HIGHLY SENSITIVE PERSON

 
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Anxiety comes into the picture when there is a conflict between our actual self and our perceived self.

Perceived self is what you think you are.

"I put other peoples' needs before mine, because I'm a selfless kinda guy. I love people and want to see them happy."

Actual self means what it actually is. Whether or not you know it. Whether or not you like it. 

"I put other peoples' needs before mine, because I'm scared of the repercussions if I don't. I actually don't care much for people. I'm just afraid of them."

There are reasons why we end up with a perception of ourselves different to our actual. We may not even know what our actual self really is.

In summary, it's because we learned from a very early age that when I present myself as being X, I get closer to being accepted. And who doesn't like being accepted? It's one of the best feelings in the world.

Later, when life inevitably presents us with evidence that we may not be X, but maybe Y, we reject it. It causes a kind of crisis. "How dare you!". We flip the evidence upside down. You have a problem, not me. 

We don't pause to question whether being Y instead of X is true. Or whether it's even that bad. 

While we dedicate our whole lives protecting the sanctity of our 'perceived' selves, how frustrating it is that we keep clashing with actual. How can we not clash? How long can we postpone or hide actual?

The conflicts and incongruencies confuse us and create our anxiety. "I don't get it. I'm such a nice person. Why don't I have any real connection with people?"

Want to cure anxiety? Have no conflicts.

Make your perceptions aligned with your actuals.

How to do that? Bust your perceptions. Discover your actual. Don't be afraid in the process.

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ARE YOU HIGHLY SENSITIVE?

It may be possible that your actual self is a person who is highly sensitive, and your perceived self rejects that.

“No, I am not sensitive. I hurt because I have been wronged. The two are different.”

“I’m passionate not sensitive.”

Despite your reasons, one indisputable truth is that you have anxiety. Which means you have some conflicts. Hopefully, we are not arguing that.

The individual details of our different conflicts may be unique or subtly nuanced.

But if you find that generally, there is a common thread - “feeling too much” - that runs through most your life experiences, then it’s time to do some digging.

It could be that you’re a Highly Sensitive Person.

If you feel like scramming or find yourself getting ready to defend, just pause and  catch that moment. It’s a good moment.

That you are so committed to rejecting your sensitivity or making excuses for it is a very good sign that you too don’t understand what sensitivity really is. Scientifically. Temperamentally.

This is one of those times when being Y instead of X is not such a bad thing.
 

Your recovery from anxiety begins with understanding your sensitivity holistically, re-framing your past in light of your trait and then building a new life in alignment with your temperament. A present and future life that competes with your past.

In this journey, you will become congruent again.

My actual self is sensitive. My perceived self is sensitive. They are aligned.

I have no problem. 

I have no anxiety.
 

 

THE HIGHLY SENSITIVE PERSONALITY TRAIT


 
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In the last 5 or so years, thanks to the popularity and use of the internet, people from all corners of the world have access to hundreds of expert websites, authors, researchers, writers, counselors and organizations talking about the HSP trait. 

Still, the absolute best source of information about High Sensitivity is the woman who discovered the trait, and then dedicated her professional life to sharing her findings with the world - through her research, writings, books and clinical practice. DR ELAINE ARON.

Mentioned below is a high level overview of the HSP trait. In all of my other and later messages, you can expect to see references to this term. How can you not? So much of anxiety comes from misunderstanding of the trait.

But if you're looking to dig deeper on HSP issues, I highly recommend some sources. Many of these should really be the starting points for you. You'll find them here.

 

HSP BASICS: 4 THINGS TO REMEMBER


If you are an HSP or someone who wants to understand HSPs, here is the bare minimum 4 things you need to know:

  1. The Highly Sensitive Personality Trait is characterized by a high awareness, particularly of subtleties in your environment.

    This kind of awareness is automatic, mostly unconscious and deeply processed in the brain. You are not just highly aware of your external environment (people, the world, what you take in through your senses), but also your internal environment (your own thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and memories).

    What causes you to be so aware? It's a brain thing. The brains of HSPs work a little bit differently.

