The Highly Sensitive Person Lifestyle: Yup, It’s Real & Glorious

Section of a platter beautifully decorated with berries and leaves, demonstrating the Higly Sensitive Person lifestyle

Discussions of lifestyle usually center on net worth, material possessions, travel, and social life. The word conjures up thoughts of “life outside a person”: What do you have? Where do you go? What do you do for fun? What can you afford? Do you keep up with the Kardashians? But, for the Highly Sensitive Person, “lifestyle” is an expression of a unique, rich, vibrant inner life. It is carefully, thoughtfully chosen, as much out of necessity as out of preference.

For the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) who understands and embraces the unique trait of High Sensitivity (HS), life can be gloriously lived.

For the HSP who still lives in the dark with regard to the trait of High Sensitivity, life can be a constant struggle to fit in.

Who are these HSPs? And what is so special about them that they warrant a discussion of their own “lifestyle”? 

Highly Sensitive People come into the world that way. High sensitivity is an inborn trait, not something cultivated, practiced, or achieved.

If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. Even some HSPs are still unfamiliar with this special neurological make-up that wasn’t really discussed or researched until the 1990’s. 

Because HSPs process information deeply (their most defining characteristic), their formula for being happy in life doesn’t equate with that of the majority.

HSPs need somewhat different things in life than non-HSPs to be happy.

Making the most of the Highly Sensitive Person lifestyle depends, in large part, on keeping the inherent strengths of High Sensitivity at the helm. Only then can the many advantages of HS prevail.

The HSP who lives true to the special gifts — and needs — of HIgh Sensitivity can live a life rich with meaning, depth, and pleasure. 

In other words, an ideal Highly Sensitive Person lifestyle.

This is about congruence and the alignment of thoughts and feelings with the body’s HS experience.

The result of this congruence is an added dimension infused into each moment.

If you are an HSP, you probably have an instinctive awareness that what works best for the majority of people (non-HSPs) may not work so great for you.

And how could it? The High Sensitivity trait is present in only 15-20% of the population. The majority of people don’t operate on your frequency.

What is (and is not) High Sensitivity?

High Sensitivity is defined differently from the dictionary definition of “sensitive.”

It’s not a flaw, diagnosis, disorder, or curse. Nor does it mean you are “too sensitive,” a “crybaby,” or weak.

Unfortunately, HSPs and non-HSPs have been conditioned–at least in this culture–to view sensitivity as bad. 

HSPs are used to being told they are “too sensitive” and “need to toughen up,” as if being Highly Sensitive is a fault and not a “wiring” present from birth. 

Contrary to our cultural understanding of sensitivity, HS is associated with what has been referred to as “superpowers.”

What does that mean?

For starters, it means that, from the first moments of life, you’re aware of subtle messages both outside and inside yourself.

You’re sensitive to emotional stimuli (e.g. feelings, facial expressions, words, social cues of people around you) as well as physical stimuli (sounds, lights, textures, temperature, smells). 

You feel deeply and care profoundly.

But wait, there’s more!

Empathy, conscientiousness, creativity, attention to detail, perceptiveness, and an ability to pick up on nuances that others miss are just a few additional strengths.

When you understand what High Sensitivity is, you recognize that you, like all HSPs, are anything but weak.

Your strength is in the details. You have no “weak links” because you pick up on, process, and respond to…well…everything!

And the more your Highly Sensitive Person lifestyle aligns with your unique intrinsic preferences, the more your strength increases.

But superpowers come with responsibility. And the weight of that cape can sometimes feel heavy.

In fact, only 15-20% of the population has one to begin with. And that means a small slice of the world is navigating life very differently than most of the world. 

It’s imperative, therefore, that you know the kind of lifestyle that best suits you as a Highly Sensitive Person.

Having innate sensitivity bestows both advantages and disadvantages. Recognizing the pros and cons of the trait provides ample opportunity to create the perfect Highly Sensitive personal lifestyle for yourself.

