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  • Writer's pictureJanis E. McKinstry, MA

HSPs and Overwhelm/ Not Social Anxiety

First I got the news that a wedding was in the works, then I heard it was black tie. I was so thrilled to be invited to this wedding because these are some of my favorite people on earth, and I care deeply about them, and I love them dearly, and I don't ever want to lose them. Family. I'm not religious, but this part of my family is religious and have some different thoughts and beliefs from me. So that's another layer; family, religion, black tie.... Family events can bring up so many expectations, regression into roles, assumptions, comparisons, many implicite rules to follow that have never really been spoken. The gray zone.

But, back to the black tie apparel ettiquette. I don't even wear dresses anymore and what in the world would I wear to something like that? What would everyone else be wearing? Would I look good enough? Would I be judged? Would I be embarrassed? Where do you even shop for black tie attire? How much will it cost? Can I be creative with my own style or do I have to conform? Who will be there? Would I fit in? What will they talk about? Sometimes I feel like I speak another language so what will I talk about? Am I successful enough? Will I be overwhelmed?...

The excitment of the invitation soon turned into anxiety and anxiety turned into rummination. Am I good enough? Would they approve? I don't live near a big town or city so I couldn't just go and find something to wear, so I ordered clothes online and had them delivered, tried them on, and returned them all. It was humiliating. For months all I could think of was 'what will I wear?' We HSPs process our thoughts thoroughly.

My friend was in a similar situation and we commeserated together over the months. It was helpful for me to have a friend who understood the plight, and we'll probably laugh about it all for years to come, but it isn't really funny yet. Also, as an empath I realized that as I held her anxiety it was exaserbating my own anxiety so I needed to step back to examine my own fears, on my own, in my own way.

Anxiety is like a trance that captures us and ties us up in emotional knots that become overwhelm. Until I finally sat down, slowed down to breathe, and observed myself acting insecurely in these ways over clothing and approval from others, I couldn't see how small I had reduced myself. It was so smooth how I went from excitment to overwhelm. Here I am an examined soul, an accomplished woman, a beautiful person, a helper, a healer, and so much more... and until I could observe myself as a whole person with a symphony of thoughts, feelings, and emotions I wasn't able to really settle down into confidence in myself and relax into the excitment of the wedding. I remembered who I am and I stepped back into my own sense of self. I'm one of the highly sensitive people who can get overwhelmed with expectations and social pressures. I can use my skills and tools to help calm myself through most any situation, but it isn't always easy. We're very sensitive people we HSPs so it makes sense we have anxiety from time to time. But it's not the same as social anxiety.

It's really no fun dealing with social anxiety. Social anxiety is an anxiety disorder that benefits from therapy, and being a HSP is a personality trait that may include anxiety. It seems the difference is the constancy of symptoms for those with social anxiety.

Some signs and symptoms of social anxiety disorder can include constant:

  • Fear of being judged

  • Fear of embarrassment or humiliation

  • Fear of talking to strangers

  • Fear of being discovered flawed

  • Fear of being embarrassed by physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, stuttering, blushing, muscle tension, increased heart rate, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, and/or fainting

  • Fear of embarrassment so avoid people or situations

  • Fear of too much attention so avoid people or situations

  • Fear in anticipation of a activity or event

  • Fear of being analyzed and critiqued for flaws

  • Fear of the worst

I had a few of these symptoms and didn't like that at all. (I feel so much compassion for anyone who deals with social anxiety.) So when I began to care for myself in a way that felt intentional, genuine, and loving the anxiety finally began to dissipate and my ability to be authentically me in all my different aspects returned. And, then it began to get fun. Getting to that place of ease wasn't easy so I'd like to share my process with you in hopes that it will help you if and when you experience something like this, because there can be overlap between Social Anxiety and being a HSP, but they're not the same. Mindfulness helps me in a big way, so here's a mini introduction:

1. I sat down and breathed. I looked at myself in the mirror and just breathed. I felt the breath coming in and going out and breathed. I felt my feet on the floor and as I breathed I began to feel more grounded. I put my hand on my heart and breathed while observing my inner world, and as I did I started to remember who I am and how much I love myself. My breath reminded me of who I am and that I deserve compassion and consideration.

2. I asked myself what I wanted. What do I want to wear? What am I most comfortable in when at a social event? What do I feel best in? I put myself first. I was self-ish by considering my needs and desires so that I would be at my best for this event. I kept the dress code in mind so that I respected their wishes and as I embraced the concept of respecting myself by being self-ish (not self centered which is a whole other blog) while figuring out what I wanted to wear I was able to look more objectively at my own style and how it served to put me at ease in my own body, and so be at my best for the event. Being self-ish may not occur to us when we're caught up in the expectations of a social event and I'm suggesting that it serves to put us in a confident and comfortable position to be generous and present for others. Be self-ish enough to be considerate of yourself while being considerate of others.

3. I did a self inventory. I thought about all the challenging events of my life that I've survived, and thought of those where I've thrived. I realized that I had fragmented off the accomplishments in my life that aren't part of this family's value system so I could conform and that was an important insight. I don't need to conform. I'm a spiritual person and I'm very happy in my heart and soul. I know this is right for me. I reclaimed and remembered that I'm wise, knowledgable, capable, interesting, valued, and loved and that if I wasn't these things that I wouldn't have been invited. I checked the facts. Then I asked myself 'who am I?' and remembered that I am sacred and divine worthy of love. I came back to my authentic self and decided to stay with myself in this capacity.

These steps helped me to prepare myself to be fully present at this event and I can honestly say that I turned dread into excitement. I want to share that when I walked into the room to greet my family that I felt strong, confident, authentic, and love for all of those there. I was given a very warm welcome and embraced with love. I made new friends, received numerous compliments on my outfit (which was in my closet all along,) and embraced it all. This event was a highlight of my adult life and I will cherish it always. It's reminded me about staying in the present moment to feel grounded and present. Anxiety increases when our sense of control decreases. Being HSP doesn't mean that we have social anxiety, though it's possible, but it does mean that we're very sensitive and can get overwhelmed by stimuli. Since social anxiety revolves around fear and expectations which haven't happened yet, let's remember to check it out to see if it's real or fear (False Evidence Appearling Real,) and remind ourselves we can do hard things because we're amazing Highly Sensitive People.

Other tips to help prepare yourself if you're still feeling anxious at an event:

  1. Intentionally use your senses; look for beauty, touch & feel your body for sensations, breathe in and out, taste the food fully, listen for beauty

  2. think of topics you enjoy and are willing to talk about so you are ready to steer the conversation to topics you choose

  3. scan the room and plan how to avoid toxic people

  4. know where the exits are at

  5. have a safe place to go to if you're needing some time and space alone (walk around the block, a bedroom, your car...)

  6. be occupied with helping with preparations and tasks at the event so that you don't get trapped in a conversation you don't want to engage in

  7. rehearse your boundaries; What do you need? Communicate it. State consequence and uphold it.

  8. have limits like when you'll leave, how long you'll converse in each conversation, and be able to walk away when you want to walk away

  9. practice "no" as a complete sentence (no to someone else is a yes to yourself)

I'm Janis McKinstry, MA Transpersonal/Somatic Counseling Psychology: Psychospiritual Counselor and Authentic Empowerment Counselor for Highly Sensitive People. Please visit my website at and sign up for me free gift of a simple mindfulness meditation to relax, release, and renew, send me a message at, or call me at 925-302-9900. I look forward to talking with you soon.

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