Sensitive people were designed to think. A lot. But where is the line between deep thinking and excessive worrying?
This is the first installment of Sensitive Refuge’s new advice column for highly sensitive people. Our resident advice columnist is Alane Freund, one of the world’s top therapists for HSPs. Alane has been trained by and worked closely with Elaine Aron, and is here to help you sort out your life conundrums as a sensitive person. Submit a question to Alane here.
Dear Alane, My daughter and I are both highly sensitive and we always have something to worry about. I feel like I can’t help her with her worry because I don’t even know how to deal with my own! I wish we could just turn both our brains off and stop thinking so much about every little thing. How can I help her (and help myself!) to worry less? —Always Worrying
Dear Always Worrying,
First things first. Worry is our birthright as highly sensitive people. We see it in the youngest among us. I would say it’s a feature and not a bug of our deeply processing brains, but honestly, it can be both!
For example, I remember standing on the high diving board at the public pool as a tween. I can still feel the pressure of the line of kids waiting and jeering as I stood frozen, staring at the water beyond my toes. It wasn’t that I was scared (well, maybe I was a little), I just needed to pause and think before going literally overboard. I just needed a bit more time and a little less pressure – two things kids impatiently awaiting their turns rarely extend.
We sensitive ones were designed to think. A lot. But where is the line between thinking and worrying? And why do some of us cross the line and get lost on the wrong side of it?
And, AW, you’re a parent. Parents become even bigger worriers when our children worry. It can be a tricky cycle — even a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it may be helpful to know we come by our honestly, as do most animals, even flies and fish. Worrying is baked into how nature built our brains.
Nature Made You Worry for a Reason
There are two basic strategies for how people (and animals) behave in the world, particularly in responding to their environment. In fact, in a 2008 study, biologists documented these same two strategies in over one hundred species.
So what are the two strategies?
The first one is to just go for it — and if it doesn’t work, go for it again.
The second one is to do it once and do it right.
Scientists refer to the “just go for it” strategy as a nonresponsive, impulsive, or non-sensitive reaction. It doesn’t take much into consideration, nor does it scan the circumstances and evaluate the best course of action. Instead, it’s opportunistic. It perceives a possible, positive outcome, and it pursues it, and it often pays off. (Thank goodness most people are like this so things get done!)
In contrast, the second strategy is called a responsive, reflective, reactive, or sensitive reaction. This strategy takes advantage of processing the information at hand. It charts a course of action based on all the known facts, hoping to maximize the outcome and minimize the risk. This is what sensitivity researcher Elaine Aron calls the “pause-to-check” response — and it’s a central feature of a highly sensitive person’s brain. Basically, we sensitive people want to get things right the first time. We are careful and deliberate about our actions. And thank goodness humanity has us here thinking more carefully (and hopefully advising the go-for-it majority).
I utilized my ‘pause-to-check’ response on the diving board all those years ago. And, although diving boards are mostly safe, this same response can often make a life-or-death difference.
Scientists have observed this in a remarkable range of species. I love the example of the Pumpkinseed Sunfish, which one study labeled as either “bold” or “timid” when a new trap was set in their pond. Many of the fish boldly swam right into the trap, but a smaller number hesitated before swimming, presumably detecting that there was something new in their environment. From my perspective, the “timid” fish looked pretty smart. Their pause to respond to the environment kept them safe.
So, far from being a hindrance or shortcoming, the “pause to check” response is actually evidence of a sensitive person’s subtle perception and depth of processing. As highly sensitive people (HSPs), our more reactive brains make us more aware of physical subtleties, more emotionally tuned in, and more thoughtful about it all — which Elaine Aron and I esteem as emotional leadership. Emotional leadership means leading with your emotions and empathy, but it also means you will have emotional responses before those who are less sensitive — often the same emotions others might have but take longer to access. You can and should draw from these strengths to advise the more impulsive people in your life and guide those around you to wise action.
But the “pause to check” response comes with a byproduct: worry. Sometimes even unnecessary worry. Not every pond has a trap in it, but the HSP mind is inclined to check every pond just in case. And that can become very frustrating if it turns into constant worry — or seeing your sensitive child worry.