    You know this through your own experiences, but if you're looking for scientific validation, see the research. (1)

    Brain scans shows that compared to non-HSPs, HSPs are:
    • more aware and attentive to subtle stimuli
    • process stimuli deeply
    • like to "pause and check" before approaching (especially new) situations
    • are more reactive to both positive stimuli (love, empathy, music, arts, nature etc) and negative stimuli (fear, distress, pain, cruelty, injustices)
    • more empathetic (affected by and responsive) to other peoples' emotions, feeling states and energies


  2. HSP trait is normal. It is found in 15-20% of the human population and in about 100 other species.

    15-20% is too large a number to be a disorder (else evolution would have weeded it out), but it is still 'enough of a minority' to be misunderstood by the majority culture.

    The trait is normal. You are not dealing with a pe-wired, disordered brain, defaulted to create anxiety. You are dealing with some parts of your brain more active than the average person's, making you more aware, but the processing of this extra awareness also makes your nervous system working harder.


  3. The innate high awareness that HSP brains come with, gives them many, many advantages. This makes sense since HSPs have to work less hard to find subtleties, nuances and novelties in a situation.

    And when you can notice things that most people miss, you have more innate (some call it "gifted") abilities towards creativity, intuition, order and empathy. Obviously, this is very good news.

    Dr Elaine Aron writes: "The simplest definition of creativity is the putting together of two or more things that no one (but YOU) would think to put together."

    Ask these famous, gifted actors and they all describe how sensitive and inward they can be.

    Can we all agree they are gifted because of the creative nuance they bring to their performances? Yes. And are they all sensitive? Yes. So they say.

    We admire their gifted talents and creations, but can we say for sure that they'd be this gifted without their sensitivity?

    "HSPs are all creative by definition because we process things so thoroughly and notice so many subtleties and emotional meanings that we can easily put two unusual things together. [But many HSPs] have squashed their creativity because of their low self-esteem; many more had it squashed for them, before they could ever know about. But we all have it.", says Dr Elain Aron.

  4. The challenge for HSPs is over-stimulation.

    Yes, HSPs are more aware, but the challenge is that their automatic awareness picks up on so much happening around them.

    It's not really possible (for anyone; HSP or not) to stop awareness when it originates. Since HSPs are more aware than 80-85% of the people around them, their brains are (unconsciously) processing a lot more information.

    "Most people walk into a room and perhaps notice the furniture, the people—that’s about it. HSPs can be instantly aware, whether they wish to be or not, of the mood, the friendships and enmities, the freshness or staleness of the air, the personality of the one who arranged the flowers." - Dr. Elaine Aron; HSP book

    Hyper awareness (which is automatic and unconscious) means more work that their brain is doing, creating more stimulation of the nervous system and body.

    What does stimulation feel like? It's a physical thing. But it's not like "you" are consciously causing yourself to be worked up. It's your brain, nervous system and body working a bit extra to process all the extra loads of stimulus coming in through your high awareness.

    After all, compared to the non-HSP, you are more aware, so your brain and body has more to process.

    What are common indicators of over-stimulation? Heart pounding, palms and feet sweating, heavy breathing, tightness in chest, butterflies in stomach.

    Sounds similar to something else?

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WHY DO I FEEL SO MUCH?



UNLESS you know about your trait, chances are you will not understand how awareness and over-stimulation are working through your trait and in your life experiences.

All you know at a conscious level is that you are "feeling too much", as represented by the physical symptoms you feel. Heart racing, breath shallow, palms sweating, foggy thinking, overwhelm etc.

Without the understanding of the trait, the feelings - represented by the intense physical symtpoms - feel like an exxagerated reaction . Particularly when we compare with the reactions of other people around us (80% of the population). It can be terribly confusing. "Oh come on, this issue is not that serious that I have to feel this much about it."

You don't realize that "feeling too much" is the over-stimulation.

Potato-Potaato? Maybe.

But somehow the term "feelings" comes with an unconscious undertone of "I myself create my suffering."

Whereas, if you replace the language with "I am over-stimulated", it is more neutral and accurate.

Over-stimulation is one very significant part of your inherited trait, and since traits are more innate, in reality you have little control over "feeling the feelings". You have control over how you will express those feelings, but feeling the feelings? That's visceral.

Brain scans (1) can show you over-stimulation playing out inside you. HSPs have certain brain areas working more intensely than non-HSPs, a reality that contributes to the over-stimulation you feel.

E.g. HSPs have greater mirror neurons in their brain contributing to more empathy they experience when looking at other people's facial expressions, particularly those of their loved ones, and particularly when they are happy.

