If anxiety is the result of misunderstanding your sensitivity, consider starting your recovery with these 7 steps:
1. Answer this question.
Are you an HSP? Do you have clarity on that? (Take the HSP test)
2. Answer this question.
Do you understand your trait, holistically? Not just its challenges, but also its advantages?
- Are you informed that the trait is normal, real, universal, found in every 4 or 5 people and ~100 other species?
- Can you accept the empirical study and research findings of this trait? Do you realize this is not some hokey-pokey, feel-goody advice being doled out but a very real, normal and universal trait being discussed?
- Can you accept that a trait found in 15-20% of the population simply cannot be a disorder? But that it is still a minority, which the majority culture does not understand?
- Do you understand that people with high sensitivity have some parts of the brain more sensitive than others, and that this results in the trait being what it is?
- Do you recognize that high awareness, deep information processing, sensory sensitivity and over-stimulation of nervous system are the root characteristics of your trait?
- Can you objectively vouch for the very real and multiple advantages of being sensitive, especially when you are not over-stimulated?
- Can you see that your biggest challenge is over-stimulation of the body and the struggle with it causes anxiety?
3. Answer this question.
Are you a well-adjusted HSP?
This means that you don't suffer from being an HSP. Instead you thrive.
You know your trait, agree that you are sensitive and have built a life that you enjoy. One which is aligned with your sensitivity, not against it. You don't make excuses for your sensitivity, you don't over-explain your sensitivity. On the contrary, you're a big fan of it.
4. If you are not a well-adjusted HSP, answer this question.
Can you now, at the very least, accept that you are an HSP?
Knowledge does not automatically mean acceptance.
If you have lived your life with a complete misunderstanding of your trait, and if those around you shared a common message that something is wrong with you, you probably spent your life at a war with your sensitivity.
It is not easy to change that overnight. But it will be a tragedy if you can’t come to terms with your trait. If you remain locked up in your sensitivity's disadvantages, you will never get closer to its gifts.
You have to create the will and the space to accept the whole package deal that sensitivity (like any other trait) is wrapped up in. Your innate sensitivity brings in:
- high awareness of subtleties, but also over-stimulation
- deep processing of information, but also over-stimulation
- deep insight & creativity coming from a high awareness, but also over-stimulation
5. REFRAME your past
The past hurt you.
Experiences and events affected you more deeply than others. Your school mates. Your siblings. Your parents. Your friends. Roughly 80-85% of the people around you everyday. And that's a whole lot of majority for a child facing new things, new events and new people everyday. Unlike an adult, he has no control over how much stimulation he is exposed to.
But being told that something is wrong with you for feeling more deeply was counterproductive and untrue.
I know anxiety seems less about the past and more about the future. But it is your past that developed you as someone who believes he doesn't have the skills to handle what life will throw at him.
This is how the past forces itself into the present and future. Unless you explore how the past conditioned you to be a worrier, you will remain confused over how stubborn you can be with worrying about the future.
However, your analysis of your past will be flawed if you don't take into account your HSP trait. Even though you didn't know your trait then, you still had it. It is imperative to reframe your past in light of it. Maybe camp was horrifying to you not because you were a negative person, but because you were incredibly over-stimulated from the assault on your senses, having to spend every minute with 20 other girls.
When you look back at your life (and anxiety), it becomes clear that you carried the trait from the beginning of your time. The trait is inherent.
In the reframing process, there will be many 'aha' moments; there will be many painful moments.
You will begin to see how a lack of understanding of your trait, particularly over-stimulation, led to anxiety. You will be aware of how anxiety was inevitable, or by whose care and intervention, it could have been avoided. You may even find that your parent(s) is an HSP-gone-anxious.
Take good care of yourself while going through the reframing process as it will evoke intense feelings. Use your judgment to decide whether to do this with the support of someone you trust, preferably one who is sensitive.
One certain way to balance out the anger that can arise from recalling the painful past is by also recalling the positive qualities of your trait.
