A woman's hands are holding a cup of tea, suggesting she is using the warmth of the cup as a way to manage anxiety as a Highly Sensitive Person.

The Highly Sensitive Person And Anxiety: Why HSPs Are Prone To Anxiety

Highly Sensitive People are born with a genetic trait called sensory processing sensitivity. Basically, that means they have a super responsive nervous system. As a result, a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is, typically, shall we say, well acquainted with anxiety.

Let’s define anxiety, talk more about HSPs, and then discuss the overlap.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a combination of fear and stress. It is a normal, common emotion.

Think of anxiety as a form of worry, uneasiness, and/or nervousness.

Our ancestors’ anxiety helped them to fight off danger, such as animals, and to run for safety. 

Anxiety helped to keep them alive by activating the fight-or-flight mechanism. The same mechanism is still in place today in our brain. It prepares us for action and orients us for safety’s sake.

Without the safety mechanism of anxiety, humans would not have survived.

These days, fight-or-flight activation can easily be a ‘false alarm’. No longer are there lions or their equivalent chasing you. The threat in the present is more benign, like having a first date or arriving late to an appointment. Much less is usually at stake than being attacked by a ferocious beast. But, our nervous system doesn’t distinguish. 

So, all of us — Highly Sensitive People and people without the trait– can actually thank anxiety for the evolution of our species. 

Something else important to know about anxiety is that it manifests in your mind AND body.

Anxiety shows up in the form of thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations – whether you’re a Highly Sensitive Person or not.

Let’s take the ferocious beast example to illustrate how anxiety manifests.

A large, scary, growling animal is coming toward you. You think something like, “Oh s**t! He is going to eat/hurt/maul me.”! You feel fear. Your body goes into fight or more likely flight mode. Your heart rate and pulse increase, preparing your body to RUN like the wind!

Anxiety is helpful. It protects you, Highly Sensitive or not, from danger.

Let’s use a first date example to illustrate how anxiety can be not-so-helpful.

You’re scheduled to meet a blind date at a busy, crowded Starbucks. You arrive early. Immediately, you start to think about the miserable blind dates you’ve had, the zit on your chin, and the stain on your shirt. You feel awkward, nervous, and overwhelmed. Your body is sweating, and your heart is beating louder than a drum.

Your blind date approaches you, and he looks older than he does in his profile photos. You feel extremely anxious, you bolt for the bathroom (flight, as in fight-or-flight), and stay there. After awhile, you leave the bathroom, hoping he will be long gone.

In this case, the anxiety was not as helpful.

This blind date example illustrates how a Highly Sensitive Person’s nervous system might respond to a similar type of scenario. (A person without the High Sensitivity trait is less likely to respond as…. strongly.)

What is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

An HSP is someone born with a trait that has four key features, summarized by the acronym, “DOES“.

  • D stands for Depth of Processing:

    Highly Sensitive People process things deeply. They reflect more often and intensely. Especially on their own internal workings, relationships, and decision making. They make connections in their mind that other people respond to by saying they never thought of it that way.

  • O stands for Over-arousal/Overstimulation:

    The five senses of a Highly Sensitive Person respond intensely and easily. Certain smells, sounds, or textures are overwhelming – sometimes in good ways and sometimes not.

    Crowds, bright lights, and loud noises can also be overwhelming – usually in the negative sense of the word. They can activate the same ‘fight or flight’ response we spoke of at the beginning of this article. As a result, they’re likely among the first in certain environments to feel overstimulated. (Hi, Starbucks example.)
  • E stands for Emotion responsivity and Empathy:

    Highly Sensitive People feel emotions intensely. They also worry about the health and welfare of vulnerable people and animals. When they see a flower that reminds them of a loved one, for example, they become sentimental.

    Sometimes HSPs’ empathy is so strong that they can feel others’ emotions – even when the people themselves do not feel the emotions.
  • S stands for sensory sensitivity:

    HSPs notice details and nuance. The moment-to-moment changes of a setting sun, a subtle shift in facial expression, or the sound of the wind as it picks up speed are all things HSPs naturally notice. Their senses are highly attuned, and their experience of life is very rich.

HSPs are anxiety prone because they process thoughts and feelings deeply. Because of how deeply they experience the world, they’re more easily and quickly overstimulated. (Hello, Starbucks example.)

Overstimulation and anxiety feel similar in the body.

In the Starbucks blind date example, the HSP felt anxious relatively soon. She arrived early, giving herself time to (over)think and judge herself and her appearance. The crowded and loud setting frayed her nerves. It was tooooo much. She also likely felt others’ emotions and the dynamics within the coffee shop. She probably felt nearly depleted and taxed before her date even arrived.

The E, emotionality, also put the HSP at risk for anxiety. What if he didn’t like her? What if she spilled her coffee? Who was going to pay for whom? (Can you say AWKWARD?!)

The S, sensory responses, are anther way HSPs are inclined to feel overwhelmed. Their response to loud sounds, such as sirens, is more intense because of their hardwiring. So is the tendency to feel overwhelmed and ill-at-ease in a crowd. Or not to like bright lights, rambunctious scenes, or other social situations with people they don’t know.

