Go deeper to demystify anxiety
If you've started your anxiety recovery an an HSP by taking the 7 steps, you may need to go a little deeper into the core characteristics of your trait to really stop fighting the wrong battles.
The experience of anxiety is special. And intense. There is tons of information about HSP all over the internet, but from personal experience, I have seen that there is something more going in experience of the sensitive-cum-'anxious' person that keeps him stuck.
This is important to bring to the conscious surface. Let's bust some myths and gain some clarity.
Anxious people assume exaggerated responsibility for “seeing too much”.
The anxious person then interprets this as his fault for causing himself to be anxious. The cognitive distortion at play here is called "Authorship Confusion". Harvard University professor, Daniel Wegner, explains it as:
Awareness is unconscious, uncontrollable, involuntary.
You cannot command yourself to “not see”. It doesn’t work. When you try to push awareness away, fear and anxiety creeps in.
Remember, anxiety is the result of conflict between actual self (I see) and perceived self (I should not see). Whenever anyone attempts to push away awareness, he will fail. And that “so-called” failure will be misinterpreted as further reason for further anxiety.
While it is true that awareness is automatic, it is also true that because you are an HSP, you indeed are hyper aware, especially the subtleties, that 80% of the population misses.
Also, your hyper awareness is not limited to the external world (people), but also your own internal world (your own mind, your own thoughts, your own bodily sensations).
All of this can be too much. We'll give you that.All this extra load shows up as over-stimulation of the nervous system and body.
But being more aware DOES NOT have to convert to anxiety.
Even if awareness results in over-stimulation, there are options to bring yourself to your optimal level of arousal that do not have to include fear and anxiety.
The time to do this is when the processing of information is happening in your brain.
Even if you are hyper-aware, what are the conclusions you make in the end?
Just because you see more does not mean it is a trigger.
We rely heavily on our cognition to direct us on what to do with our awareness. If your processing tilts towards personal attribution and responsibility for either causing the event, or for being blamed for it, but of course anxiety will show up. This is when the gift becomes a curse.
The good news is that with mindful awareness you can catch that moment when you start distorting the meaning behind your awareness. And with mindful attention, you can choose healthier interpretations that do not involve anxiety.
We are certainly not saying that you are always wrong about what you see; you could be right many of the times. But the extra awareness does not always need to translate to any personal attribution. “Tim looks upset today.” can remain as “Tim looks upset today.” instead of “Tim looks upset today because of me.”
Additionally, even if your causation was correctly identified (i.e., Tim thinks you stink), you have to learn to be okay with it (and the over-stimulation from it). You do not have to do anything about it, if you don’t want to. You have to give yourself the space, flexibility and choice to do nothing.
In other words, what you are dealing with could still be a neutral matter, and not an anxious matter.
Too many HSPs anxiously overcompensate, overextend and sacrifice themselves because they are so much more aware of other people’s moods. They don’t realize (even from experience) that so much outward focus can lead to poor boundaries and poor self-care. So much worrying about Tim creeps into your own plans for the day. Pretty soon so much worrying about “everyone” creeps into your own purpose and goals.
Today, I sit here with full understanding, knowledge and acceptance of my trait. I am less ashamed of it and more in admiration of it. I know I am highly aware and highly sensitive, and I know over-stimulation can be annoying.
Acceptance has eliminated self-consciousness and built self-esteem, and both have reduced anxiety.
But even today I can admit that I am powerless to when, how and how much I can get over-stimulated in a situation. The difference between me now and me then is that I am able to call it “over-stimulation” instead of fear. And that powerful difference has removed anxiety from the picture.
Over-stimulation is real and physical, but it's not always fear. It is your nervous system and body processing the extra information (the higher awareness of all the subtleties around you).
Consider over-stimulation as physical work that your body is doing.
The fear of over-stimulation comes along because it is out of your conscious sight and conscious control. I bet if we could see with our eyes what's happening inside the brain and the body, we'd be more accepting of it.
When you label over-stimulation of the body as fear "I must be afraid if my heart is beating faster", then what do you think happens?
Next step is that you will look for a trigger. Then you hypothesize. With an exceptional imagination such as yours, most certainly you will find something to be afraid of.
It takes knowledge and then training to handle over-stimulation - something that we didn't get from the beginning.
But we can get it now.
Mindfulness and Dialectical Behavior Therapy are the tools to use here.
With mindfulness and DBT skills, you can catch yourself in the present moment. You can become aware of your awareness, and aware of your over-stimulation. And with that mindful awareness, you can create the space to find the most functional approach to follow, DESPITE “everything you see and feel”.
The final behavior you select will be guided by your own values and goals, but it will not ask you, at any point, to reject your awareness or your over-stimulation.