A Highly Sensitive Person lifestyle should include space, both practically and metaphorically.

A woman is in a swing, suggesting she is taking time to recalibrate as part of her Highly Sensitive Person lifestyle.
  • (Cue the HSP theme song: Don’t Fence Me In.) HSPs need physical, mental, and emotional space. 
  • HSPs require an opportunity to reset their nervous systems after stimulating activities that deplete them.
  • After a particularly unfulfilling or shallow interaction, HSPs’ emotions feel drained. Taking space in the form of solo refuge and quiet surroundings helps. So does finding a different physical space in which to re-energize.
  • At the end of a long day, resorting to a quiet, dimly lit area in the home helps to reregulate the nervous system and provide more inner calm.
  • Having a quiet, safe, beautifully decorated space to retreat to is super important. Adding “soothing tools” (music, clay, adult coloring books, etc.) is an extra step toward helping you feel at ease. 
  • How space looks and feels matters. It can rejuvenate and soothe…or create unease and discomfort. Be intentional!
  • The most awesome space for HSPs is in nature.  Ocean, beach, woods, mountains, fields— all are examples of physical space that provides luscious inner mind space.
  • What kind of space has the opposite effect? Think of a crowded elevator. And all the crammed-in strangers are just leaving a hot yoga class on the 10th floor. For an HSP, that 10-floor ride might as well be a field trip to Hell.

HSPs also benefit from having enough time.

  • Rushing or nagging an HSP with time pressures will have a crippling effect, and everyone will lose. HSPs need time to transition between activities/days/schedules, time to respond in conversations, and time to arrive for appointments “on time” or early.
  • Time to adjust to changes is important to HSPs. Even positive changes, like starting a new relationship, can be overstimulating and thus require an additional period of adjustment.
  • The tendency to straddle the “Old Soul” and “Late Bloomer” line has to do with an existential sense of time. 
  • HSPs tend to be more aware than non-HSPs of mortality, and their depth of processing reflects that awareness.
  • Because of deep processing, HSPs may appear to move more slowly than non-HSPs. It is actually not about moving more slowly, but having more considerations, thoughts, and feelings to process. 
  • HSPs need more time to make decisions and complete activities because of all the data they process in their minds at once.

HSPs seek and need meaning in life.

  • Our culture tends to emphasize the external.
  • To go within ourselves and get in touch with ideas, feelings, and theories is super healing.
  • HSPs tend to be lovers of animals, whose souls feel kindred!
  • And being with someone who understands and/or values that practice is invigorating and adds even more meaning to our life.
  • HSPs crave deep connection with others. They may even get bored in relationships lacking meaningful interaction. HSPs may work harder to create intimacy with their partner.

“Sensitivity can be overwhelming, but it is also like having extra RAM on my personal hard drive…Creativity is the pressure valve for all that accumulated emotional and sensory data.”

–Deborah Ward

HSPs need replenishment.

  • HSPs don’t do well on a go-go-go schedule.
  • Time to relax lowers stimulation levels and restores balance.
  • Everyday sources of depletion include small talk, loud environments, crowded spaces
  • Key sources of replenishment include nature, quiet time, meaningful relationships, and rest.
  • HSPs need a restful night of 8 hours sleep to offset the day’s impact on their nervous system.

Being intentional about how and where you spend time and energy is central to creating an ideal lifestyle. Be deliberate about how you create your way of living life so that your strengths as an HSP are indeed superpowers.This includes making sure you provide yourself with time and space to attune to your internal self. 

A Chatham seal, representing a hypothetical lifestyle perk for the Highly Sensitive

HSPs crave and pursue meaning. Questions such as “who am I”? “Why am I here”? “Why was I put on this earth”? “How can I make a difference?” are common.

Being aware of how you spend and replenish time and energy, and what kind of lifestyle feels most fulfilling, makes a huge difference – to you, your community, and the world at large.

