Sensitive people are actually no more fearful than anyone else, but we respond to fear differently — and strongly. Here’s how to overcome it.
The motor revved as it propelled the boat out into the Arabian Sea. The wind rushing by, the water spraying on us as we crashed and climbed waves, and the views of dolphins and dramatic cliffs were majestic — and more than filled up my adventure quota as a cautious, sensitive person for the year.
Just when things were going great, the sound of the engine died down. I looked behind me. Land seemed far away. I peered over the edge of the boat. I couldn’t see the floor of the ocean, only the reflection of the clear, cloudless sky disfigured by the uneven, frothy sea.
The guide mumbled.
“Why are we stopping?” I asked my husband. “What did he say?”
“He said we can get in the water.”
I was appalled. “Why??”
“To swim in the sea.” I could hear the excitement in his voice. My husband is not as sensitive as I am, and having planned for this experience, he was really looking forward to it
“You go. I’m happy in the boat,” I said.
He asked again just to be sure and got into the water. Others went in too. Little kids jumped in behind their parents. An older woman climbed down the ladder and floated, chin to the sky. The boat was empty now, save me and someone’s grandmother.
The guide, noticing this, came back and urged me to “just try it”. After long minutes of persuasion, I gave in and climbed down the ladder myself.
But I couldn’t feel the ocean bed. So, I held on to the railing. After more convincing, I let go of the boat and clung to my husband’s neck.
“Let go,” others around me urged. “You will float.”
But I was terrified. What if I don’t? What if I do and I float away? What if there are sharks? In a few moments I clambered back onto the deck, soaking wet, grateful to be alive.
The guide probably thought I was missing out on so much when I was just sitting in the boat. Fear, he might have thought, limited me. But, for me, as a highly sensitive person (HSP), getting into the deep waters when I hadn’t the faintest clue how to swim was unnecessary and overwhelmingly scary.
I think many HSPs feel this way: we are nervous about things when others aren’t. We hold back. Maybe we even seem more fearful than others. And it can feel like it limits us — or simply make us stand out.
The good news is that in such cases our fear isn’t always what it seems. And, if we want to, we can learn how to handle our fear so that we get to do the things we want to (without getting reckless). In this article we’ll look at how HSPs respond to scary situations, why we’re wired that way, and how we can conquer our fears.
Why do we really experience fear?
Fear is often thought of as a crutch, something that always holds us back and derails our desires. This narrative makes it seem like the sole purpose of fear is to cause physical, emotional and social inconvenience. Like fear is a super villain out to destroy us.
But the science behind fear shows that it is actually the opposite: Fear exists to keep us safe. According to neuroscientist Ralph Adolph in his impressive research review, fear is a state caused by stimuli that indicate a threat to our safety. In response the fear state launches a set of biochemical and physiological changes. We feel on edge. We might run away. We may get defensive and prepare to fight. This arousal is the body’s way of helping us neutralize the threat, and fear is the fire that kindles the process. So fear is not the enemy. It’s more of an ally.
But that is not to say that fear always helps us. There are times when our faithful friend — fear — does hold us back. It keeps us from doing things that we know we will enjoy.
Highly Sensitive People Aren’t ‘More’ Afraid. We’re Afraid Differently.
Because HSPs don’t jump head-first into things they’re unfamiliar with, people often see sensitive people as more afraid. But being an HSP doesn’t mean being a fearful person. We actually fear things only as much as everyone else does. What’s unique about us, though, is how we approach and deal with danger.
Brain studies suggest that as highly sensitive people, we naturally think through situations in more depth. Or, as Andre Sólo and Jenn Granneman phrased it in their bestselling book Sensitive, “Sensitive people are like military strategists, considering all the angles to maximize the chance of a win.” So, when we find ourselves in an unfamiliar situation, as HSPs, we consider all possible outcomes — including potential problems.
(We also detect and notice more subtle stimuli than less-sensitive people, meaning we may be aware of more real and potential threats than others are. That’s a feature, not a bug.)
However, we are often told that we “shouldn’t go there.” That we shouldn’t think of ways things could go wrong. People give us this advice to prevent us from catastrophizing and despairing. But just putting aside our fears may not be the best course of action for HSPs — and it certainly isn’t the most comfortable.
Instead, based on my experience as a medical doctor and a highly sensitive person myself, there are five specific strategies HSPs can use to safely (and calmly) confront their fears, and overcome them when needed.
5 Strategies to Conquer Your Fear as an HSP
1. Hear Out The Fear
If fears are our body’s way of protecting us, it’s a good idea to pause and assess the situation. Check if there is danger. Research shows that this is how HSPs prefer to operate: When we are exposed to something new, we “pause to check”. Doing so allows us to gather sufficient information and think through what to do next. You can harness this to overcome your fear, however, by viewing it as a “first step” — don’t take the fear as absolutely true (maybe it really is safe to swim near the boat!), but take it seriously and evaluate.
When you hear out your fears, it’s like being a friend listening to another friend’s concern; you get a clearer understanding of yourself, your environment, and why you are afraid. Hearing out your fears also helps you address them. Sometimes, as you think it through, you might realize that you are safe or you might find yourself getting familiar with the once-scary situation. You might even notice that the fear subsides on its own. Other times, hearing the fear out will help you understand where the problem lies and get specific assistance.
