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Here’s an unfortunate scenario I’ve seen play out a few too many times.  

Highly sensitive person is chronically stressed out and various degrees of anxious.  

Highly sensitive person receives anxiety advice from people who don’t understand what high sensitivity is or how our nervous systems work.  

Highly sensitive person implements said advice, which either doesn’t work or even makes things worse.  

Highly sensitive person ends up feeling like there must be something terribly horribly wrong with her.  It works for everyone else!  Why doesn’t it work for me?

Here’s why.

5 PIECES OF COMMON ANXIETY ADVICE THAT OFTEN BACKFIRE FOR HIGHLY SENSITIVE PEOPLE

1. Don’t Avoid

We’ve all heard the advice to “face your fears” and “get out of your comfort zone” ad nauseam.  We’ve also heard how exposure therapy is used to treat phobias and some kinds of anxiety.  Because of this societal messaging to just get out there and push through, many HSPs end up feeling pressure to “avoid avoiding”.     

This backfires when it leads to HSPs taking on more stimulation and stress than their sensitive bodies can handle without repercussions.  Because our brains work extra hard at processing everything and because our nervous systems tend to be activated more often, highly sensitive people need more time to rest and recharge in quiet solitude than non-HSPs.   Without it, we subject ourselves to an overwhelming amount of stimulation, which in turn makes us more vulnerable to chronic stress and anxiety.

People who are not knowledgeable about high sensitivity will often assume that our attempt to seek rest is “avoidance” due to anxiety.  Our need for quiet seems excessive and abnormal to them, simply because it’s more than what they need.  However, our need for rest is natural and absolutely essential for our well-being.  

2. Just Talk To Someone

Seeking support from safe others can be a wonderful way to soothe your fired up nervous system and to ease your anxieties.  But it only works if your brain and nervous system perceive the situation as safe and if whatever conversation takes place actually has a calming impact on you.

Talking about stressors and anxiety triggers can backfire if you end up just reliving painful experiences and reactivating your nervous system without relief.  There’s even concern that some kinds of talk therapy might be retraumatizing for clients, because repetitive rehashing of the trauma can strengthen your memories.  So “just talking to someone” will not be helpful if the convo results in more burdensome activation of your nervous system and more trauma.

As HSPs, our nervous systems are activated enough as it is by daily life.  We don’t need to seek out more opportunities for activation.  It’s okay to wait to open up to people until trust and safety has been built.  It’s okay to take your time in conversation so that you can stay mindful of the state of your nervous system when addressing difficult subjects.  It’s okay to only open up to people who are equipped to help you move your trajectory toward less stress and anxiety – not more of it.      

3. Just Reframe Your Thinking

Reframing your thinking is another tool that has wonderful potential.  All human beings have a negativity bias.  This ability to detect threats and danger is one of the factors that has allowed us to survive evolution for as long as we have.  And HSPs happen to be particularly good at anticipating obstacles and challenges.  It’s one of our special gifts. 🙂 So most of us would probably benefit from the occasional reframing session.  

But it’s important to realize that reframing is not a multi-purpose 16-in-1 do-it-all tool.  In the words of Rebekkah LaDyne, author of The Mind-Body Stress Reset, “if we suffer from extreme stress it will show up in our body, not just our mind, and we cannot exclusively think and talk our way out of it; we must also feel our way through it.”  So reframing can backfire for highly sensitive people if they expect to be able to use the power of thought alone to heal a dysregulated nervous system, overcome chronic stress, or heal trauma-based anxiety triggers.  

You can think and tell yourself that you are fine until you are blue in the face, but as long as your nervous system is stuck in alert-mode, you won’t feel fine in your body.  In order to function properly, our nervous systems need adequate sleep, movement, and nutrition.  In order to release physical nervous system activation, we need to learn how to physically process emotions in our bodies.  And if you want to reduce emotional triggering, the reframing needs to happen on an emotional level – not just as an intellectual understanding.         

4. Just Meditate

I practice a few different styles of meditation on a daily basis and I find meditation to be a great tool for resetting when I feel that my nervous system is about to cross the threshold into overstimulation.  It’s not just me either.  There’s quite a bit of scientific research backing up the benefits of meditation for reducing stress and anxiety.

But “just meditating” can also backfire in a couple of different ways.  First of all, meditation is another tool that shouldn’t be relied on as a cure-all.  Come to think of it, my problem with most of these pieces of anxiety advice is the word “just”.  It’s the expectation that any of these tools are enough on their own.  Yes, meditation can be calming, but depending on what exactly is driving your stress and anxiety, it might just be a drop in a bucket rather than a solution to all your problems.

So meditation can backfire if it’s seen as a cure-all, but it can also backfire in another way.  If your stress level is intense, turning in can be an extremely distressing experience.  Yes, it can be healing to “sit with” your feelings, but not if you have so much nervous energy coursing through your body that you are nearing a panic state.  That level of energy needs to be physically released – not “sat with”.    

Finally, both reframing and meditation can backfire if you are using them to bypass addressing real problems and feeling your feelings.  Sometimes our worries are justified and need to be addressed.  Sometimes our negative emotions are understandable and appropriate reactions to shitty circumstances.  Not everything can or should be turned into a positive.  As highly sensitive people, we feel emotions very intensely in our bodies.  So intensely that we often want to hurry or skip the experience altogether in order to avoid discomfort.  Unfortunately, unprocessed emotions tend to linger and accumulate in our bodies.  Because avoiding emotions comes with this cost attached, I believe it’s better to learn gentle ways of processing them.

5. Just Take Deep Breaths

One more “just”!  Calm breathing is something I faithfully practice every single day.  I even created a self-paced coaching session on using calm breathing for stress reduction.  So I really, really believe in the power of intentionally sending calming messages to your nervous system with your breathing patterns.

But just like all the other “justs” on this list, just taking some deep breaths can backfire.  First of all, a single breathing session might work if you are feeling just a little antsy.  But breathing exercises alone probably won’t be enough to bring calm to a chronically dysregulated nervous system.  Calm breathing is one component of a long-term stress reduction strategy.  It’s meant to be used in combination with other tools.  And this is especially true when it comes to more intense states of stress.  

Second, not only does “just taking deep breaths” fail to help some people calm down, but it might actually make things worse.  For some people, turning in and focusing on their body and especially their breath is so uncomfortable that it increases their anxiety.  Their brain perceives things like an increased heart rate as a threat – as something dangerous taking place.  If this is you, you are better off starting with grounding exercises and mindfully focusing on other parts of the body before slowly working up to breathing exercises.  And some people find that it’s necessary to do this work with a professional who can help them feel safe with the process.

WHAT DOES WORK?

After all that ranting, you are probably wondering if there’s anything that does work.  And the answer to that is an emphatic yes!  

Once you take away the expectation that any of these simplistic one-size-fits-all quick fixes should be all that is needed…  And once you stop feeling like there’s something wrong with you if they are not always a magic cure-all…  You are free to make the holistic lifestyle changes and assemble ALL the tools that YOU need to find calm and inner peace.  

That’s how it’s worked for me and that’s how I’ve seen it work for many of my stressed out highly sensitive clients.  We are more vulnerable to stress and anxiety, so we need to do more to safeguard the self care practices that help our bodies and brains stay resilient.  We are more reactive and we have more intense emotions, so we need to work harder and more diligently at processing our emotions and any past trauma.    

It’s not a quick fix, but it’s more realistic and more likely to lead to results. 🙂

About the Author

Hi, I'm Anni! I'm a life and career coach for stressed out highly sensitive people. My mission is to help you discover your true self and create a life you ACTUALLY like.

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