Dealing with Anxiety When You Are a Highly Sensitive Overthinker*

photo courtesy of Toa Heftiba, Unsplash

There are so many reasons to be anxious these days. So many reasons. What’s a sensitive, empathetic, intuitive, analytical person to do?

I don’t need to tell you what there is to be anxious about. You are quite aware of the little things and the big things and all of the things in between. You could create a very long list. Your capacity for super-thinking and your vast imagination, enormous empathy, and non-stop brain has already added 14 items to your list since you started reading this post.

And, that’s not even taking into consideration that you might be a parent. A person with children. You can just double and triple and quadruple your list of reasons if you made the choice to bring a little vulnerable being into the world. Not that I’m judging you. But, really. What were you thinking? And you thought you were a worrier before you had kids.

I’ve written about this before here and here because it’s such a real phenomenon for people with finely tuned nervous systems, which you know you have. Not to mention, your capacity to feel the suffering of neighbors, trees, children everywhere, and your lonely Aunt Lucille.

Not only that. If you had to start worrying when you were two years old because your mother was screaming obscenities at you and your father was unreliable and self-absorbed, for example, well then, you likely have developed a remarkable ability to become anxious at a moment’s notice. Or to remain anxious all of the time on all occasions (called hypervigilance**) Just in case. You never know. You need to be prepared for the worst.

So, my darlings, you see?  Stop berating yourself for your worrying ways. Stop pressuring yourself to be cool, calm, and collected because you’re so smart. There are reasons for your extraordinary capacity to worry.

I have a suggestion.

In addition to all of the tools and techniques listed in the many articles out there, here’s another that I’ve recently started to practice more regularly. That I’ve found surprisingly helpful.

Here it is.

You know how fear tends to make you want to freeze or shrink or hide or push it away? Instead, notice it and be with it. Where do you feel it in your body? Hello, anxiety. Then, remember that it’s just a part of you. And you are bigger than it. Imagine yourself expanding. Breathe and expand. As odd as it sounds, welcome the anxiety. Bring it on, baby! And keep expanding. You will begin to feel your higher Self and the Love that is in you and around you. Breathe. You might start to notice that you feel lighter and more peaceful. The fear may still be there but you’ve become so large that it becomes insignificant. Imagine that!

The more you practice this, the easier it will be to get into this more peaceful state. And if you want to take it one step further, turn it into a tonglen practice (from Pema Chodron) where you breathe in all of the anxiety all over the world (Seriously!), and you breathe out Love to everyone, including yourself.

Including yourself.


To my bloggEEs: I’m breathing Love to you right now, my little chickadees. Tell us about your anxiety and your worries. What do you do that is helpful? If you try this technique, let us know how it goes. There may be other, more concrete things, to try first. Sometimes, you need to address the basics first and get spiritual later. Trust yourself. If you grew up with chainsaws, give yourself time to heal via many paths.

*For the perfectionists among us: Is overthinker one word? Should it be hyphenated? Is it two words? I hyphenated it in another post so  should I be consistent? Am I over-thinking over thinking? Oh, brother.

** If you have an extreme case of anxiety, due to early trauma, medication may be an option as well. Sometimes the bio-chemical help is needed so that you can manage your life enough to be able to benefit from the other techniques.





Author: Paula Prober

I’m a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice based in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in international consulting with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. I’ve been a teacher and an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a frequent guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I’ve written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, Advanced Development Journal and online for psychotherapy dot net, Rebelle Society, Thrive, Introvert Dear, and Highly Sensitive Refuge. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, is a collection of case studies of gifted clients along with many strategies and resources for gifted adults and teens. My second book, Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind: A Field Guide for Gifted Adults and Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists is a collection of my most popular blog posts along with writing exercises for self-exploration and insight.

44 responses to “Dealing with Anxiety When You Are a Highly Sensitive Overthinker*”

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  2. Cc Avatar

    Thank you for being one of the handful of people I now have in this world who have made me feel like they truly understand. 🙏🏼 Your words are comforting beyond belief.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you for letting me know, Cc.