What do you think it means that HSPs reflect more on everything and process deeply? And how is this linked with anxiety?
HSPs have a brain type that is wired to effortlessly / unconsciously arrive at many more ways of looking at the same situation than the non-HSP.
We think, reflect, critically analyze, brainstorm, question, hypothesize, argue. Why do we do this? Well, it’s mostly unconscious; it comes with our trait (and brain). But truly, it is also the reason why intuition and creativity comes more naturally to us.
The result of all this brain work is that oftentimes we come to the conclusion that there are pros and cons to everything, that it is not so black and white, and that there are many ways of looking at the same thing.
This is a sign of wisdom, not pathology, and it generally makes you more 'wisely' cautious by nature.
But a real challenge is Analysis-Paralysis and difficulty in making final decisions. This too, we are aware of.
Anxiety comes into the picture:
- When we fear our brain doing its natural job “Why do I think so much?” “Why do I over-analyze?” “Why am I so sensitive?”
- When we confront the reality that it is difficult to be sure of the 100% best option. And that’s scary. Because ultimately we have to choose.
You cannot do much about the first. And you should not. Your brain is wired to give you tremendous opportunities for creativity and intuition that result from your over analysis of subtle information - that others miss.
Without even trying, you are more aware of realities, possibilities, risks and obstacles . If you fear your brain doing this kind of gifted work, you end up killing your creativity and getting stuck with anxiety.
But you do have to get better at making decisions. It is not a problem if you arrive at the wise conclusion that there are many forces at work in any given problem and decision. That is a sign of wisdom and maturity. Hardly something to fear.
What you may actually fear is not that you will make the wrong choice; it is the aftermath of the wrong choice.
"What if it turns out to be the wrong decision?"
Therein lies your therapy.
HSPs fear making mistakes and underestimate their ability to handle “failure”. Perhaps this low self-esteem comes from living with enough shame and confusion about their sensitivity that they do not want to make even more mistakes.
The necessary work here is to overcome your fear of failing, having regrets and making mistakes. It is certainly not to fear your own brain, which is innately gifted to present you with more options and possibilities.
Can you see how this trait can easily link to introversion? Can you see, accept and appreciate that you are probably an introvert? Do you even know what it means to be an introvert? No, it does not mean you are shy, timid, dislike people, weak, reclusive.
Are you aware of the powers and gifts that come with needing to turn inwards to fuel your insight and creativity? To recharge?
Are you a pseudo-extravert? How long have you been hiding or apologizing for your introversion? Are you tired of the people around you confusing your need for “downtime” with being shy, timid, weak or anti-social?
Is anxiety the result of this?
Explore these questions by reading more about your trait and the link to introversion. These books will get you there.
- The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain
- The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr Elaine Aron
The sooner you gracefully accept your introversion, the better are your chances of living a lifestyle true to your core.
The congruence between desire and conscious choice removes the anxiety (I desire my choices; I make those choices). And in the calm and healing state of acceptance and congruence, you will shift your energy from anxiety to resilience.
How? Because, you will have FINALLY given yourself permission to free up your mental and physical resources otherwise hijacked by anxiety and use them now to pursue an environment aligned with your core temperament.
When I finally accepted my introversion, few moments felt as liberating. I started building a life closer to my temperament.
It didn’t involve going from “less than thou” to “better than thou”.
But it did involve making paradigm shifts in all areas of my life: work, relationships, friendships, family, recreation, hobbies, values, meaning and purpose.
According to Dr Elaine Aron's research, 70% of HSPs tend to be introverted. Many are proud of it and have used it to their best advantage.
But too many HSPs have kept their introversion a deep, dark hidden secret.
Society has somehow given them the message that their desire to take time off for downtime and go off into their own private space makes them weird.
The majority suspects that we need to do this because we are “afraid of” or “shy of” people, and they show little hesitation in making this known to us. “Why are you so anti-social? Why would you want to leave the party already?”
If you don’t understand your trait holistically, you will forever be left feeling insulted.
It's the reason why many HSPs are in ill-suited relationships, marriages, friendships and professions primarily because they try to portray themselves as the opposite of who they are. As Extroverts.
The irony, and tragedy at the same time, is this has made HSPs more miserable than peaceful. And why wouldn't it? You haven’t been able to wrap your head around why exactly you have been labelled as “flawed”, “shy”, “timid” when deep down inside you truly feel you are not.
Anxiety is the result of this incongruence.
There comes a time when you've had enough of pretending. I can promise you that the sooner you reach this point, the faster you kickstart your anxiety recovery.
If you're an introvert - Accept it. Own it. Choose your own ways of navigating your path. In the process, you will find your peace.
If society gets in the way, get trained on how to say "Screw it. I'm doing it anyway. From now on, I'm being me."