If you make a behavioral decision to accept your HSP trait, you can learn how to use your trait to your advantage.

What does accepting your trait mean?

It means that you accept that what you gain with a 'higher-than-average innate awareness' comes with the challenge of a 'higher-than-average innate over-stimulation'.

If you accept your trait, here a few things that happen immediately for you. All these lead to less anxiety in your life.

  • You stop fearing over-stimulation.
    "Oh my gosh. Why is my heart pounding while meeting these new people? No wait, I am not afraid, afraid. My highly sensitive nervous system is picking up on so much of the novelty around me."
  • You stop the mindless and counterproductive fight against it.
    "Now instead of getting mad at myself or freaking out that my heart is pounding, I am just going to let it pound. I have come to believe it's annoying, but what if it's not so bad? If I learn how to deal with over-stimulation better, I don't have to do other kinds of anxious things at this party like hide, overcompensate or try to be cool."

  • You learn ways to bring yourself back to your optimal level of arousal.
    "I am not going to stay 3 hours at this party like everyone else. I'm staying an hour. Then I go home, kick back, watch TV and read myself to sleep. Because I need my downtime and this is how I get it. Sorry, but 2 more hours at a noisy party doesn't cut it for me."
  • You can even use over-stimulation to your advantage.
    "If I'm this uncomfortable with my career for so long, it points to something deeper. It's time to figure that out and find something better."

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HSPs and THE PATH TO ANXIETY


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If we misinterpret over-stimulation as fear, it becomes fear.

But unlike fearing an object outside of you, you start fearing whatever's going on inside of you.

To a certain degree, you can avoid an external stimulus like an airplane. But how do you escape from yourself? You cannot. There is no way (or need) to change your inherited trait.

Unless understood properly, over-stimulation and awareness then become terrifying. Day-to-day, you start fearing yourself. "Why did I notice that? Why am I feeling this?" can be terrorizing if you start blaming yourself for something that you really have no control over.

For e.g., "Why is my heart pounding?" is a scary position to be in when all you know about heart-pounding is that it's something that happens when you watch a scary movie. Or when a dog barks up on you from behind. Or when your school principal yells at you.

You have come to relate heart-pounding with fear.

"If my heart is pounding, I must be afraid of these new people I am meeting."

But when you know your trait, you understand that your heart doesn't just pound when you face obvious danger, but also when you are automatically aware of too-much or too-new sensory stimulus.

"Ok, so it's the newness of everything that I am unconsciously picking up on that makes my heart pound. That woman seems cold and aloof: I don't like the vibe. This man seems nervous: I wish I could help him relax. Meanwhile I am uncomfortable with how long this event is: Wish I knew. I also know that my heart is pounding, I can feel every single beat."


BIG, BIG difference between the two.

With the first, you are faced with symptoms that you don't understand. With the second, the understanding of the trait helps reduce the symptoms.

Without having much control over the symptoms (heart-pounding), the first situation leads you to anxious behaviors. But the second allows you to hang in there, not freak out and continue with your life's agendas.

BIG difference.

So why did we make such a mess for ourselves?



Well first, we have not known about our trait until now. It's only after the research and work of Dr Elaine Aron that we are now beginning to get it. Now we understand over-stimulation. Previously, we mislabelled it as fear.

Secondly, for some HSPs, messages from their childhood made it nearly impossible for them to accept their sensitivity, let alone understand it. They have been fighting their trait for years. Now as adults, after a lifetime of such experiences, their instinctive reaction to innate, private emotions is to fear them. Instead of allow them.

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WHAT ABOUT YOU NOW?


Fast forward to now, and we struggle with the exact same thing. We fear our over-stimulation. We have built elaborate defence systems to prevent us from going deep into our internal life. We simply do not allow ourselves to process, feel and have emotions because we have labelled the resulting over-stimulation as intolerable.

It is no surprise then that we struggle most with distressing emotions such as anger, sadness and fear.

Anxiety arises not because you have too much fear, but because you are afraid of allowing fear . If you want to remove anxiety, you have to allow fear. Counterintuitive but makes sense. Think about it.

Even though we say we will do anything to cure anxiety, we are terrified to do the one thing that will make a difference. An acceptance and agreement to climb into the full range of our feelings, instead of running away from the ones we don't like.

Pay attention to the last paragraph again. What does full range of feelings mean?