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  8.  Avatar

    I’m concerned that you advocate bio-chemical changes to anyone – least of all the gifted! It misses out psychospiritual understanding and seems to undermine your tenet that we are all normal. This seems to say, get more normal via medication, and you can move forward. I find this incredibly dangerous, unsettling and disappointing.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Oh my goodness, Anonymous. I think you’ve misinterpreted what I’m saying. I only mention medication because it can be an important answer for some people. I don’t recommend it quickly or easily or as a first choice. But I do have some clients who are so paralyzed by anxiety, that medication keeps them functioning so they can then do the psychospiritual work they need to do to go deeper and look at what may be causing the anxiety. It’s all so complex and individual. Hard to make it clear in a short blog post. And you notice I just add it in the end. But I understand how you might feel disappointed. I think if you read more of my posts, you’ll see what I say about “normal.” My most recent post talks about that. Check it out and see what you think. Thank you for sharing your concerns. I hope this response helps.

  9. Federico Avatar

    Hi, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I suffer a big depression episode like 3 years ago, but now I’m “fine” I went to a psychologist, we talk about it, did therapy and that stuff back then but now I’m about to finish my first career and I want to study another one but I don’t know which and that situation makes very very anxious because I like a lot of things and I think I’m having the same symptoms of some kind of depression again, lack of motivation, I just want to sleep, I want to cry but I can’t the tears doesn’t show up, and I have a constant thought of feel of I don’t know what to do with my life, now I feel some kind of pressure in my chest just by thinking about it, and Sorry with bad english it’s not my first language, I’m a Spanish speaker so I try my best

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      It sounds like you could use more support, Federico. Sometimes people need to return to therapy periodically throughout their lives, especially when big changes occur, like a new career. Can you go back to your therapist? Or try a new one? Maybe more of my posts will be helpful. Your English is excellent! Thank you for writing.

  10. RL Avatar

    My husband and I were talking about this the other night. He has only one type of overthinking – squirrelcaging about things in the past that have not gone right. But I have two, and between the two of them I always feel like I am finding a ‘clear path’ in the web through which to toss my tightrope. I have the anxiety that follows me from everything I COULD do but don’t and the anxiety of everything that I have done that could have been better or was wrong. And the ‘could’ anxiety is tangled and wrapped with ‘But if you start and you can’t finish then you failed.’ So they are all tied up in each other. I called the feeling ‘creeping origami’ – it is like all these projects are stuck to me wanting to be finished and everything I walk by has ten more new sheets wanting to fly along behind me…

    He agreed I start thousands of things and I don’t finish them.. its one of the things that worries him about me and he can’t help. Really annoying is I don’t even clean them up and put them away…(because out of sight out of mind) but he doesn’t understand the thousands more I don’t even start and the little lead-balloon feeling of each one that comes back to remind me. To him, if you want to think about something, you ARE thinking about it.

    But I have a wall I put up, to stop it…and hide from myself the thoughts that could unfold if I focus on any one subject, because there are too many other things to do/think and I always feel like if I ever let that wall ‘go’ I will either terribly disappoint myself or scare everyone with some explosive reaction even I’m just not ready for. So I only allow the shallower thoughts that are mixed up with everything and always feel the anxiety that I could do more, I haven’t done more, I really shouldn’t even let the reaction start etc.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I’m guessing that many readers will relate to this description, RL. Thank you for providing these details about your particular anxieties and for mentioning that there are different types of overthinking.

  11. CallunaTook Avatar

    I have looked up the topic of “overthink,” and the correct form is indeed “overthink” according to the recommended dictionaries for both the Chicago and AP Style Manuals. Further, when creating a compound word in general using “over-” the hyphen is rarely used (according to AP). Since Fred has pointed out that you used to use the hyphen, I would speculate that this is a priority call on your part over whether you’d prefer to maintain consistency or use the technically correct form going forward.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you for doing the research. I think I’d rather be technically correct going forward.

  12. Reina Avatar

    Awesome Paula. For me, it helps to know two things: I’m not my old self, I’m my present self, and a lot of triggers are old triggers that no longer apply. So it’s like feeling anxiety over things that no longer happen because there’s still some residue left in my psyche. The second thing is that we have an overactive imagination (compared to most; for us it’s just “active”, there’s no ‘over’ about it) and sometimes it tilts too much onto the negative. That’s when I have to remind myself that whatever’s cooking up in my brain is not nearly as bad as what happens in real life. It almost never is…. actually it never it. lol

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Very helpful suggestions, Reina. Thank you.

