The phrases ‘anxious teen’ or ‘anxious child’ seem to be more and more prevalent in our society. The numbers have increased and sufferers are getting younger and younger. My own experience has shown this – more teens are coming to me for EFT, more students at the school I used to work at were suffering from anxiety but also my own daughter, niece and nephew, all show signs of ‘being a bit anxious’. It really sparked something inside of me and made a part of me rise up to try to find an explanation.
Less than 6 months ago I found out I was Highly Sensitive, and more than that an ‘Intuitive Sensitive’. And it changed my life. Heidi Sawyer’s book ‘Highly Intuitive people’ and then Dr Elaine Aron’s book ‘The Highly Sensitive Child’ literally opened up a whole new world to me.
If you’ve ever felt lost in the world, if you’ve ever been labelled as anxious, shy or introverted or even just ‘sensitive’, you might be one of the estimated 15-20% of the population who are highly sensitive, intuitive and empathic. Seen as a personality type rather than a disorder or medical condition which needs medical intervention.
For years I’ve felt different, alone in the world, absorbing others energies, being sensitive to smells, sounds, people, getting overwhelmed and tired out easily. I intuitively know and sense when something is wrong, intuitively knowing and noticing more about the world and people than anyone else seemed to. I see problems before they arise and sense when something is not right.
It was and is overwhelming, tiring, anxiety inducing and confusing. I often felt ‘neurotic’ and struggled with life, social situations, friendships, relationships and my own confidence. Now I know that I wasn’t ‘neurotic’, my brain and sensitive nervous system were simply over stimulated from trying to meet the demands of a non – sensitive world.
I’m not here to say that all people who suffer anxiety are in fact, ‘just’ highly sensitives. Having experienced mental illness in my own family, I am well aware of the damage that trauma and bereavement can have on mental health, resilience and brain integration.
What I’m here to propose is that some of the 1000’s of children, adolescents and adults who feel as though they suffer with bouts of anxiety, extreme worry or feeling a sense of unease, might actually be in fact, something much simpler.
Something much more manageable, something which when understood, can be a gift – something which the world and human race actually needs. Something which is seen in many species of animal and is a method of survival.
Being an intuitive sensitive sets me apart from the world. It’s a gift and I’m so happy that I’m one, that my daughter is one and that many of friends and family are too.
The future world needs sensitives.
Why? Well they “think before they act, notice potential dangers sooner than non-sensitives and realise the consequences” but they are being forced from the modern business world by the non-sensitives “aggressive decision-making and emphasis on short-term profits or flashy results” modern world. Dr Aron suggests that they are “discounted in the modern business world, as they appear to have less influence and their health suffers due to them needing calm work environments and reasonable work schedules and they end up being forced out and quit” – me included (I was a secondary school teacher and my physical and mental health suffered from the endless pressure and workload). But sensitives are more likely to be the “scientists, councillors, theologians, historians, doctors, nurses, teachers and artists”; and we need these kinds of people right?
From my own experiences and my own research I’ve found similarities between anxiety and high sensitivity – albeit preliminary. As I was reading, writing and learning about both areas I had this strong gut reaction which wouldn’t let this go. I feel strongly about promoting high sensitive personalities. I feel strongly about promoting the work of Elaine Aron and Heidi Sawyer, and I know that if more people understood high sensitivity, it could prevent a lifetime of pain, discomfort, awkwardness, worry, fear and potentially anxiety for 1000’s of people.
It could help parents deal with ‘fussy’ and sensitive toddlers, help teachers, parents, care givers and community workers some guidance to deal with the adolescents they work with and it could help adults and other high sensitives realise who they are too. That’s the main reason I just couldn’t let this go; I’ve had to step out of my ego to write this!
My own experiences of parenting my own child and witnessing the parenting of other obvious sensitive children, even my time as a teacher, have shown me that it’s so important to nurture our sensitive children and not force them to fit into the current world.
Elaine Aron supports this in her book (The Highly Sensitive Child) stating that “parenting will decide whether the expression of sensitivity will be an advantage or a source of anxiety“, and that “sensitives thrive when they are nurtured and not forced to do what they don’t like.” We need a world of confident sensitives, not hidden and anxious ones.
What are the characteristics of Highly Sensitive?
