Sense and Sensitivity

The ups and downs of daily life as a Highly Sensitive Person

Coping with Anxiety as an HSP

How to face your fears and deal with anxiety.

Being highly sensitive means that you are subjected to a daily, if not hourly, dose of other people’s feelings. When you combine that with the sensory overload most of us face, including too much noise, lights, crowds and a overly rushed pace that feels frantic, many HSPs are left feeling shaken by their experiences. Another word for this shaken feeling is anxiety and it is common among highly sensitive people. Knowing that you are susceptible to feelings of anxiety, however, means that you can help yourself through the tough times.

So what exactly is anxiety? You can recognise anxiety by that jittery, nervous feeling we all experience before a job interview or a first date. Our hands start sweating and our heart starts beating faster. Our mouth goes dry as our body becomes flooded with adrenaline, a hormone that is released when we are afraid. Anxiety makes it hard to concentrate, to eat and to sleep and we become fixated on the issue that is causing us to feel anxious. We can easily begin to panic.

Because highly sensitive people absorb so much stimulation from their environment, we are more susceptible to these feelings of anxiety. A recent study showed that people with a more sensitive ‘startle’ reflex, that is, highly sensitive people, are more susceptible to anxiety disorders because we have different genes than others, making it harder for us to deal with emotional arousal.

This nervous feeling is a normal reaction to something that we’re afraid of. Emotions can help us to become aware of our environment and take action, driving us to ‘fight or flight’. While this kind of reaction was very helpful when we were living amongst wild boars and hungry hyenas (who wouldn’t be grateful for a built-in run-for-your-life response?) it can become debilitating when the problem is not the approach of a tiger but an upcoming deadline or a missed phone call. You remain seated at work or at home, but your body still reacts as though you need to move fast and so it gets your blood pumping, ready for action. When you don’t release that physical energy by, say, running after the tiger with a spear, you suddenly find yourself shaking, sweating, biting your nails and obsessively thinking about the issue at hand, unable to make it go away.

Besides the physical reactions, ‘anxiety can make you more fearful, alert, on edge, irritable, and unable to relax or concentrate. You may feel an overwhelming desire to seek the reassurance of others, to be weepy and dependent.’ (Mind) It affects the way you think, so that you start imagining the worst. HSPs tend to be creative and have very active imaginations, so this can contribute to the negative fantasising that goes on in our minds when someone is late or a friend lets you down. It can become very difficult to remain calm and convince yourself that there’s nothing to worry about.

You can, however, help yourself cope with your anxious feelings. Being aware that, as a highly sensitive person, you are likely to feel anxious at times means that you can learn to deal with it as it happens. Here’s the first steps:

1. Learn to recognise the signs and symptoms of anxiety, such as a dry mouth or beating heart.

2. Don’t run away from what’s frightening you. That will only make your anxious feelings worse. Face it and remind yourself that it’s only fear. You will get through it and feel better.

3. Remember that all the end-of-the-world scenarios in your mind are figments of your imagination. They aren’t real, so let them go.

4. Breathe. We often begin to breathe very shallowly when we’re afraid, making it harder to relax. Take a few deep breaths and you’ll feel calmer.

5. Try relaxation techniques to help you cope with stress, such a meditation or yoga or listening to music. Exercise is a very effective way to burn off the adrenaline creating your symptoms.

6. If your relationships are making you feel anxious, you might need to develop clearer boundaries so that you can avoid the sources of your fear and protect yourself. Relationships with narcissists in particular can be debilitating for HSPs and trigger all kinds of fears. Let them go.

If you can take control of your anxiety, you can take control of your life and you'll find that your fears are no longer holding you back from the joy and peace you deserve.

Deborah Ward's new book, Overcoming Fear with Mindfulness, is available now.

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