So, AW, how do you make the worrying stop? It starts with changing the way you interact with your deep processing — and transforming the worry into something useful.
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How to Transform Worry Into Beneficial, Actionable Processing
Take a minute to think back to the Pumpkinseed Sunfish in the pond. Remember how researchers called it “timid” — and how it actually helped the fish avoid a trap? We sensitive people are neither timid nor fearful by nature. We just want to do it right the first time. Like my tweenage self, standing on the high diving board, we do what we need to do to get ready before we take the plunge.
And if we would just give ourselves (and our kids) the time we need to stop and think, we can surprise ourselves and everyone around us with our courage and willingness. (It’s no mistake that HSPs are positively correlated with the personality trait of openness — in the absence of time pressure, highly sensitive people can be braver and more willing to try new things because we think them through ahead of time!
So, AW, iIt might be helpful to practice replacing the label “worry” with “processing.” You are processing a concerning situation or a possibility. Whereas worrying makes us feel bad, processing a situation opens us up to solutions.
Of course, the world today isn’t structured to give sensitive folks the time we need to ready ourselves. Nor does it equip us with the tools we need to keep our thinking on track toward a productive outcome. Without adequate time or tools, our careful thinking can spiral into the worry loop. So, here is a process I often recommend to my worrier clients (including adults and youth). I call them The Four D’s.
The Four D’s for Navigating Worry
The four D’s for navigating worry are:
We could also call this deep processing. Our sensitive brains are wired to deliberate. Again, we just need time to process all our subtle noticing. But it’s important to distinguish productive deliberation from harmful ruminating. I often suggest HSPs set a time limit on deliberation. Yes, we do need extra time to process, but we also need to help our brains move out of deliberation and into action or decision (which, not coincidentally, is another of my Four D’s.) So if you’re struggling with rumination, try setting a timer and allowing your brain to do its thing for a set time (as little as two minutes, as much as ten.) Then, get out of your head. Get up, go for a walk, do a chore, listen to music or a podcast, or read a book. Anything that helps your brain switch out of deliberation mode.
A helpful follow-up to deliberation is discussion. While it’s true that many HSPs are internal processors, meaning we don’t always feel the need to discuss things with someone else, there is still merit in hearing your thoughts out loud. Sometimes I even talk it out with myself. You might think I’m weird, but just hearing our thoughts out loud can help even without a great listener. Of course, if you have a great listener handy, that’s a plus!
This means being the boss of your brain to understand the pros and cons of all that thinking. It takes practice and intention to actually do something with all the deliberation that comes naturally to us. This is often the missing step for HSPs. We never get around to making the judgment call so we get stuck in the worry loop. But our sensitive brains evolved for a reason. Not to get us lost in worry, but to guide us to discernment. Just as you can trust your deliberation, you can trust your sensitive discernment to guide you in the way to go. This might also look like making a list of pros and cons, researching the options, or asking a wise mentor their opinion.
Once we get comfortable with discernment, decisions come far more easily. Whether it’s choosing what to order from the menu, which accommodation to book, or which choice to bubble in on a test, decisions are the productive outcomes of our deep processing. Set a deadline for your decision and if all else fails, flip a coin. If you don’t like the results, you know the other choice was right. The point is that making decisions and taking action are what prevent our worry from consuming us. They’re the evolutionarily intended purpose of our sensitive brains.
For all the ‘Always Worriers’ out there, give The Four D’s a try the next time you find yourself worrying over something, no matter how big or small. Put all your deep processing to work for you toward an actionable step or solution so it doesn’t work against you in defeating worry. You may decide to jump off the high dive or carefully climb back down the ladder. Either way, you can trust your process and its outcome.
Worrying may be our birthright, but processing is our superpower. Let’s put it to good use!
Do you have your own ‘high dive’ moment? I would love to hear about it in the comments, and remember to send in your question for the next Ask Alane column. Click here to submit your question.
Special workshop for highly sensitive people: Alane Freund, MS, MA, invites you to join her bimonthly “Are You Highly Sensitive?” workshops. Each is an online masterclass on a special topic for HSP adults and youth. Learn more here.
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