High sensitive individuals appear shy or introverted. However they are not, they are observers, taking in their surroundings very carefully before proceeding and integrating or socialising. They are easily irritated, over stimulated and appear fussy.
They seem to feel deeper than other people, being sensitive and empathic noticing the distress of others. They are sensitive to noise, pain, foods, busy places, emotions and odours. Shouting or forceful punishment simply doesn’t work for them – gentle correction or a nurturing communication approach works much more effectively. They get overstimulated easily and require a lot of down time and rest.
Dr Aron suggests that because sensitive children notice more about the world and environment they become over stimulated easily – this over stimulation can result in rage, depression, withdrawn behaviour, stomach or head aches and in my experience, an increase in sensitivity traits (for example, my daughter becomes more irritated by clothing and more fussy about foods/smells/tastes when overstimulated), making life very demanding and stressful.
I find the most troubling trait of being a sensitive person, especially as you become older and move into adolescence is that sensitive people are intuitive and empathic – feeling and sensing the moods of people around them. Often feeling something there that isn’t being spoken about; my 8-year-old niece said recently – “so and so was upset today at school, she wasn’t acting upset but I could tell she was“, whilst my 3-year-old daughter instinctively distances herself from children who aren’t happy, positive or confident. They simply pick up on people’s energy and have a strong gut feeling – which is always right. As adults and children, this is one of the hardest traits to live with.
Sensitive children have a hard time in school because they are surrounded by other children – each child having their own set of issues/problems/emotions. A sensitive child will find it hard to know how they feel because they are constantly evaluating and monitoring the emotions of these other children around them. This makes them confused and unsure. From my own experience I don’t ever remember feeling a solid feeling of how I felt – ever. I was constantly monitoring the feelings of others and being empathic. Most of the time I knew what was wrong emotionally with people before they had even uttered a word. Confusing, overwhelming and a little bit weird.
Dr Aron suggests that when children or teens are fussy, ill, withdrawn, overstimulated, stressed out or depressed the last thing which is thought of is sensitivity.
When researching anxiety for my own interests and personal practice (I have found an increasing number of teenage clients were approaching me saying they were anxious and the term social anxiety was mentioned a lot) I found that social phobia – the fear of performance situations, was replaced by the term social anxiety disorder in 1994 – so in medical terms this is a relatively new thing.
Social anxiety disorder is defined as “marked and persistent fear of one or more social performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or possibly scrutiny of others” another definition is given as “irrational fear of being watched or judged or evaluated, or embarrassing or humiliating themselves.”
Now at this point my sensitive brain was joining the dots. I could sense and see so many similarities between SAD sufferers and sensitives.
People with Social Anxiety sufferer intense feelings of fear of situations where they don’t know anyone, sensitives fear meeting new people as they are scared of new energies. Past experiences of meeting new people has been overwhelming – they learn that they don’t want to meet new people, it’s too tiring and worrying.
People with Social Anxiety fear new situations when they perceive they will be judged – sensitives take judgements personally, it hurts them deeply if someone dislikes them and they sense people’s disapproval and therefore can tell if people don’t like them without the other person uttering a word – confusing and painful. The truth hurts. Sensitives can build up a fear of being judged because they feel it so deeply.
High sensitive people feel emotions more deeply and intensely that non-sensitives, which could explain why Social Anxiety sufferers have anxiety about being embarrassed or humiliated. Being high sensitive would mean you feel these emotions very deeply. They would cause physical emotional pain, for example a gut-wrenching churn, or a heart-stabbing pain. And I can see here how an extreme anxiety could be built up in sensitives. It’s simply more ‘painful’ for a sensitive to be embarrassed or humiliated than a non-sensitive.
People with Social Anxiety will also fear that others will notice their anxiety and can exclude themselves from social situations – this is a huge fear sensitives have, especially intuitive sensitives. “Being found out” – Intuitive Sensitives know they feel different from other people, it’s often isolating and lonely, being able to sense and feel people’s emotions before they’ve even opened their mouths, therefore being found out is a huge worry for a sensitive.
Sensitives are also targets for sociopaths, people who feed off sensitives’ energy and actively seek them out. This could also contribute to the trait anxiety sufferers face of a fear of being targeted and ridiculed because of their anxiety by people because it’s happened in the past.