HSPs, particularly those who suffer from anxiety, tend to think in black-and-white ways. Anxiety triggers your amygdala which keeps you in a state of hypervigilance. Hypervigilance to the negative. You may be tempted (I certainly was) to think that all of the past was screwed up.
Particularly in moments when you were not over-stimulated, you most certainly applied the gifts of your trait and saw results.
I know (now) that I made deep friendships because of loyalty and humor, both of which were a result of my trait. My hyper awareness of the suffering of others made it easy to be empathic. My awareness of the subtleties made it easy to see the silliness around me and express it with humor.
The same is true for you. It is unlikely that all of your past was awry.
Anxiety sufferers are in too deep with fear, anger and negative emotions in the present moment. Who can blame them? The symptoms can be horrible.
One of the symptoms is black-and-white thinking. But catch that moment when you indulge in all-or-nothing. Just catching it will reduce some of the symptoms.
6. Counterintuitively, get closer to your feelings to gain the objective distance you want from them.
Figure out what are the quick and automatic go-to defenses you use to stuff your real feelings, because it’s these that will need to be changed.
Because these are distortions. You (unconsciously) designed them to fix your troubles. But they've dug a deeper hole.
How do you control feelings? All of us have developed deeply conditioned mechanisms to avoid them from coming to the conscious surface. Defenses such as intellectualization, repression, thought suppression, magical thinking, isolation, denial, projection, self-sacrifice, perfectionism, over-generalization and black and white thinking.
What are the signs that your defenses have been distorted solutions?
First, the obvious one. You are in pain. Caught in anxiety or depression or both, it’s clear that your solutions to your struggles haven’t worked.
Second, defenses are aimed to push away feelings. But why? If feelings are instinctual and value-free, why should I push them? Why is having feelings blasphemy?
Third, defenses present themselves as wisdom, and to be true, often the line between them can be consciously blurry to the unsuspecting eye. But there is a big difference, one you can almost immediately notice in your body. Defenses are desperate attempts. They are like a substance you are addicted to when you can’t stand the feeling without using it. If whatever you do is a desperate attempt to quickly bury uncomfortable feelings, then more likely it’s a defense than wisdom.
It’s not your fault. You got the message, one way or another, that feelings are wrong. They are childish, immature and silly. You, the adult, cannot allow yourself to be controlled by children, can you? If you do, you will be engulfed by them. You will lose your sanity and your whole sense of a competent self.
HSPs who have grown up with the message that their sensitivity is a flaw carry with them a greater fear of feelings.
The greater depth and intensity that the HSP trait comes with can be overwhelming, almost in a physical sense. Love and joy are felt intensely, but so are fear, anger and shame.
The feeling of shame is generally difficult to bear, but for an HSP child, who feels emotions more intensely, it cuts like a knife. The over-stimulation from shame, anger and fear is intolerable. Without an understanding and appropriate emotional regulation training, an HSP child learns very quickly to start fearing any feelings that result in his dis-regulation. This deep sense of a disregulated core self (who cannot handle external stimuli) becomes the reason for his deep-rooted defence mechanisms.
When understood in this way, we can see how defenses have helped us cope so far. Maybe they were the only way to possibly cope. That's fine. But they've not let us lead a very honest life.
Defenses never reflect the truth of what's going on with you, so how can they ever make you feel whole? If they did reflect your truth, you'd be at peace with the world because you'd be at peace with yourself.
They take us very far away from our authentic selves, which essentially makes us frauds.
If her husband is stingy with the family's basic financial needs, the wife quickly stuffs her true feelings by rationalizing it with his impoverished childhood or his "other" good qualities or her own defects.
The problem with rationalization is that even though you think you've intellectually resolved your feelings, emotionally you grapple with many subconscious conflicts. One of them is this: Somewhere deep down you experience an uncomfortable conflict from wondering why you have the motivation to care so much for others (when you rationalize for them), and so little for yourself.
Emotions work like that. If you are too quick and desperate to reject them with defenses, they revolt even more. They never really go away. Instead, they germinate into deeper and newer emotional viruses, slowly pushing you into a downward spiral that gets harder to climb out of.