(By the way, plump, juicy berries with fresh mint leaves as garnish are the kinds of “little” things that make for a happier, more meaningful and beautiful dish – and life! Sometimes the best recipes are the simplest.) 

Dr. Elayne Daniels is a clinical psychologist in the Boston area. Helping HSPs thrive and live their best lives is one of her greatest passions. 

P.S. The photos of the seals are from my annual HSP retreat on Cape Cod.

13 Best Emotional Support Dog Breeds For Anxiety And Depression

A woman and a service dog

You swear you can’t live without him. And he is faithfully sworn to your happiness. He doesn’t check a damn thing off your honey-do list, and you couldn’t care less. You’re happy to swap poop-scooping and fur on…well, everything…for the unconditional love and uncomplicated companionship. You may even have one of the best emotional support dog breeds for anxiety and depression and not know it. Lucky you!

We’ve all seen the memes –  and may even own the t-shirt by now: “I love dogs, (insert other interest), and maybe three people.” 

Slap a heart emoji on that one because oh, how we all understand and agree!

In fact, we understand and agree so much that the preference for dog company over human company rarely fazes us, even when we’re the competition!

Overview

Given the choice between a human and canine, plenty of people would choose to keep company with a dog. Any day. Paws down.

Dogs are, after all, less complicated to live with than most humans. 

They don’t weigh down your relationship with a bunch of emotional drama. And their presence can be a natural antidote to human-created stress. 

Toss in the cuteness, cuddliness, manipulative eyes, gratis entertainment, and gift of living in the moment, and the preference is understandable.

It’s no wonder humans have come to their senses, bringing their furry friends in from the doghouse and onto the furniture.

Beyond companionship and love, however, some dogs provide something extra. Something indispensable. Something potentially life-saving.

Depending on their owners’ needs, some dogs take on very specific service and support roles.

While any breed can get the part, some breeds are, in general, a more natural fit.

After distinguishing between service dogs and emotional support dogs, we’ll look at the best emotional support dog breeds for anxiety and depression. 

Are service dogs the same as emotional support dogs?

Emotional support animals (ESAs) — emotional support dogs (ESDs) included — are not the same as service animals. 

(For a beautiful story about service dogs and their human counterparts, check out “Pick of the Litter.”)

Service animals, most often dogs, have specific jobs to do. And they go through extensive behavior and task-specific training to meet the call.

They are responsible for helping their handlers, who may have mobility issues, medical alert needs, or a health condition such as diabetes, severe allergies, or multiple sclerosis.

Visual assistant service dogs (aka guide dogs), for example, have been helping people with blindness or sight impairment since 1929.

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development requires special training for service dogs, but not for emotional support dogs. 

(Basic behavior and obedience training is a logical recommendation for any non-regulated, non-certified animal that serves its human in a supportive capacity. Heck, it’s just basic good sense for any dog.)

An ESD may not have the training or designated job of a service dog. But its value to its owner is equally impactful.

And the relationship between an ESD and its owner is one of deep connection and inter-reliance.. 

ESDs enhance quality of life in ways that are difficult to put into words. 

Dogs may be the most popular emotional support animal. But they don’t own the market on assuaging the effects of anxiety and depression.

Practically any domesticated animal can qualify to provide emotional support – cats, hedgehogs, teacup pigs, miniature horses, rabbits, hedgehogs, mice, even (yes) snakes. 

While any dog can be an ESD, some are consistently the best emotional support dog breeds for anxiety and depression.

What is the definition of an emotional support dog?

ESDs provide therapeutic benefits, including anxiety relief, companionship, and comfort. The intensely loving and devoted bond they have with their humans provides emotional stability their humans would otherwise struggle to maintain.

When suffering from anxiety, depression, and/or some other mental health issue, the support of an ESD can be invaluable.

There is no required training for ESDs. They are ‘prescribed’ by a licensed mental health provider as part of the process outlined here.

Even though all dogs can offer support, the best emotional support dog breeds for anxiety and depression have traits that make them well suited for the role. 