Now I have used Social Anxiety in this instance as it was most prevalent for me, researching other forms of anxiety, I can also see similarities and explanations in other forms. Please know that I am not an anxiety expert, and do not claim to be.
It’s a simple fact that sensitives can have a horrible time understanding life and themselves if that high sensitivity is never discovered. From my own experience, I went through 31.5 years of my life being in the dark and wondering why I felt so different and agonised over what was wrong with me. At really tough times in my life I certainly thought I had mental health problems. I often labelled my own feelings as ‘neurotic’ and totally irrational. I felt on edge and exhausted constantly.
My ultimate aim is to help more sensitives and intuitive sensitives find their way home. I hope to give men, women and children an alternative to a life of anxiety. I hope to raise awareness and shine the light on our future generation of sensitives, because we need them and we need them to be nurtured and thriving and not anxious and hiding.
It wasn’t until I discovered I was a sensitive that I truly started to find ‘me’. I finally understood why I got so annoyed around certain people, why I felt uneasy in some people’s company, why I felt exhausted after a busy noisy day, why I hated perfume, why I have to have the lights on, why I avoid embarrassing situations, why I followed the crowd and hid myself away for fear of being exposed, why I felt so deeply and why I cry at X Factor.
At my lowest I was over stimulated on all levels, I felt a buzzing anxious energy inside of me all the time. I felt like I was going mad and that I was totally alone. I was verging on neurotic. Up and down each day, tears and I mean LOTS of tears, angry outbursts, shrieking, crazy destructive behaviour. Pretty crazy. I did this for years. Drowning it all out with alcohol and nicotine.
It was such a discovery that it changed my whole life. I finally saw why my childhood experiences were so emotional. Why I felt so isolated and alone. Why I needed so much down time.
But the difference between me as a teenager and teenagers today is the term ‘social anxiety’ didn’t exist. Well not to me anyway. No one ever used the term anxiety. I didn’t have the Internet or chat rooms or blogs to read. I didn’t have people talking about their anxiety on YouTube. I only had the solace of my own head. Nothing fed my worries. My friends and I didn’t talk about ‘anxiety’ or our emotions. I used to write in a diary about how I felt but no one ever saw it. I never gave my fears and worries the chance to grow.
Now I have a 3-year-old I can see the similarities between us. At first I thought it was nurture. But after time I saw the same traits in her as I did in me. Down time. She needs loads of it. She gets over-stimulated easily, appears painfully shy, gets overwhelmed when other children cry or shout, she startles easily and the moment I bought her in her first Halloween costume she cried for hours. She refuses to dress up in scratchy dresses preferring smooth action figure ones.
I thought she just wasn’t a dressing up kind of child, a bit of a tom boy, didn’t like dresses. The more I see now that she hates the scratchy frills and they annoy her. It’s that simple. She’s sensitive.
Children who are highly sensitive notice more, feel more and sense more. So become overwhelmed easily and can appear shy, withdrawn and fussy. They observe rather than joining in straight away.
They can be awkward and even a bit annoying to a parent, who sees other non-sensitive children getting on with life, taking risks and having fun.
But learning to nurture my own sensitivity and that of my child has been groundbreaking. All its taken is a simple understanding, compassion and communication and love has flourished, she has flourished and so have I.
I finally now own my power and I’m teaching my daughter how to own hers too.
So basically I’m proposing the idea that if you suffer from anxiety of any kind, you may also have aspects of being an empath or being highly sensitive within your personality.
And there is nothing wrong with being an empath or being HS, it’s not a disorder or an illness and children, teens and adults that learn more about these personality traits can learn about themselves and how to look after themselves.
If every lost, alone and anxious HS empath knew how to take care of them self and knew how to protect their energy, maybe they could lower and self-manage their anxiety.
Maybe the world could accept and nurture our very special 15-20% of our population and when the world needs them – they will be right there. Intuitive problems solvers, creatives, forward thinkers, careful observers and intuitive healers and educators.
About the Author: Kathryn Pearson
Kathryn Pearson is an EFT practitioner, coach and blogger specialising in helping sensitive teens and young women combat stress, fear and worry. Her mission is to give the next generation the confidence and tools to break free from negative thinking and be able to follow their dreams, using Emotional Freedom Technique, Teen Yoga, and successful positive mindset practices and strategies. Aiming to empower and inspire her local community, her wider community and young women everywhere.