  13. Gail Post, Ph.D. Avatar
    Gail Post, Ph.D.

    Great points, Paula. So many hyper sensitive overthinkers out there who need to accept/embrace who they are. And I love Pema Chodron. Thanks for all of your wonderful ideas.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Always good to hear from you, Gail.

  14. Margie Avatar

    Tonglen works for me. It’s like I’m a breathing tree. Breathe in all the anxiety and “stinking thinking” – aka CO2 – and breathe out pure oxygen – love and light! I try to put on an 11 minute YouTube vid of Pema Chodron doing Intro to Tonglen with an audience every morning. It helps. Breathing tree in the rainforest…

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Love the image, Margie. Thank you.

  15. Malandra Avatar

    Ah, yes, hypervigilance. A constant companion for many years, the expectation of danger never leaves.

    Loved your little mention of overthinking the word overthinking.!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you for sharing, Malandra.

  16. medleymisty Avatar

    I’ve noticed that mine has improved a lot over the last few years. In 2011 it was really bad – that was the height of the Bad Times, and it was when I developed an ulcer that hemorrhaged and nearly killed me. And I’ve tested negative for h. pylori twice and I was taking a strong NSAID, but only after it’d been prescribed for the chest pain, so I think it’s very possible that the anxiety caused the ulcer.

    But in the years since I’ve learned a lot about how to deal with it. I had to, because the chest pain from the ulcer was at level 9 at the worst, and I couldn’t deal with that sort of pain again. When getting stressed causes severe chest pain, you learn pretty quick how to control the stress.

    Self talk helps a lot. I’d make a mistake, and that would start the anxiety/self-hate spiral, and I’d talk myself through it. I’d tell myself that I was okay, that it’s human to make mistakes, that I could learn from it and try to not do it again, that there were understandable circumstances that led to it and it didn’t mean that I was a bad person, that I would be okay and that it wouldn’t matter 10 years from now and it didn’t matter now out in the vast reaches of space, etc. And of course trying to breathe slowly and deeply.

    It’s been working. I’ve noticed that at work I’m much less scared of elevators than I used to be – I can just go in and go up now, whereas years ago I would pace outside the elevator for 20 minutes or so, trying to get my heart rate down. Armed alarms at work (I take pics of rental properties) are still pretty anxiety-inducing, especially since the time I did everything right and the alarm still went off because I’d been given the wrong code, but it’s improving a bit. I breathe and I focus on getting my heart rate down, and if I know where the keypad is I visualize going to it and getting there in time and putting in the code.

    I’ve also been learning about boundaries, and how what other people see is mostly themselves reflected back at them, and so they aren’t actually judging me and finding me wanting and worthy of hatred after rationally and objectively observing me for a while and making a considered judgement, like I assume. Really they’re just yelling at their own mindshadows.

    A few months ago someone made a dummy account to get past me having anonymous messaging turned off on a social media platform, and they ranted at me and said all this horrible stuff about me, and it honestly didn’t trigger the anxiety at all. My breathing and my heart rate both stayed normal, and I responded rationally, and I knew it was about them and that what they said wasn’t true. Also I told them that I really hope they get help, because from the MO it seemed like it was the same person who’s been stalking me everywhere online for nearly a decade now and posting anon hate about me.

    Also lately I’ve noticed that the physical symptoms go away after a short bit. I might not have noticed it before because before my brain would get stuck in a self-hate loop for days when I made a mistake, but now that it’s better I can feel how the adrenaline drains and passes away in an hour or less. So I added a reminder that it will pass shortly to the self talk.

    Oh, also I made a conscious effort to recognize when a decision I made turned out to be good, or when something went right for me. I wrenched my brain away from only focusing on the negative and I was like, “Look, that turned out pretty well there, right? Let’s notice that something went right and let’s feel that and be happy and at peace about it.”

    I’ve been doing this for nearly seven years now, and it’s really worked and the anxiety has improved a lot. It’s still there, of course, but it’s much more manageable and livable than it was in 2011.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Lots of good ideas here, medleymisty. Thank you. I’m glad that your anxiety has been reduced.

  17. M. J. Cuthbertson Avatar
    M. J. Cuthbertson

    Flawed pattern recognition has been a frequent source of unwanted anxiety in my life. Deconstructing those patterns has lightened my anxiety loads. Our hunter-gatherer brains needed a keen pattern recognition tool. Knowing that when we heard a particular bird sing, sensed a specific floral fragrance, and seeing a unique landform meant we were near those berries that carried us through the next couple weeks every year was vital. In our current lives patterns are much less reliable, but our brains don’t know that.

