Anxiety and the Highly Sensitive Person
Let me be really clear from the outset, high sensitivity is not an illness or a diagnosis. It simply means that the nervous system is more sensitive than ‘normal’ and therefore picks up on more information from the world and processes it more deeply.
While a sensitive nervous system can have all sorts of benefits (like insight, intuition and empathy) it can also increases the likelihood of getting overwhelmed and overstimulated by the world.
Sometimes overstimulation or overwhelm is confused or mis-diagnosed as anxiety. The somatic experience of overstimulation is very similar to the somatic experience of anxiety, so it’s understandable that this happens. Both anxiety and overstimulation can include the heart beating faster, feeling faint, sweating, difficulty breathing, feeling strange or un-real, fear of going crazy or dying, the mind going blank, chest pain, feeling hot or abdominal discomfort.
When a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) confuses the experience of overstimulation as anxiety, it can become a self fulfilling prophecy, and they can begin to really feel anxious. With ongoing mis-identification, an anxiety disorder may develop. If a therapist mis-diagnoses overstimulation as anxiety, therapy is likely to be less effective, and the HSP may be left with ongoing anxiety and a feeling of failure.
Overstimulation, if not understood, can also be a scary experience, and therefore overstimulation can also trigger anxiety.
If you suspect you might be a Highly Sensitive Person and you’re experiencing anxiety, I recommend doing these 3 things :
- Learn all you can about high sensitivity
- Stop living like a non-sensitive person
- Learn emotion regulation practices to manage overstimulation and anxiety
I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to stop living like a non-sensitive person, and start living in a way that honors and nourishes yourself. HSPs often head into overstimulation as a result of cramming too much into one day, being in shopping centres, drinking coffee, constant exposure to loud noises and strong smells, being around toxic people and environments (emotional and chemical) and doing work or being in relationships that are not fulfilling. HSPs often thrive when they have their own personal space to retreat to, pace themselves during the day, spend time with people they love and admire, practice yoga/meditation and acknowledge and appreciate the gift of their sensitivity.
Be the creator of your world, and reduce your exposure to situations that overwhelm you. And when overwhelming situations are unavoidable, plan some down time in your day afterwards. Limiting your exposure is not avoidance (and a critical difference between the treatment for anxiety), it is a radical act of love and compassion.
Inevitably, Highly Sensitive People will experience overstimulation, overwhelm and anxiety (it’s just part of the experience of being human), and then it’s essential to be able to self regulate our emotions. One very simple way is to take some down time. Turn off your phone, lock the doors, and retreat to your bedroom for a few hours of peace and quiet.
Yoga offers some wonderful practices for self regulation, including meditation and breath work (pranayama) that helps a frazzled and overstimulated nervous system to calm down. iRest Yoga Nidra, a deeply relaxing mindfulness mediation, is my favourite way of calming the nervous system. You lie down, get really comfortable, and are guided through a gentle process of deep relaxation and simply being. You can practice yoga nidra with me either in person, or by download a recording. I’m also in the process of developing an iRest eCourse that will be available later in the year (so stay tuned).
Pranayama (breath work) is another beautiful way to calm the nervous system very quickly, and there’s some fantastic pranayama practices to help you do just this. Abdominal breathing is a very simple and very effective way to calm the nervous system, and you can do this lying down, sitting up or anywhere on the go. Just place your hands on your belly, close your eyes (if you feel comfortable closing them) and breath down into your belly, so your hands move gently and rhythmically with your breath. The belly gently expands with the inhale, and contracts with the exhale, and you continue to notice the sensation of the belly moving for as long as you practice.
I teach a full range of short yoga practices for emotion regulation like this in my online course A Daily Dose of Bliss. Each day for 6 weeks you learn a new yogic practice with me and my internationally acclaimed teaching team, and it only takes 5-10 minutes each day. The course is full of practices that are wonderful for a HSP’s overstimulated nervous system.
Wishing you all the best in your journey of nourishing and nurturing yourself,
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