How Highly Sensitive People Can Deal With Anxiety
At the center of anxiety is a fear of change, the fear of the unknown, the fear of being out of control, and the need for certainty. And when you simmer down all of these fears to their core, we come face to face with the fear of death.
When I talk with my clients about the fear of death we discuss it in both the ultimate terms—the end of life—and the day-to-day deaths that occur in everyday life. For the more highly sensitive you are, the more highly sensitized you'll be to the passage of time, feeling a pang of sadness around birthdays, holidays, and even the end of a day.
I'll never forget the day my highly sensitive son approached me while I was writing at my desk and said, "Mommy, I feel sad because the second we just had will never happen again." He was seven years old. And this is not an unusual level of sensitivity; I see it in my clients every day as they describe the fear of loss and generalized worry that accompanied them through childhood.
What's the medicine?
Learning to ride the currents in the river of change that inform life on earth instead of resisting them.
If you struggle with anxiety, you're also a highly sensitive and creative person. Instead of labeling the anxiety as "bad" or slapping an additional diagnosis across your forehead, a more compassionate approaches encourages you to see your anxiety as a gift with a message embedded in the symptoms.
This means that instead of judging your sensitivity as a negative trait, you begin to see the whole package of who you are as a gift and recognize one simple truth: If you're going to get through this life with grace, you have to find the willingness and the courage to feel your painful or uncomfortable feelings. The only way out is through, as we say in psychology.
The river of life is comprised of the ever-changing flow of feelings. When you resist the feelings, you're resisting life and you then fear life, which means you fear death in everyday life. Pema Chodron says it beautifully:
“All anxiety, all dissatisfaction, all the reason for hoping our experience could be different are rooted in our fear of death. Fear of death is always in the background… Trungpa Rinpoche once gave a public lecture titled ‘Death in Everyday Life.’ We are raised in a culture that fears death and hides it from us. Nevertheless, we experience it all the time. We experience it in the form of disappointment, in the form of things not working out. We experience it in the form of things always being in a process of change. When the day ends, when the second ends, when we breathe out, that’s death in everyday life…”
Can you imagine how different your life would be if, every time you felt that pang of loss or sadness, instead of judging it as "overly-sensitive" you moved toward it with kindness? If you simply put your hand on your heart and said to yourself, "It's okay to feel sad. Sadness is a part of life," something inside of you would relax and a small space would open up. A collection of those small spaces leads to a state of acceptance where you're in alignment with life.
We carry so many fears about feeling pain, fears that arise from not learning how to move toward pain with compassion as kids. We fear that if we feel it, it will never end. We fear that it will overwhelm us and we'll die or go crazy. We fear that feeling our pain is for "sissies", that pain is a sign of weakness.
We try to "buck up and get over it" but it doesn't go away. It squashes down into the hidden places of the heart and morphs into anxiety or depression. We long for serenity, freedom from the torture chamber of anxiety, worry, and intrusive thoughts, but find that it's continually just out of reach.
This is one of the pathways to serenity: allowing yourself to move toward the uncomfortable places—"the places that scare you," as Pema Chodron says. It's a courageous path, especially as it flies in the face of everything you learned as a child and everything the culture upholds as desirable qualities (ie being "tough"), but true healing always involves the courage to shed the habitual beliefs and actions that are keeping you stuck so that you can embrace the person you are meant to be.