Our High Sensitivity: Both A Gift and Vulnerability to Anxiety

Along with the many benefits of our high sensitivity trait, we may also be especially susceptible to anxiety.

One aspect of a highly sensitive nervous system can be a strong startle response, as noted in an item on the Self-Test on the site of Psychologist Elaine Aron, PhD: “I startle easily.”

Of  course, just being easily startled, at any age, is not by itself an indicator of high sensitivity or a ‘symptom’ of anxiety – but there is some research that people who carry a gene that regulates the neurotransmitter dopamine in a certain way have an exaggerated “startle” reflex. Researchers concluded this sensitivity “may, in combination with other hereditary and environmental factors, make them more prone to anxiety disorders.”

From article: Genes affect anxiety and startle response, American Psychological Association press release.

Dr. Aron writes, “The sensitive types in any species tend to freeze and hide rather than fight or fly in the face of danger. Any of these reactions to danger is all right, but involve different ‘costs’ or put different stress on the individual. Research on other species as well as on humans, including my own research, suggests that the cost for this strategy is being more prone to develop chronic anxiety and depression when exposed to danger generally or to threats from aggressive others.”

From her Comfort Zone newsletter post: A Future Headline: “HSPs, the Key to Human Survival”?

Author Susan Cain notes many ‘shy’ people seek “refuge from the socializing that causes them anxiety. And many introverts are shy, partly as a result of receiving the message that there’s something wrong with their preference for reflection, and partly because their physiologies compel them to withdraw from high-stimulation environments.”

From her book: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Dr. Aron thinks this is “an enormously entertaining book” but that Cain’s discussion of ‘introversion’ throughout “is almost identical to what has become the standard definition of high sensitivity—deep thinkers, preferring to process slowly, sensitive to stimuli, emotionally reactive, needing time alone, and so forth…”

From my Creative Mind post Are Introverts More Creative?

This brings up the issue of labeling. Many actors, for example, say they are ‘shy’ or ‘sensitive’ or ‘introverted’ and many writers and others use these terms as more or less synonymous; they aren’t, of course.

Dr. Aron, for example, says “Because HSPs prefer to look before entering new situations, they are often called ‘shy.’ But shyness is learned, not innate. In fact, 30% of HSPs are extraverts, although the trait is often mislabeled as introversion.”

From my post: Shyness, Introversion, Sensitivity – What’s the Difference?

What wrong with anxiety?

Ordinary living provides us with many reasons to feel anxious – and anxiety can be a way to protect us from dangers, both physical and emotional.

But mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem can interfere with anyone expressing their talents, perhaps especially for those with a “finely tuned” nervous system.

Therapist and creativity coach Eric Maisel, PhD thinks “Only a small percentage of creative people work as often or as deeply as, by all rights, they might be expected to work. What stops them? Anxiety or some face of anxiety like doubt, worry, or fear… anxiety is the great silencer of the creative person.”

From post: Eric Maisel on anxiety and developing creativity.

Dealing with our anxieties

How we think about and label our physical, cognitive and emotional responses can have a strong impact on our acceptance of those responses, versus thinking we need to “do something” about them. Of course, some people have levels of anxiety that may need medical help.

But feelings such as a rapid heart rate, shallow breathing or racing thoughts can be confused with anxiety, and may just be a form of arousal, or excitement. Or too much caffeine: Dr. Aron notes HSPs are very sensitive to it.

She also points out that some items on an anxiety scale or test will sometimes be true for all HSPs, “since we do all avoid risks, which is something like being anxious or worried about outcomes.”

From her Comfort Zone newsletter post: A Letter from Elaine, Happy Summer to HSPs.

In her book “Emotional Freedom” Psychiatrist Judith Orloff, MD writes, “Since emotions such as fear, anger, and frustration are energies, you can potentially ‘catch’ them from people without realizing it.

“If you tend to be an emotional sponge, it’s vital to know how to avoid taking on an individual’s negative emotions or the free-floating kind in crowds. Another twist is that chronic anxiety, depression, or stress can turn you into an emotional sponge by wearing down your defenses. Suddenly, you become hyper-attuned to others, especially those with similar pain.”

From post: Psychiatrist Judith Orloff on coping with emotional overload.

She also gives specific suggestions in her book, and article How To Stop Absorbing Other People’s Negative Emotions.

It can be helpful to acknowledge that our trait of high sensitivity may include vulnerabilities to anxiety and overwhelm, but also offers many ‘gifts’ – such as enhanced creativity, greater empathy with others, deeper appreciation of the sensations of life, and more.

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