By April Snow, LMFT
5 min read
How often do you find yourself worrying about getting everything done or struggling to fall asleep at night because your mind just won’t turn off? In our busy, fast-paced lives most of us have anxious feelings at least some of the time. There’s always something calling for our attention and constant pressure on us to do more. This constant overstimulation can be overwhelming for anyone, but especially if you’re a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) who is more impacted by their surroundings and needs quiet time to feel balanced. Not sure what an HSP is? In this article I explore more about this innate trait that most people haven’t heard of and how it could be linked to feelings of anxiety.
What Does Anxiety Look Like?
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental disorder in the United States affecting 19.1% of adults each year. That’s 48 million people living with significant symptoms of anxiety! That statistic doesn’t even include the mild anxiety of everyday life. Even though it can feel like everyone else has it together, you’re definitely not alone in feeling anxious, overwhelmed or worried.
Anxiety manifests in various ways and can look quite different from person to person. Common symptoms of anxiety may include:
- Feeling worried, nervous, or uneasy
- Having a busy or scattered mind
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Restlessness or physical agitation
- Digestive upset or nervous stomach
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Shallow or rapid breathing
- Irritability or anger towards others
What Causes Anxiety?
Just as there are many ways anxiety can show up, there are also many different causes of anxiety from brain chemistry to lifestyle factors to excess stress. The most common source of anxiety for Highly Sensitive People that I’ve observed is being overstimulated when there’s too much coming at us at once with no time to process or quietly reflect.
Feeling easily overstimulated is the one Achilles’ heel of being Highly Sensitive. This feeling can show up when we’re inundated by:
- Noisy or bright environments
- Too many social engagements back-to-back
- Large crowds of people
- Being overly scheduled or busy
- Multitasking for long periods of time
- Lack of quiet downtime
- High pressure situations
- Being observed during an activity
Although there is no inherent link between the trait of High Sensitivity and Anxiety, stressful or traumatic life events do make HSPs more prone to experiences of anxiety and other mental health issues. The good news is that Highly Sensitive People are also more impacted by positive supports, therapy and self-care practices.
Are You Highly Sensitive?
If you often find yourself feeling anxious or overstimulated often, you may be a Highly Sensitive Person. What does that mean? High Sensitivity is an innate trait found in about 20% of the population and in over 100 species. It’s a characteristic that people of all genders are born with that makes our brains more perceptive and our nervous systems more sensitive to our environments. This trait evolved out of a need for some members of our community to have the ability to notice the little details to keep us safe from danger, but causes some difficulty in our modern age when we’re inundated by constant input.
Common characteristics of Highly Sensitive People include:
- Depth of Processing – highly perceptive, reflect deeply, need more time for transitions and decision making.
- Overstimulation – easily overwhelmed by busy, noisy, loud, or stressful environments.
- Emotional Responsiveness and Empathy – feel everything deeply, have more active mirror neurons which is the part of the brain responsible for empathy.
- Sensitive to Subtleties and Sensory Stimuli – notice subtle details and are more impacted by loud noises, bright lights, strong smells and itchy fabrics.
If you identify with the characteristics above, you can take the Highly Sensitive Person Self-Test developed by Dr. Elaine Aron, the bestselling author and researcher on the trait.
Five Ways to Manage Anxiety
Although many people learn to live with symptoms of anxiety, there are countless ways to find relief such as lifestyle changes and self-care practices. Below I’ve included some of my favorite tools to help Highly Sensitive People reduce overstimulation and anxiety so you can feel more calm and enjoy the gifts of the trait such as heightened perception and empathy.
- Get Downtime Every Day – The next most important self-care practice is getting rid of the noise! Try setting aside at least 30 minutes each day for a quiet activity without any screens or input. You can journal, meditate, walk, play with a pet or daydream.
- Feel Your Feelings and Process Your Thoughts – Give yourself time to process your big feelings and complex thoughts. Otherwise, your mind will want to jump into action when you’re trying to sleep. Set aside some time before bed or in the morning to journal or meditate. It can also help to talk to your partner or trusted friend or seek out a licensed therapist for more in-depth processing.
- Practice Grounding – When we’re feeling anxious, it’s often because our nervous system is overstimulated and feeling frazzled. Physical grounding practices can be helpful to calm our anxious bodies. To ground yourself, try mindfully pressing your feet into the ground as you take a few slow deep breaths, gazing around and describing the colors and textures of the objects around you, practicing gentle yoga, taking hot baths, or using a Weighted Blanket.
- Incorporate Mindful Breathing – Another way to calm our nervous system is mindful breathing which activates our parasympathetic nervous system or the “rest and digest system”. The easiest way is to take a deep breath in through the nostrils and then exhale through pursed lips as if you were blowing a bubble. Square Breathing and Diaphragmatic Breathing can also be helpful.
- Reduce Stimulants – Many HSPs are sensitive to caffeine and sugar, which mimics feelings of anxiety. Begin to notice how your body responds to these substances and reduce or eliminate if needed.
Anxiety, worry and restlessness has become a common part of our daily lives, especially for Highly Sensitive People who are more prone to feeling overstimulated. The biggest culprit is being overly busy without enough quiet downtime to process our thoughts and feelings and rest our bodies. Making a few lifestyle changes and mindfully practicing self-care can help us feel less anxious and enjoy the benefits of being a Highly Sensitive Person.
April Snow, LMFT is a licensed psychotherapist in San Francisco, who specializes in working with Highly Sensitive Introverts. April strongly believes that being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) doesn’t have to stop you from living a fully engaged life and is on a mission to help HSPs create a life on their own terms so they can manage the overwhelm and start to thrive. Find out more at www.expansiveheart.com or follow on Instagram.
Stories, tips, and resources from others who have experience with anxiety can be found below:
The Young Introvert’s Social Survival Guide
How to Cancel Plans Without Feeling Guilty and Hurting Feelings
How to Transition to Seeing Your Therapist Online
How to manage your anxiety around the Coronavirus
Mental Health is a Team Sport: I Have Anxiety/Depression and my Husband Doesn’t, But We Both Fight It.