HSPs are so pissed off with the greater intensity of their feelings. But it's the same intensity you have when you experience things that give your life meaning. We don't find ourselves complaining about that do we?

Ever said "Gosh, I hate when I am so deeply touched by music, nature, love, kindness and beauty? It totally sucks that I can feel this great!"?

It's also the same intensity that makes you more creative. Your high awareness of subtleties can only convert to creativity if you carry along with you a greater depth of emotional intensity. How can you create music if music itself doesn't move you deeply?

"HSPs are all creative by definition because we process things so thoroughly and notice so many subtleties and emotional meanings that we can easily put two unusual things together." says Dr Elaine Aron.

Complain about being creative? No? Then don't be a hypocrite. Of course, you will bring the same depth and intensity to stuff that you're not a fan of - like fear, distressing thoughts, criticism, failure, memories, the unknown and ambiguity. The stuff that's not all peaches and cream.

Full range means accepting love and joy, but we also fear and sadness. Because good mental health means that you realize that you don't get to choose. If you want love, it comes with risk. If you don't want risk, you are not fully equipped to experience love either.

The all-or-nothing is what we do in anxiety.

I don't want symptoms, thoughts, memories, sensations, risks, ambiguity, uncertainity, fear, sadness, pain, discomfort. BUT I want a good life.

Let's go back to the definition of anxiety. Anxiety is caused when their is a conflict between perceived and actual self.

If your actual self is highly sensitive, feels things deeply, is over-stimulated, is highly aware BUT your perceived self tells you that it's scary to be all of this, then you have conflicts.

At a biological level, conflicts activate the amygdala . With a triggered amygdala, your symptoms amplify. Which means more distress.

The only way to switch off the amygdala is if the rational part of the brain sends the message that "You're okay. There's no threat here. And if there was, you'll be okay because you have the skills to handle it."

The catch-22 is that HSPs suffering from anxiety and depression don't get such a hopeful message roaming around in their brain.

If you think about it, how can it be anything else? If you did have any part of internal mental dialogue genuinely telling you that you're alright and things will be fine, you wouldn't have anxiety and depression, would you?

On the contrary, the anxious HSP has developed deeply conditioned defenses in an effort to mask the conflicts which do nothing much to help, but instead create more psychological suffering.

Psychologist, Dr Heather Stone writes beautifully about the sensitive trait's gifts and liabilities, and the psychological mistakes HSPs make when they don't know their trait properly. Such as their assumptions around the transparency of their vulnerabilities and imperfections to others. Read her excellent article here.

So are you stuck?

Is it fair that you lived your life not knowing and understanding your trait? That through your experiences with the world, you distortedly accepted the message that you are flawed? That you never developed skills to handle over-stimulation and that it converted to anxiety creating more pain and suffering? And that because of this lifelong conditioning, your brain defaults into fear and negativity?

No it's not fair.

But no, you're not stuck.

Eventually, you'll see that if you want to recover from anxiety, you have to free up your time, energy and mental health that has been locked up in living the painful realization of the unfairness of it all.

Once you learn ways to accept and commit to behaviors in line with your values and goals , you will break the anxiety loop and become unstuck.

Where do you start?

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ARTICLE SUMMARY

  1. Anxiety always comes about when there is a conflict between your perceived and actual self. If your actual self is highly sensitive and your perveived self rejects that, you will have anxiety.

  2. Figure out if you are an HSP and understand your trait. (Take the HSP test). Accept that you are highly aware, process things deeply and are creative; but your challenge is over-stimulation of the nervous system and body.

  3. Once you understand and accept your trait, you will stop mislabelling your over-stimulation as fear. You will learn tools to bring yourself to your optimal range of stimulation. You will accept your high awareness. You will no longer buy into the childhood message that your sensitivity is a flaw.

  4. Acceptance of your trait will mean acceptance of the whole package deal. If you feel love and joy more intensely, you also feel fear and pain more intensely. If your own intensity scares you, how can you be comfortable in your skin? You have to learn self-acceptance to start with; only then can you open up to your sensitivity's gifts.


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FURTHER READING

(in gradual, comfortable doses)
  1. Book: The Highly Senstitive Person; Dr Elaine Aron
  2. Blog/Newsletter: Comfort Zone; Dr Elaine Aron
  3. Article: Anxiety & the Sensitive Person; Dr Heather Stone

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