These breeds tend to be gentle, laid-back, and sociable. They’re also highly trainable and are all about pleasing their human friend/owner.

Let’s explore some of the specific ways ESDs help their human beneficiaries.

Here are 4 benefits of emotional support dogs for people with anxiety and depression:

1. Improved Sleep

ESDs can help you sleep by providing a sense of security to help you fall asleep and stay asleep. 

With anxiety or depression, sleep is often dysregulated. And sleep problems only worsen mental health symptoms.

2. Emotion Regulation

ESDs help their humans recognize and regulate feelings more effectively. 

Emotions are less likely to take over and overwhelm the human when the ESD senses a potential upset or intervenes during an upset.

3. Socialization

ESDs can help their humans make connections with other people, such as when taking a walk together or spending time in a dog park. 

Conversations tend to be easier when dogs are involved, especially when it comes to starting conversations.

4. Daily Routine

ESDs help people be more engaged in their own lives and have a sense of purpose. 

They give their humans a loving reason to wake up in the morning — “Feed me! Pet me! Walk me! Play with me!”

What size dog is best?

Any size dog can make a great ESD. After all, physical size has no bearing on the love, comfort, and support that pour out of a pure heart. 

But certain breeds have a predisposition to better temperament, trainability, and obedience.

There are pros and cons to having a small or large ESD.

Small ESDs are a great choice for people who live in cramped spaces such as apartments. 

They are also easier to travel with, in part because of airline and other transportation restrictions.

If you love having a perpetual lap dog, a small ESD will probably serve your needs better than, say, a Great Dane.

But then, doesn’t every dog think it’s a lap dog?

Certain traits, dispositions, and genetic tendencies will help you narrow down your options when choosing an emotional support dog breed.

Medium to large ESDs are an excellent choice for people who have more living space and maybe even a yard.

They may also be more of a deterrent to unwelcome attention (such as an intruder, bully, or thief) than a smaller dog.

Understanding your own personality, lifestyle, and needs is essential to creating this indissoluble match.

A larger, more energetic dog breed, for example, may inspire you — even out of necessity — to get back into exercise. 

Scenic hikes, jogging, kayaking, even dog-oriented activities like agility, dock-diving, and flyball. The physical engagement will mean a healthier body (for both of you), with the added benefit of endorphins for a healthier mind.

Key criteria to consider include temperament, energy level, and shedding. (But seriously, isn’t dog hair just a badge of honor?)

Here are 8 small emotional support dog breeds for anxiety and depression:

A chihuahua is one of the best emotional support dogs for anxiety and depression

1. Chihuahuas (long-haired or short-haired)

Pros:

  • WaWa’s are are kid-friendly.
  • With enough exercise and interaction, they calm down and adapt to a new setting.
  • They have a long life span (12-20 years).
  • They’re confident, loyal and outgoing.

Cons:

  • Chihuahuas can be nippy,  yappy, and feisty.
  • Both short- and long-hair Chihuahuas shed, usually in the spring and fall.
A poodle is a dog breed that provides emotional support for anxiety and depression

2. Poodles  Poodles come in 3 AKC sizes: Toy, Miniature, and Standard. 

There is also a medium-sized ‘tweener, the Moyen Poodle, for your sizing convenience.

Pros:

  • Poodles are super intelligent and trainable.
  • They respond well to learning new tricks.
  • They’re active.
  • And yea! they don’t shed.

Cons:

  • Even non-shedders need regular grooming. But then, don’t we all?
  • They need space to move around and expend energy.
A Cvlier King Charles Spaniel is one of the best eomtional support dog breeds for anxiety and depression

3. Cavalier King Charles Spaniel 

Also called the English Toy Spaniel, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel has an interesting history..

Pros:

  • They have a sweet temperament.
  • They love to cuddle in your lap and snuggle on pillows. 
  • They’re gentle, friendly, and playful.
  • This breed is polite to people and gets along well with dogs and cats.
  • They are eager to please.
  • Their adorable ears and eyes provide positive vibes, especially if you’re sad.

