxiety that makes no sense. Psychotherapy can help you identify the triggers and learn ways to cope and to heal.

You can read more about overcoming a difficult childhood as an HSP here

16. Add more tools to your toolbox.

Lastly, if you are looking for more specific techniques to help you manage anxiety, Edmund Bourne’s The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook is thorough, and includes ways to deal with self-criticism and irrational, obsessive thinking. It also includes guidance on meditation and much more. 

And finally…

Being someone who is highly sensitive, empathetic, and a deep thinker (what some call overthinker) means you are naturally inclined to be more anxious because you have a mind-heart-spirit connection that needs to be active, or questioning, or creating, or contributing. 

That means that getting more intellectual or creative stimulation can help you feel less anxious. I hope these tips ease your anxiety and maybe even help fuel your creativity. When you feel particularly overwhelmed, just know you are not alone — and there is a way out. 

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