Highly Sensitive People with Anxiety: What to Know and How to Cope
by Melissa Noel Renzi, MelissaNoelRenzi.com
May 22, 2018

If you’re a highly sensitive person, you know the struggle with anxiety is real. I hear countless stories from highly sensitive people with anxiety who feel overwhelmed. Everyday situations can cause us to feel distressed in a way our non-sensitive peers may not understand.

Being more attuned to your senses and surroundings, you’re likely triggered by some of the details that make up the fabric of our modern society. I’m going to talk about those details more, as well as ways to cope, in a moment. One of the coping suggestions I have may surprise you!

But first I’d like to note the relationship between high sensitivity and anxiety. I mean, let’s face it, as highly sensitive people, we want to understand how our minds work as much as we can.

While being highly sensitive can mean we’re more vulnerable to anxiety, I want to emphasize that not all highly sensitive people struggle with anxiety. Many highly sensitive people face little anxiety. Yet, there is an association between high sensitivity and anxiety worth noting.

Let’s define these terms before we go any further.

What is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
High sensitivity”, also known as sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS), is a personality trait, not a disorder. It’s an indicator for how we experience and interface with the world. Highly sensitive people make up roughly 20 percent of the population and are often:

  • Easily affected by others’ moods; they tend to feel emotions of others
  • Overwhelmed by sensory stimuli such as lights, sound, smells, and some fabrics
  • Emotionally moved by news, film, music, or art
  • Criticized for thinking too much
  • Apt to process information more thoroughly
  • Frazzled when asked to multitask or do too many things at once
  • Deeply conscientious
  • Likely to have a rich inner life

What is anxiety?
Anxiety is the body’s natural response to stressful, dangerous, or unfamiliar situations. It’s the feeling of worry that’s accompanied by that sweaty, heart-racing, can’t catch your breath, dry-mouthed reaction that your body has in response to fear.

Anxiety is a normal, physical reaction to stress that triggers our brain’s fear center and sends hormones pumping through our body. We all experience anxiety from time to time. It only meets criteria for an anxiety disorder if it involves excessive fear or anxiety that interferes with daily life.

Highly Sensitive People and Anxiety - What’s the relationship?
Since highly sensitive people have a proclivity to feel deeply, it’s not surprising that we’re susceptible to anxiety. Highly sensitive people with anxiety are inclined to absorb emotional experiences of those around us as if they were our own.

And things like the news and social media can spin us into an emotional frenzy, especially if we’re left with feeling a load of pain coupled with immense helplessness.

A small study published by the scientific journal Brain and Behavior found that when compared with individuals with low sensitivity, HSPs tend to have more activation in brain areas with “mirror neurons”, the neural system responsible for empathy. While some empathy is good, too much empathy can negatively affect our physical and mental well-being potentially leading to feelings of anxiety.

Additionally, we live in a fast-paced world that hurries us through sardine-packed subways and slings quick-witted remarks around at business meetings. When we can’t keep up, we feel like frazzled outsiders.

As highly sensitive people with anxiety, we may receive heavy pressure from others to work rapidly to complete a project when maybe our minds need more time to process and organize.

Loud noises from motorcycles, the bouquet of pungent perfumes at a department store, and oppressive fluorescent lights of the common office wreak havoc on our nervous systems igniting the body’s fear response.

There’s neuroscience research that suggests that people with the SPS trait may genetically have an exaggerated startle response, which can make us more prone to anxiety.

But while highly sensitive people with anxiety may be more susceptible to anxiety, we can tap into the strength of our sensitivity with the right tools to get through challenging times.

How Highly Sensitive People with Anxiety Can Cope

  1. Know your triggers. Highly sensitive people with anxiety have a great advantage in our ability to sense and notice. Identify the specifics things, people, and situations that negatively affect you. Write a list of your triggers.
  2. Establish a plan for self-care to cope. Ensuring you get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise is vital for highly sensitive people to avoid depletion. But it also helps to review your list of triggers and develop a plan for how to cope ahead of time. For example, if I have a large social event coming up, I do my best to sandwich that event with ample downtime before and after to prepare and recharge.
  3. Be active on social media. Does that sound like bad advice? Well, maybe. In general, it’s a good idea to limit time spent on social media. But research suggests that if you’re going to use it, it’s best to be active rather than passive. This means it helps to have a purpose when you engage in social media. Rather than mindlessly scrolling through your Facebook feed, share a thoughtful comment on a friend’s post or share a good news story that may uplift others. This helps us to feel more connected and purposeful.
  4. Practice mindfulness. Highly sensitive people with anxiety who are naturally mindful may be able to manage anxiety better. This is where that double-edged sword comes into play. On the one hand, our heightened awareness can challenge us. But on the other, it can be a great tool for us to recognize when we’re carrying emotional baggage that isn’t ours or notice when we may be overthinking.
  5. Take the middle path. Balance is important. Spending too much time in isolation may result in even greater overwhelm in stimulating situations than you would with a little exposure. But this doesn’t mean forcing yourself into chaotic environments. For example, you may dislike loud noise but enjoy live music and dancing. In this way, perhaps you take the time to be in a loud-ish place while enjoying your sensory experience.
  6. Practice self-compassion. Practice patience and kindness with yourself. Remember that along with the challenges of being a highly sensitive person with anxiety, your sensitivity brings many gifts. Tune into the kind version of you by remembering the advice you’d offered a stressed friend.

About Melissa Noel Renzi, MSW, LSW, CYT-200


Melissa is a bilingual (Spanish/English) Licensed Social Worker and 200-Hour Certified Yoga Teacher. Melissa specializes in teaching yoga therapeutically in non-traditional settings, including addiction treatment, mental health, and senior centers. When she’s not teaching in Chicago, she’s leading global adventure retreats for highly sensitive people, introverts, and women.

Find Melissa on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.