Cons:

  • They shed heavily. (Your coats, couch, and sheets can attest to this!)
  • They may be timid.
  • As for their energy level, they love their walks and any chance to run, chase, and fetch.

4. Corgis

These low-riders were originally bred for farming and herding sheep.

Pros:

  • They’re intelligent, alert, and protective of their owner. (No wonder Her Majesty collects them like crowned jewels.)
  • They have a friendly, affectionate, and obedient temperament/personality.
  • They’re light hearted and especially helpful for people with anxiety.

Cons:

  • This breed requires a lot of exercise due to their innate herding instinct.
  • They shed heavily.
Pugs are among the best emotional support dogs for anxiety and depression

5. Pugs 

Pros:

  • Pugs have many human-like expressions, including surprise and happiness.
  • They’re versatile and get along well with children and seniors.
  • They adapt well to both urban and rural settings.
  • They’re affectionate.
  • Playful antics are a specialty.
  • Pugs have a lot of energy and enjoy running outside.
  • They tend to be curious about things and people.
  • Yea! for very little shedding!

Cons:

  • Training them is important so they know how to calm down.
  • Some people rule them out because of their facial features.
  • They can be mischievous.
Daschunds are among the best emotional support dog breed for anxiety and depression

6. Dachshunds

Dachshunds were bred to hunt animals that burrow, such as badgers and rabbits. Their short legs help them quickly hunt in narrow tunnels.

Pros:

  • “Weiner dogs” are highly trainable.
  • They’re affectionate, playful, and friendly.
  • Dachshunds are an excellent family companion.
  • They have a lot of stamina and energy.
  • Besides daily walks, they love playing outdoors with other dogs, digging holes in the yard, and hunting.

Cons:

  • Training your Dachshund in obedience before taking it to parks is especially important
  • They need to be brushed regularly and have their ears cleaned weekly.
  • Fungi, bacteria, and mites hide in their droopy ears.
  • They can be stubborn at first.
  • They hunt and dig holes, which can be problematic.
Yorkshire terriers are among the best emotional support dog breed for anxiety and depression

7. Yorkshire Terriers (“Yorkies”)

They’re small with enormous personalities!

Pros:

  • They’re small and portable.
  • They fit into small spaces easily and are good travel companions, especially on an airplane.
  • They are trainable and sensitive to dangers.
  • Their coat is long and silky, but doesn’t tend to shed.
  • Despite their small size, they love to chase, play, and pounce.
  • They’re considered curious, affectionate, and brave.

Cons:

  • They yap and bark at unfamiliar and suspicious sounds.
  • Their coat grows fast and requires regular trimming and constant brushing. 
  • They need to be walked and played with everyday.
  • Their small size may make them easy to accidentally step on.
Bichon frises are among the best emotional suppoor anxiety and depression

8. Bichon Frises

Pros:

  • Their fur is plushy and hypoallergenic – like a giant cotton ball!
  • Bichons tend to be easy-going and intelligent.
  • They’re alert to strangers and are great watchdogs.
  • They are curious, confident, and warm.
  • They love to stay by your side.
  • Bichons shed little and should be brushed two to three times a week.

Cons:

  • Their fur is all white. Just a heads-up to you mud puddles out there….
  • They resemble miniature poodles, which is a ‘con’ if you don’t like the poodle look.
  • They’re energetic and need daily exercise.

Often the same pros and cons are consistent across many breeds. And who/what determines the pros and cons in the first place is subjective. 

What are some of the best medium-large emotional support dog breeds?

9. Golden Retrievers

Pros:

  • This breed is known for its friendliness, kindness, and ability to bond well.
  • Golden retrievers are even-tempered and well-mannered.
  • Goldens like to retrieve things. For this reason, they also make fantastic service dogs.”Bring the phone! Bring my meds!” Goldie is all about “Your wish is my command.”
  • They’re very huggable! (I think loving Goldens is a criterion for being human. Just a hunch.)
  • This breed expects to be treated like a family member and not ignored. (And the issue would beee…?)