Consider how easily and naturally the HSP felt overwhelmed and anxious at Starbucks. So many emotions to process, factors to consider, and ideas to evaluate…

You can see how things (e.g. sounds, situations, dynamics) that may seem benign or neutral are anything but for an HSP.

Living with the High Sensitivity trait means there are a lot of ‘extra’s’ in life. At times that can mean life feels extra stressful. As an HSP, you may feel extra anxiety, sooner than someone without the trait. But that is ok!

It just means you have extra incentive – aka ‘good’ obligation — for your own self care.

Know yourself. Be curious about the way “DOES” shows up for you.

Anxiety does not have to be a bad thing. Especially when you know why you are feeling it. And, how to live your life in a way that optimizes your unique attunement and experience of the world.

I am a private practice psychologist who works with women and men interested in learning how to use their HS as a gift and how to find the humor when it is not.

The world benefits from what HSPs have to offer.

11 Comments

  1. Dr. Elayne Daniels on July 15, 2021 at 3:46 pm

    Yes!

  2. Shelley on July 24, 2021 at 9:14 am

    What is a book or two you would recommend—to help understand and manage HSP?

    • Dr. Elayne Daniels on July 24, 2021 at 1:04 pm

      Hi Shelley,

      Great question! The classic, The Highly Sensitive Person, by Dr Elaine Aron is definitely one to check out. The website, Highly Sensitive Refuge, is another great resource.

  3. Ann on September 14, 2021 at 11:12 pm

    Any chance we could connect somehow? I just finished reading & have never wanted to speak with the author more about a subject. HSP encompasses my brother, and myself. We lost my father at a young age and have had to overcome intense traumatic scenarios that you’d only see in movies. I’ve always felt different in that i can read and understand people and situations. sometimes my empathetic soul gets me hurt. it would be nice if i could chat with you in some way, shape, or form.

    • Dr. Elayne Daniels on September 16, 2021 at 11:53 am

      Hi Ann,

      Sure! Please email me through my site, and we will go from there!

  4. Tomas on January 30, 2022 at 5:40 am

    Hi, it is possible to have Generalized Anxiety Disorder and being an HSP? I recently discovered de HS concept and I think that it may be a cause for my GAD.

    • Dr. Elayne Daniels on February 3, 2022 at 4:25 am

      Dear Tomas,

      Absolutely! Great question.

      HSPs are prone to all types of anxiety, especially Generalized Anxiety Disorder. And…….what are considered GAD sx may actually be features of High Sensitiviy – and not “symptoms” of any disorder! Remember, High Sensitivity is not a disorder. It is a genetic trait. With superpowers no less!
      Think of the acronym “DOES”, representing the 4 pillars of the High Sensitivity trait. “O” is the “over-stimulation” (aka anxiety) that’s easily reached due to “depth of processing (D)”.

      Imagine if your anxiety were responded to differently? It may not show up as strongly and therefore not be deemed a disorder.
      Try some of the techniques in the blog that I recommend for managing anxiety as an HSP.

      Thank you for asking the question. Please contact me if you would like more information.

  5. Michelle on April 2, 2022 at 8:02 pm

    Hi 🙂 wow, thanks for this incredibly relatable article!

    Finally an explanation for my 24/7 anxiety (conscious and subconscious to some extent or another), even when I’m “relaxing”. And for my intense internal emotional and mental (and sometimes physical) reactivity. (Eg GI tract distress)

    I’ve always felt like my “freeze or flight” (I don’t get the “fight ” reaction) response was very over easily triggered, and that I “think too much” . Now I know why

    This article is very helpful 😀 thanks!

    • Dr. Elayne Daniels on April 20, 2022 at 6:58 pm

      Dear Michelle,

      How awesome to better understand your mind and body! Hopefully you will more easily give yourself some grace. 🙂
      Best,
      Dr Daniels

  6. Cyndi V. on April 5, 2022 at 1:39 pm

    Thank you for this! It definitely runs in my family. We are all sensitive individuals in a variety of ways. ..My mother has always been the ultra worrier/make up scenarios in her head/worst is going to happen type (think Piglet from Winnie the Pooh stories). I’ve always experienced more of the “social anxiety” & I feel drained from too much stimulus. (lights, noise, crowds) And now my son as an young adult is struggling with extreme anxiety over “Adulting” aka all the decisions: which college?, what major/career choice? What job to pursue in the meantime in order to “not waste anymore time” or “avoid making a mistake & need to switch”. Choices that most people go through in a life season are overwhelming him & he can’t stop thinking about it 24/7. He struggles with change, like I always did when younger, but also struggles w/perfectionism & “possibly making a wrong choice”. …It’s paralyzing and I believe sending him into depression.
    Now, add in his first serious relationship to the mix (aka wanting to get engaged soon & thinking about providing for a family) and that feeling he has of his choices affecting someone else is beyond overwhelming . It breaks this momma’s heart.
    -How can I help him? Are there any reading material or videos can you recommend for particularly this stage in his life?

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