Highly Sensitive People are born with a genetic trait called sensory processing sensitivity. Basically, that means they have a super responsive nervous system. As a result, a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is, typically, shall we say, well acquainted with anxiety.
Let’s define anxiety, talk more about HSPs, and then discuss the overlap.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a combination of fear and stress. It is a normal, common emotion.
Think of anxiety as a form of worry, uneasiness, and/or nervousness.
Our ancestors’ anxiety helped them to fight off danger, such as animals, and to run for safety.
Anxiety helped to keep them alive by activating the fight-or-flight mechanism. The same mechanism is still in place today in our brain. It prepares us for action and orients us for safety’s sake.
Without the safety mechanism of anxiety, humans would not have survived.
These days, fight-or-flight activation can easily be a ‘false alarm’. No longer are there lions or their equivalent chasing you. The threat in the present is more benign, like having a first date or arriving late to an appointment. Much less is usually at stake than being attacked by a ferocious beast. But, our nervous system doesn’t distinguish.
So, all of us — Highly Sensitive People and people without the trait– can actually thank anxiety for the evolution of our species.
Something else important to know about anxiety is that it manifests in your mind AND body.
Anxiety shows up in the form of thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations – whether you’re a Highly Sensitive Person or not.
Let’s take the ferocious beast example to illustrate how anxiety manifests.
A large, scary, growling animal is coming toward you. You think something like, “Oh s**t! He is going to eat/hurt/maul me.”! You feel fear. Your body goes into fight or more likely flight mode. Your heart rate and pulse increase, preparing your body to RUN like the wind!
Anxiety is helpful. It protects you, Highly Sensitive or not, from danger.
Let’s use a first date example to illustrate how anxiety can be not-so-helpful.
You’re scheduled to meet a blind date at a busy, crowded Starbucks. You arrive early. Immediately, you start to think about the miserable blind dates you’ve had, the zit on your chin, and the stain on your shirt. You feel awkward, nervous, and overwhelmed. Your body is sweating, and your heart is beating louder than a drum.
Your blind date approaches you, and he looks older than he does in his profile photos. You feel extremely anxious, you bolt for the bathroom (flight, as in fight-or-flight), and stay there. After awhile, you leave the bathroom, hoping he will be long gone.
In this case, the anxiety was not as helpful.
This blind date example illustrates how a Highly Sensitive Person’s nervous system might respond to a similar type of scenario. (A person without the High Sensitivity trait is less likely to respond as…. strongly.)
What is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
An HSP is someone born with a trait that has four key features, summarized by the acronym, “DOES“.
- D stands for Depth of Processing:
Highly Sensitive People process things deeply. They reflect more often and intensely. Especially on their own internal workings, relationships, and decision making. They make connections in their mind that other people respond to by saying they never thought of it that way.
- O stands for Over-arousal/Overstimulation:
The five senses of a Highly Sensitive Person respond intensely and easily. Certain smells, sounds, or textures are overwhelming – sometimes in good ways and sometimes not.
Crowds, bright lights, and loud noises can also be overwhelming – usually in the negative sense of the word. They can activate the same ‘fight or flight’ response we spoke of at the beginning of this article. As a result, they’re likely among the first in certain environments to feel overstimulated. (Hi, Starbucks example.)
- E stands for Emotion responsivity and Empathy:
Highly Sensitive People feel emotions intensely. They also worry about the health and welfare of vulnerable people and animals. When they see a flower that reminds them of a loved one, for example, they become sentimental.
Sometimes HSPs’ empathy is so strong that they can feel others’ emotions – even when the people themselves do not feel the emotions.
- S stands for sensory sensitivity:
HSPs notice details and nuance. The moment-to-moment changes of a setting sun, a subtle shift in facial expression, or the sound of the wind as it picks up speed are all things HSPs naturally notice. Their senses are highly attuned, and their experience of life is very rich.
HSPs are anxiety prone because they process thoughts and feelings deeply. Because of how deeply they experience the world, they’re more easily and quickly overstimulated. (Hello, Starbucks example.)
Overstimulation and anxiety feel similar in the body.
In the Starbucks blind date example, the HSP felt anxious relatively soon. She arrived early, giving herself time to (over)think and judge herself and her appearance. The crowded and loud setting frayed her nerves. It was tooooo much. She also likely felt others’ emotions and the dynamics within the coffee shop. She probably felt nearly depleted and taxed before her date even arrived.
The E, emotionality, also put the HSP at risk for anxiety. What if he didn’t like her? What if she spilled her coffee? Who was going to pay for whom? (Can you say AWKWARD?!)
The S, sensory responses, are anther way HSPs are inclined to feel overwhelmed. Their response to loud sounds, such as sirens, is more intense because of their hardwiring. So is the tendency to feel overwhelmed and ill-at-ease in a crowd. Or not to like bright lights, rambunctious scenes, or other social situations with people they don’t know.
Consider how easily and naturally the HSP felt overwhelmed and anxious at Starbucks. So many emotions to process, factors to consider, and ideas to evaluate…
You can see how things (e.g. sounds, situations, dynamics) that may seem benign or neutral are anything but for an HSP.
Living with the High Sensitivity trait means there are a lot of ‘extra’s’ in life. At times that can mean life feels extra stressful. As an HSP, you may feel extra anxiety, sooner than someone without the trait. But that is ok!
It just means you have extra incentive – aka ‘good’ obligation — for your own self care.
Know yourself. Be curious about the way “DOES” shows up for you.
Anxiety does not have to be a bad thing. Especially when you know why you are feeling it. And, how to live your life in a way that optimizes your unique attunement and experience of the world.
I am a private practice psychologist who works with women and men interested in learning how to use their HS as a gift and how to find the humor when it is not.
The world benefits from what HSPs have to offer.