At some point we have to understand that emotions are innate, instinctual responses that are hard wired into all of us. HSP or not. They are automatic, and not something that we consciously create. Emotions in themselves are absolutely value-free. They are reflexes, like getting startled when something suddenly jumps up in front of you, or feeling pain when someone steps on your toe .
It’s how we express emotions that can get us into the very trouble we are trying to avoid. What we are really afraid of is being so engulfed by our emotions that we lose control oversleves.
If the wife decides to burn down the house as a symbol of her pent up anger - that is both physically harmful, socially unacceptable and mentally destructive for everyone involved. But if she decides to talk to her husband or considers getting a job to support the household, those are both healthy ways of expressing honest feelings.
However, one reason for our emotionally charged over-reactions, particularly for HSPs, is when someone denies us the experience of our own sensitivity. Counterintuitively, what tames down over-reactions is a behavioral decision to admit, allow and accept feelings.
Have you noticed that when you allow yourself to feel your feelings, they lose a little bit power? You don't feel chained by them?
That's because, counterinuitively, by allowing feelings and emotions, you gain distance from them. When you don't fear feelings, you no longer waste your mental health indulging in counterproductive distortions and defenses to keep them away. Instead you free up your energy to use your mental health more judiciously, and from that place, you calmly figure out what to do with your feelings.
"Maybe our marriage hasn't worked out for either of us, because I got into it for the wrong reasons. It makes me feel guilty, sad and afraid to say this, but maybe for the first time I'm being honest."
What tools can we use to start gaining these skills?
Bibliotherapy, Mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy help you know and observe your defenses without fusing with them. You are not the distortions, you are the one observing the distortions. With this distinction, you gain hope that change is possible for you.
When the feelings get overwhelming, almost in a physical sense, we need to practice emotional regulation. Which is a short way of saying, do what it takes to influence your emotions so that they lead you in the direction of your values and goals, not in a downward spiral. Dialectical Behavior Therapy teaches emotional regulation skills. If you value being someone who can handle criticism, emotional regulation will make you go for a walk when your boss yells at you, instead of quit your job.
Dr Elaine Aron writes about emotional regulation for HSPs:
"Among many strategies that help everyone regulate and thus reduce their negative emotions, HSPs tend to do certain ones less. So, if you want to boost your emotional regulation, increase these five:
- Accept your feelings.
- Do not be ashamed of them.
- Believe you can cope as well as others do.
- Trust that your bad feelings will not last long.
- Assume there’s hope–you can do something about your bad feelings eventually."
7. Align your lifestyle with your temperament
Let's face it. The culture that we live will always get shaped by the majority. That's how majorities work. There's 15-20% of us. There's 80-85% of those who are not us.
The majority culture has a different definition of what a successful life and a successful person look like. The ideal family, relationships, conversations, hobbies, lifestyle, recreation, work, retirement, ambitions and life's meaning - almost all these are defined differently between the HSP and the non-HSP.
Does that mean HSPs are inferior and that's why there are so few of us? Or does that mean we are superior and only a few of us get to be so?
Neither is the implication.
We are different, and we need both HSPs and non-HSPs to exist so that the things get done.
The one thing I think both groups agree on is the goal to suffer less on account of being yourself and carrying your own uniqueness.
Fitting in with the non-HSP culture hasn't really worked out well for most HSPs. So what's left?
We have to give ourselves a chance at intentionally building a lifestyle aligned with our trait. And we have to stop apologizing for it.
I say intentionally because the majority around us will not endorse our choices.
We are different. We are more inward, more reflective, need more downtime and have different ideas and needs around work, relationships, health, recreation and life's meaning.
We really are different, but our difference is not well-understood because we are a minority.
There comes a point when you are able to say: "That's it. My only goal is to be myself and stop suffering for it."
The sooner you reach this point, the more motivation and energy you will have at building a life that secretly you know will give you a deep sense of peace and purpose.
More like this