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Anxiety and the Highly Sensitive Person

by | Jun 7, 2015 | Uncategorized

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  :

  1. Learn all you can about high sensitivity
  2. Stop living like a non-sensitive person
  3. Learn emotion regulation practices to manage overstimulation and anxiety

Understanding high sensitivity, particularly your unique expression of this trait is vital.  I recommend taking this test and reading this book to get you started.

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,

4 Comments

  1. Jo

    Thanks Lauren for your most helpful information. I’m an HSP and have something extra to add which has helped me so much. I discovered I was extremely low in zinc, magnezium and B12 (due to a medical condition call Pyrrolia) and since taking these supplements daily (GP prescribed) I’ve made a very noticable improvement in my ability to deal with stressful situations, anxiety overload and just being around people in general. I can manage these things so much better, now that my cells have the nourishment they need. Lots of love x Jo

    Reply
    • Lauren Tober

      My pleasure Jo. Thanks for sharing your experience. When we’re constantly in overwhelm our bodies become stressed and exhausted, and it’s not uncommon to end up depleted or with any number of chronic conditions. So glad to hear you’re managing life well now 🙂

      Reply
  2. Orendaquest

    I too, constantly moved as the child of a military family. Growing up, I was, also, molested and verbally abused. I left home at 14 years old and, not surprisingly, got involved in an abusive relationship with someone a couple of years later and got pregnant. I dealt with his drug and alcohol abuse, along with the physical and verbal abuse for a couple of years, until one day when his anger turned into a threat against my child. That was the end my first marriage. For 12 years I remained single but in and out of relationships. I remarried at 29. He was a very nice, caring person… and this started making me uncomfortable but I could not figure out why. The day that we were married I found out that he had been being dishonest with both me and his family about our relationship and had never told them that I have a child. This hurt me deeply and I started looking more closely at things and came to see that he would not tell me things if he thought that they might upset me. He had grown up very sheltered and this was his way of trying to protect me, which did not work for me because I saw this as a betrayal, a lie. He was using his own coping mechanism. I started to feel like he didn’t think that I was good enough for him and our relationship ended very quickly and abruptly, my doing. I started another relationship, with someone, had a baby, a few years later ended that relationship due to abuse also. One day I started thinking about the patterns in my Life and why I kept repeating them. I came to realize that I was “stuck” because although I hated being hurt and abused I was used to it. I thought that I liked being around people but came to realize that I don’t. I started writing and journaling and found out things about myself that I had forgotten, like how I would feel what my mother would want or need before she told me and how that made her angry, about how I would frequently know things before they would happen, about how I knew that one of my friends was trying to commit suicide and I called her parents and they saved her. I was highly sensitive and I tried to shut down that side of myself because I learned at an early age that it made people uncomfortable with me. All I ended up doing was hurting and losing myself. I am, now, 52 years old and live Alone. I like being Alone, it feels Safe. Being around people is very draining. I am currently looking to change employment because I am so drained and exhausted from stress by the end of the day that I can barely function sometimes. I used to think that I thrived on stress bit that is untrue. I think that I was just used to stress and possibly used to the physical flight or flight endorphins. I am looking to change all of that and go back to who I really am. I used to meditate and I have started doing that and practicing mindfulness and it is helping. I know that once I get back to this, the World will open up to me and things will fall into place as they should.

    Reply
    • Lauren Tober

      Thanks for sharing your story Orendaquest. I’m glad to hear that meditation and mindfulness are helping and I wish you all the best on your journey 🙂

      Reply

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