Why Highly Sensitive People are Prone to Depression and Anxiety

Photo by Naomi August on Unsplash

While Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs) only make up 15–20% of the population, they’re the majority of patients going to therapy and seeking counselling services. In fact, according to research done by Dr. Elaine Aron, HSPs make up at least 50% of people seeking help from mental health professionals.

And this is mostly because sensitive people are prone to depression, anxiety, and shyness; especially if they’ve had a troubled childhood. They’re also constantly struggling to understand why they’re so different from their peers and will seek therapy services to try and figure themselves out.

A snippet from Dr. Elaine Aron’s book, Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person

But why is this so?

Why is it that highly sensitive people are prone to depression and anxiety?

Is it because they’re too weak to face life’s challenges as society makes us believe? Is it because they ‘overreact’ to issues while they should be resilient and unmoved? Or is it because they’re already broken and can’t be fixed?

Well, in today’s post, I will tell you 5 reasons why HSPs are more likely to suffer from mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

Why Highly Sensitive People are Prone to Depression and Anxiety

1. They process information deeply

For one to be referred to as a highly sensitive person, they need to possess a trait known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS). And at the heart of this trait is the ability to process information deeply. This is what Dr. Elaine refers to as Depth of Processing while summarising the 4 aspects of being an HSP with the acronym DOES.

Depth of Processing

Overstimulation

Emotional Response & Empathy

Sensing the Subtle.

Because of this depth of processing, HSPs are known to have increased sensitivity in processing information, putting them at risk for high stress and mental health problems. Particularly, many HSPs are reported to suffer from anxiety, depression, insomnia, social phobia, attention deficits, and decreased memory.

2. They are easily overwhelmed

Depression is a mood disorder that is characterised by the heightening or lowering of someone’s mood to a point of affecting their daily lives. On the other hand, Anxiety disorder is characterized by intense feelings of worry, fear, and anxiety to a point of interfering with someone’s daily life.

For HSPs, especially those who’ve grown up in an environment that shames sensitive people, these intense feelings are a constant struggle that leads to constant overwhelm.

“If you notice everything, you are naturally going to be overstimulated when things are too intense, complex, chaotic, or novel for a long time,” writes Dr. Aron on her website.

And if these intense feelings are left unchecked and untreated, they could cause the HSP to suffer from an anxiety disorder and/or a mood disorder.

This is mostly because of an overload in the D, O and E aspects of being highly sensitive (Depth of Processing, Overstimulation, Emotional Responsiveness and Empathy). As explained in the following statement:

Sensitive individuals have a higher emotional response and in-depth processing ability, which not only has a stronger reaction to positive and negative feelings, but also when they receive too much stimulation, may be subjected to greater stress and even lead to anxiety and depression.

3. They lack the resilience needed to overcome life’s problems

The Oxford Dictionary defines resilience as the capacity to recover from difficulties. And goes ahead to equal resilience with toughness.

The Collins Dictionary defines resilience as the quality of being strong and not easily damaged by being hit, stretched, or squeezed.

If you’re a highly sensitive person, there’s a chance you’ve been told to stop being so emotional and fragile, and instead, be ‘tough’ or ‘strong’. These two suggestions are the very definition of resilience.

But you see, HSPs aren’t born with the capacity to easily bounce back from life’s difficulties. In fact, only a very few people are born with the ability to show resilience. And not because they’re born resilient, but because they possess other traits that allow them to become resilient.

Resilience depends on supportive and responsive relationships, and mastering a set of capabilities that can help us respond and adapt to adversity in healthy ways. It’s these capacities and relationships that can turn toxic stress into tolerable stress. — Jack Shonkoff

So, because HSPs like most people are born without resilience, if they grow up in an environment that makes them feel abnormal, they will not be in a position to build the resilience needed to overcome difficulties. Which, in turn, will put them at risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.

4. They struggle with self-compassion

In this sensitivity quiz by Julie Bjelland, designed to help people find out how sensitive they are, one of the statements reads as follows:

“Even though you are highly compassionate toward others, you find it harder to be self-compassionate.”

Screenshot from Julie’s Sensitivity Quiz

This is because highly sensitive people are known for lacking self-compassion. Not because they want to be that way, but because they haven’t learned to be any other way.

In fact, as an example, if you listen to Demi Lovato’s song “I Love Me”, she says this of herself:

I’m a black belt when I’m beating up on myself, but I’m an expert at giving love to somebody else.

Starting at minute 0:31

And that’s exactly how HSPs who’ve not learned to love themselves are wired. Which is a terrible way to live because you’re never able to forgive yourself when something bad happens. Instead, you blame yourself, beat yourself up, criticize yourself, and never give yourself a break.

Having self-compassion is having the ability to be kind to oneself. Or the ability to be accepting and understanding of yourself in the face of suffering, inadequacy, failure, and all other times we experience shortcomings.

And because HSPs lack this ability, they become prone to suffering from depression and anxiety.

5. They buy into the myth that sensitive people are weak

Being sensitive is not the same as being weak. I’ve said this before and I’m going to say it again.

Society equates being sensitive with being weak when they tell highly sensitive people to be strong and tough. To not be “too sensitive” or “so sensitive”.

But here’s the thing;

Like many things in life, being a highly sensitive person is both a blessing and a curse. It all comes down to what you make of it. — Travis Bradberry.

This can also mean that being a highly sensitive person is both a strength and a weakness. Just as most traits are.

So when HSPs buy into the myth that sensitive people are weak, they’re buying into the belief that being sensitive is a weakness; without considering it a strength too.

This can then lead them to think lowly of themselves, and in turn, cause them to suffer self-esteem issues. And as you may already know, low self-esteem is a great catalyst for depression.

Yet, in the midst of this negative mindset, the reality is that being sensitive is so much more of a strength than you could imagine.

In fact, according to Dr. Elaine Aron, when this Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) trait is harnessed, HSPs can be just as strong as — or even stronger — than non-HSPs.

It all depends on the kind of environment the individual is brought up in as well as how well the person understands and accepts their trait.

In Conclusion

Research clearly shows that highly sensitive people are prone to suffering from Depression and anxiety. It also indicates that HSPs are the majority of patients seeking therapy services.

Yet, not many Mental Health professionals will understand the need to separate HSPs from non-HSPs when giving treatment.

And because most HSPs constantly feel misunderstood and fail to understand themselves, they tend to believe they have a disorder when they actually don’t.

For this reason, it’s important for highly sensitive people to first understand their traits. So that if there ever comes a time to seek therapy services or explain themselves to someone who constantly misunderstands them, they’ll know exactly what to say.

And they’ll also learn how to identify a mental health professional who is well versant with their high sensitivity trait.

The Highly Sensitive Person’s Workbook by Dr. Elaine Aron is a great place to start learning. It’s a guide for HSPs and HSP support groups who need a roadmap for navigating life after discovering they’re highly sensitive.

As for mental health professionals that may want to learn more about highly sensitive people, Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person is a great resource.

Sending you love 💚,

Selipha.

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Selipha Kihagi

Selipha Kihagi

34 Followers

Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). Writes and blogs about Highly Sensitive People (HSPs). Shares HSP tips and resources at www.hsptools.com.