How Highly Sensitive People Can Manage Anxiety
Everyone experiences some degree of anxiety throughout their day.
But sensitivity plays an important role in whether or not one would perceive a situation as anxiety-inducing in the first place.
To better understand how anxiety influences our thoughts and behaviors, the first step would be to ask ourselves: what is anxiety?
From a biological perspective, anxiety is the response to an anticipated threat.
Picture this scenario: you’re hiking in a forest by yourself, and you decide to go off-trail to find a nice spot to enjoy the landscape.
As you make your way through the woods, you stumble on a pack of wild wolves, who notice you just as you notice them.
In this situation, fear would immediately kick your body into a ‘flight-or-fight’ response. Your adrenal cortex would flood your blood with cortisol to keep you awake and aware, and you would quickly become ready to make a decision.
However, as the wolves start circling you, you may start to wonder what the best decision is to survive this situation.
Should you try to run? Maybe play dead, or stand tall and wave your arms around to appear more threatening?
All these options will compete for your attention, and the part of your brain responsible for decision-making will automatically try to balance the risks and rewards for each possible action.
This is what anxiety is, the feeling of being flooded with potential decisions, and being unable to pick the ‘correct’ one.
Although all brain processes are incredibly complex and interconnected, a literature review published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology showed that the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC), the brain area commonly associated with decision making, is also coincidentally where feelings of anxiety originate.
Hyperactivity in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex may be related to “the experience of symptoms common to all anxiety disorders.” (Malizia, 1999; Kimbrell et al. 1999).
The scenario I described above is extreme, and may have been the kind of situation our ancestors might have had to deal with far more often than we do.
In our modern world, anxiety-inducing situations can seemingly appear from all sides of our social life.
On your day off, should you use your free time to clean the kitchen? Perhaps it would be more productive to get ahead on your work and start typing that assignment?
Or, maybe, it would be more beneficial in the long run to go for a quick work out?
You also remember that ‘thank you’ card you told yourself you should write for your coworker, meanwhile bills and taxes are approaching and will soon have to be dealt with.
This is the kind of anxiety-inducing dilemma we go through every time we’re presented with several options of what to do.
Highly sensitive people are more closely in tune with their environment, and their ability to think things through in great detail and from different perspectives only increases the number of choices they could make at any given moment.
For that reason, it is important to protect ourselves from having too much choice.
If ACC hyperactivity is where feelings of anxiety originate, then the logical step to decreasing uncertainty would be to decrease the number of potential decisions you have to make at any given time.
Now, I would like you to consider the physical symptoms of anxiety.
You may be familiar with racing thoughts, an elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, and shaky hands, but it is the way you deal with these symptoms that determines how much power anxiety has over you.
As I asked around my social circles for ways to deal with anxiety, I quickly realized that many of the routines undertaken by sensitive people to calm their anxiety ultimately resulted in reducing the number of potential behaviors they could engage in while overstimulated.
Journaling and talking out loud will help you decide which racing thought to give your attention while meditating and performing rituals to calm yourself down is akin to choosing to decide at a later time.
So, how can you cope with anxiety when uncertainty starts to arise?
Unfortunately, even without an anxiety disorder, highly sensitive people are more susceptible to those unpleasant symptoms that accompany anxiety.
Because of our highly sensitive nervous system, even a mundane situation such as figuring out what to do on your free day can quickly turn into a nightmare of trying to find what the best use of our time could be.
So the next time so you are faced with this kind of situation, take some time to organize your schedule and plan the rest of your week.
Professional athletes follow an extremely precise workout routine for the same reason Steve Jobs only has one outfit for everyday activities: by implementing constraints, you reduce the number of possible options, and thus reduce activity in the ACC.
You may wonder how constraints, of all things, could help cope with anxious thoughts and situations.
However, choice is not always a good thing, and too much choice more often than not results in more distress than not being able to choose in the first place.
If I were to offer you one single piece of candy, and either made you choose from a pile with four flavors or a pile with fifty different flavors, I’d bet you would feel more satisfied with your choice if you got to pick from the pile with only four flavors.
If you had to pick only one piece of candy from fifty different flavors, you might feel some sort of regret after making your decision, as there were so many potentially better options you didn’t get to choose from.
This is my main technique for reducing anxiety in my day-to-day activities.
I attempt to plan my schedule to have dedicated times for the things I believe are important, which in turn allows me to relax and focus on what I would like to do during my free time.
One final note on ways to cope with anxious feelings: exposure and habituation are techniques commonly used in cognitive-behavioral therapy, and show positive results when it comes to alleviating symptoms of anxiety.
If, for example, you feel extremely anxious when having to make a phone call, then the best way to work on reducing that anxiety is to practice making phone calls, preferably with a friend, until the repeated exposure no longer causes the ACC to hyper-activate when faced with picking up the phone.
There are as many ways to cope with anxieties as there are situations in which anxiety can arise.
You may also find The HSP World Podcast Ep. 4: Do Changes To Your Routine Make You Feel Anxious? helpful.
Do you have any tips you find helpful to manage your anxiety?