Cons:

10. Labrador Retriever

Pros:

  • The National Institute of Health identifies these dogs as particularly well-suited to contribute to happiness and reduce depression.
  • Labradors are among the best dog breeds for anxiety sufferers because they’re cheerful and even-tempered.
  • Labrador Retrievers are intelligent and easily trained, and they remain responsive and calm during training.
  • They love consistency.
  • They’re often used as guide dogs for the visually impaired because they easily pick up daily routines.
  • Labs love to please their owners.

Cons:

  • They have a lot of energy and require daily exercise.
  • Labs are highly food-motivated, so have dog treats easily accessible (for you to access, not them).
  • They love to kiss you – and usually sloppily!
  • They’re quite energetic.
Irish Wolfhounds are among the best emotional support dogs for anxiety and depression

11. Irish Wolfhounds

Pros:

  • Irish Wolfhounds are naturally protective and patient.
  • Their sensitivity allows them to attend to and improve their human’s mood.

Cons:

  • Their lifespan is short (6 years or so).
  • They weigh over 100 pounds.

12. Border Collies

Pros:

  • They’re smart (like, Mensa smart), fearless, and affectionate.
  • They’re devoted to their owners.
  • This breed is known to be intuitive to feelings.
  • They are one of the top champion breeds in canine competitions like agility.

Cons:

  • Their sensitivity to sound can make them appear nervous.
  • They have a high risk of eye issues and hip problems.
  • They’re sometimes not great with children. (But, if herding your children into their bedrooms at night is your goal, look no further.)

13. German Shephards

Pro’s:

  • They are super intelligent, strong, and agile.
  • They’re very protective and loyal.
  • They adapt easily to their environment.
  • They take their role as guard dog very seriously (can be a pro or con).

Con’s:

  • They have high stamina and require a lot of outdoor time.
  • They shed. A lot.

Another breed consideration? Rescued.

Adopt a dog that has been abandoned. 

Rescue dogs are often mixed breeds. They can be just as loving, compassionate, loyal, and trainable as any dog breed, often without some of the “intense” identifying traits of pure breeds

A rescue dog can be a good emotional support dog for anxiety and depression

Breeds to Avoid

Even though any dog breed can technically provide emotional support to a person, certain breeds are less likely to fit the role. 

Shar Peis are not a good dog breed for emotional support of people with anxiety and depression

For instance, Shar Peis may be loyal, but not cuddly or loving. 

a shibu imu is not a dog breed that is a good emotional support dog for anxiety and depression
An example of a dog breed that is not a good emotional support dog for anxiety and depression

Other breeds such as the Shiba Inu and Pekingese have independent personalities and tend not to offer affection.  

Emotional support dogs provide comfort and support

Emotional support dogs, unlike service dogs, are not required to perform any specific tasks for a disability. They’re meant for emotional stability and unconditional love. 

As highly affectionate animals, dogs fulfill the role of providing support and love incredibly well. 

Giving and receiving affection and having companionship are parts of what makes for a meaningful, fulfilling life.

If you have anxiety or depression, consider speaking with your licensed mental health provider about an ESD. The benefits are enormous.

Imagine improving your mood, decreasing anxiety, feeling better overall, sleeping well, feeling more confident and comfortable, and improving self-esteem.

Seriously. Think about how that would change the course of your life.

And to be part of an inseparable duo with your best friend? Life is looking up just thinking about it!. 

As the saying goes, “Imagine yourself to be the person your dog believes you are.”

Duncan, Dr. Daniels’ Maltese,
with his two siblings.

Dr Elayne Daniels is a clinical psychologist and coach in MA, specializing in  Highly Sensitive People and people struggling with eating disorders or body image concerns.