Here’s an example of how “hearing out the fear” might look:
There was a brook by my house that I loved visiting whenever I needed to think or be alone. It was dry most of the year, but lush bamboo grew on either side, touching leaves mid-air to create a canopy. One morning, while crossing it to get to school, I saw a snake wriggling in the branches as it swallowed its prey. I ran. For a few weeks, I felt wary of going back into the dry stream. But I also missed my thinking spot. Hearing out my fear meant acknowledging that it was a real threat; the brook was known to house venomous snakes and I needed to be careful.
But, because I loved the brook so much, I sat with my fear and thought through it more. I decided to address it: Since the fear was around snakes, I learned more about serpents and how to tell apart the poisonous ones from the harmless ones. Over time, I began to be fascinated by them. Once I had gained enough insight into the situation, not only did I return to the brook, I actually went hoping I’d see another snake.
2. Accept Some Fears (But Not All of Them)
Once we have heard out our fears, we can figure out what to do with them. Now, as humans, we fear numerous things. It could be external threats, like large expanses of water or spiders, or internal struggles — like deciding if it’s worth being authentic when that risks rejection. Not all of these fears need to be overcome. Further, for the HSP, trying to tackle them all might feel daunting and cause overwhelm. (Facing our fears takes considerable energy!) So, be selective about which fears are really worth addressing.
For instance, a friend told me that after experiencing trauma, she was afraid of men. This was affecting her life and limiting her opportunities. Because she wanted to live a fulfilling life without regrets, she decided to work through her fear of men. “I’m also afraid of rats, though,” she continued. “But I don’t think that’s a fear I would bother working on unless I’m going on a show like Fear Factor.” The lesson I learned from her is that we don’t have to try to conquer all our fears. We can pick our battles. And a good indicator of a fear to deal with is if it’s stopping you from doing something you want to do.
3. Imagine the Worst Case — and How to Handle It
HSPs often try to avoid imagining the worst-case scenario, because it can be emotionally taxing, and plenty of well-intentioned others will tell us to try to put our fears out of our mind. But, if you approach it right, the opposite may work better.
Specifically, you might find that it’s helpful to let the scenario play out in your mind, and then plan for how you would handle it. Preparing for setbacks can actually remind us that we can handle the situation. It reduces the intensity of our fear, and increases confidence instead. (In fact, imagining how you’d handle an emergency is so powerful that, according to Stanford psychologist Phil Zimbardo, it’s one of the factors that gets people to behave heroically in a crisis rather than freezing up.) Plus, if by chance the situation does worsen, you will have a course of action to follow.
4. Practice Skills to Take On Your Fear
Once you’ve done the internal work, you might be ready to deal with your fear. However, you don’t have to face them head on the moment you recognize and understand them. Rather, you can challenge your fears incrementally in simulated environments, getting yourself ready for the real deal. In other words: you can practice.
With practice comes familiarity, and things that felt horrifying to begin with start to get less frightening. Practice also means you can learn more about what alarms you, just as I did with snakes. And you can become more capable of dealing with similarly threatening situations in the future. (For example, If I wanted to, I could learn to swim so the deep ocean doesn’t frighten me.)
I put this into practice a few years ago, after a speech I delivered fell flat: No one laughed at my jokes. There were no nods of understanding. In fact, a friend even slid down in their seat out of embarrassment for me. The experience made me feel self-conscious and afraid to speak in public again.
However, because I love sharing my ideas, I decided to work on this fear. I got in touch with a professional speaker, learned from her, wrote multiple iterations of potential speeches, and I practiced (sometimes looking in the mirror, other times in front of my trainer, family, or friends).
When it was time to give my next speech, I wasn’t afraid. I could engage with my audience and several people told me later that they learned a lot from it. And the more speeches I gave, the more comfortable I became with them.
This same idea is employed in exposure therapy, a psychological treatment that professionals use to help people overcome phobias and anxiety. If you feel like you need extra help dealing with a fear, exposure therapy is a safe, gradual way to do it.
5. Lean Into Your Strengths
My final tip is to look for evidence of your existing strengths. Chances are that you have dealt with scary things before. You might have even dealt with the same fear in a different situation. Remembering that you made it through those sticky situations — and remembering which of your skills and strengths helped you — can be reassuring. If you’ve done it before, you know that you have it in you to do it again.
This is the strategy I employ every time I fly. I used to be very scared of flying (mainly because I got airsick and my ears hurt). But after a few uneventful trips, I began to tell myself, “You know what to do to have a good flight. You’ve done it before; you can do it again.” This self-assurance really helps.
Sensitive Can Be Brave
HSPs may be mislabeled as risk aversive and fearful. But we are neither. We just take time to assess the situation. However, when we really want something and have the opportunity to think through how we’d mitigate the risks, we go all in with passion and enthusiasm. We highly sensitive people are strong — and we can also be brave.
This means that we don’t have to worry that we can’t chase our dreams. We don’t have to “play small” thinking that only certain jobs or experiences are within our reach. We can pretty much do whatever we set our minds to. We have it in us to conquer our fears and shoot for the stars.
You Might Like:
- The 13 Things That ‘Scare’ Highly Sensitive People the Most
- Am I a Highly Sensitive Person — Or Do I Have Anxiety?
- Why Highly Sensitive People Hate Taking Risks (And How to Make It Easier)