Our High Sensitivity: Both A Gift and Vulnerability to Anxiety

OUr High Sensitivity - HSP Health Blog
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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.


  1. Diana says

    I really wish that people would stop referencing Susan Cain as an expert regarding HSPs. She gets so many things wrong in her book, and conflates shyness and introversion with the HSP trait. She should just be left out of the conversation, IMO.

    • says

      I know that some people object to her work. She is an introvert and her book discusses her experience as a successful one. Not too many introverts can function as a successful corporate attorney. One of the problems in the discussion is, IMO, that HSP is not a commonly used word but introvert is very mainstream. Her book was meant for the mainstream and I believe was meant to be accessible to the mainstream. I imagine that she wrote with that in mind. The upside is that her book, which was hugely successful, made it possible for people to see introverts in a new light, to see our value, something that many of us have trouble communicating.

      I personally do not get too upset with her because I see her work as part of a larger ongoing education effort that will include many people’s efforts to understand introverted and highly sensitive people. (I understand that she did reach out to Elaine Aron and attended one of Jacquelyn’s annual meetings.)

  2. Steph says

    I am so appreciative of Susan Cain’s book, many people would have never heard of HSP otherwise. As an educator, I can easily share her accessible approach, but I also know I can go in-depth, as with Maria’s and Elaine Aron’s sources. There are so many HSP children in our schools, I certainly do not think a HSP is a label to covet for ourselves and not share with others, lest it be diluted. There are simply different variants of HSP. The more we know and understand and educate ourselves, the better for our children.

    • says

      Thanks Steph, it is great to hear that an educator is aware of high sensitivity. I am glad that Susan Cain has expanded our perception of the value of introverts. I hope many of the quieter students you work with will find greater acceptance. I think that there are many variants of HSP as well. If the Geschwind theory of abnormal fetal development and its consequences is correct, there are many people with varying degree of HSP challenges. We are still learning. At least the fog has cleared enough to help us find a way to begin to get a handle on our sensitivity. I am very hopeful.

  3. Ronan says

    Hello. I find that a lot of hardy people’s response is to faint (playing dead) for example when getting an injection but not when giving it to others or I find that they start to panic, react aggressively, react without being capable of considering what to do, get selfish and don’t look after others out of fear. I find myself in difficult situations as a sensitive person freezing and therefore being able to think without being overwhelmed as my emotions become closed down and I notice the hardier people full of fear in their eyes. Afterward I used to defreeze through shaking and find it difficult to deal with the trauma, now I’m an expert at not getting into these situations, being able to handle them when I am and knowing how to recover afterward because everything used to be scary. So I don’t agree with the assertion that sensitive people freeze and hide especially people who have PTSD who sometimes are able to deal with difficult situations because of a lifetime of dealing with anxiety, difficult people and a lack of belief in themselves. I therefore also disagree that hardy people are better at responding in difficult situations as they can faint or motor into aggression until burnout and panic themselves out of action eventually whereas on a day to day basis in what would be considered normal situations they would cope better than sensitive people.

    • says

      Hi Ronan,

      Thanks for your thoughts. It sounds as if you have trained yourself to handle difficult situations which is admirable. i am sure, that since we are all different, there are many HSPs who do not have your skills and many with PTSD who are very challenged in similar situations.

      I agree with you that being highly sensitive does not mean that we cannot cope although for some HSPs their anxiety can be worse than others. Thanks for inspiring other HSPs to work on their coping skills.

      All the best,

  4. Elisabeth says

    I tend to get very anxious as can pick up very quickly that someone doesn’t like me. Then, I start to wonder what it is about me that they find so unlikable. I’m finding that I’m able to realise more & more though that its something about themselves that they don’t like, rather than taking it too personally. It’s difficult though.

  5. says

    Yes, both Elaine Aron and myself were interviewed for Susan Cain’s very successful book Quiet, and yes Susan attended the 5th Annual HSP Gathering Retreat in 2015. Elaine and I both agree that her discussion of ‘introversion’ “is almost identical to what has become the standard definition of high sensitivity ~ whether introvert OR Extravert. I do not, however, consider her an expert on the trait of high sensitivity. Ironically, as an Extravert HSP, I resonated strongly with Quiet; however, I did not recognize my introvert- non HSP husband in the book. Like you Maria, I appreciate Susan work because it sheds light on the necessity of honoring diversity in our workplaces, families, and society .

    • says

      Thanks, Jacquelyn,

      I think over time more people will become familiar with the trait and that will be helpful. I hope some time in the future that you and Dr. Aron can create some courses about the highly sensitive trait that help more people understand the research.

      All the best,

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