    Distinguishing between valid patterns and flawed patterns helps me reduce anxiety. My brain wants me to believe always or never when a pattern pops up. When I dig into the pattern I often find it’s not always or never. More likely it was once, sometimes twice, but very rare for the perceived negative event to unfold. Understanding this lessens some of my anxiety.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Fascinating, M.J. Thank you.

  18. LGrace Avatar

    Thank you for the validation on this! I firmly believe that society’s increasing focus on anxiety, as though it is an always detrimental demon, has counterintuitively caused more of the very “problem” it seeks to solve. I’m fond of saying that without anxiety, I’d never pay the bills. It is what gets us up out of our comfort zone and attending to vast the myriad of things we very much ought to be worried about. No wonder perceptive, gifted minds have more of it: we have more thoughts of every kind, and to treat anxiety as an exception is pure folly. Balance and management, yes — but anxiety is a human experience for good reason. It is important. Much perspective can be gleaned by biographies; well-written children’s ones suffice. Be ever mindful of all those amazing people (like Julia Child with her shark repellent contributions to the WWII-era Office of Strategic Services) and just imagine what we’d all have lost without their anxiety. In manageable doses it should be as welcomed as rain. (As for the hyphen, my grammatical take is to use one word, hyphen or not . . .”over thinker” or “overthinker” not “over thinker” — but to choose any of the above, whichever you like, at each instance. Creativity in spelling used to be considered a welcomed sign of intelligence, and if it makes other anxious, good.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thanks for sharing your take on this topic, LGrace. I haven’t heard about Julia Child and shark repellent… will have to look that one up! Great to have you here!

  19. Devon Avatar

    I’m a mother to a rainforested four year old and I too am heavily forested and had a banshee mother. I honestly don’t know how I survived without your monthly input/impact Paula, seriously, you have just spoken to the deepest part of me that heartily agreed with you. Now my whole being is in agreement about how we’ll deal next time anxiety strikes… possibly in the next few seconds after posting this comment! Much love and gratitude x

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Oh, I’m so happy to help, Devon. Thank you for your courage!

  20. Me Avatar

    I am an introvert. My default setting is to crawl inside myself when I become anxious. Apparently I disappeared when I was 10 and have never been heard from again. So my counselor has told me that I need to start opening up to people. I’ve decided to try a small-group at my church. Now I have anxiety about that. But I’m determined to do this and it’s (strangely enough) giving me hope that perhaps I may find light at the end of my tunnel.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      We’ll be rooting for you! Thanks for sharing.

    2. FredB Avatar

      There are lots of introvert resources on Twitter.

      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        Thanks, Fred. So that’s how Twitter hashtags work. Ha! A whole new world!

  21. Accessible Travel Online | Avatar
    Accessible Travel Online |

    I have thought 1 whole year about my decision whether to become a mom – after thinking about having kids already for 20 years 😁

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Oh, yes, I’m sure the rainforest-minded have thought carefully about having children. And, of course, we want more RFMs in the world. But you know my sense of humor…

  22. Walther Ligtvoet Avatar
    Walther Ligtvoet

    Wait.. what.. should you have a list? Isn’t just having all those thoughts and scares and worries inside your head enough without also having to maintain a list updating, adding, removing and such? Is it compulsory and if so what kind of list? Does it have to be a neat one or an electronic one? And what about the environment? Should the list be made of recycled paper or created on a refurbished computer? Must it be protected for privacy concerns? Written in a secret code or something?

    My head is full of it… and it freezes me more than I care to think to think about. Yet when push comes to shove I’ll manage… somehow… anyhow… and still berate myself nonetheless.

    I wouldn’t mind some occasional help though so let’s see what this technique could do for me 😉 .

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Ha! Love these questions, Waither! Yeah, probably best to leave them in your head!!

  23. FredB Avatar

    You used to write it “over-thinker.” You may not remember everything you’ve ever written, but I do.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Oh my gosh, Fred. That’s a little scary.

  24. Christy Harvey Avatar
    Christy Harvey

    Wait! I only added TWELVE things to my to do list, not 14….does that mean I’m not overthinking ENOUGH? 😉 Thanks for your excellent commentary, and for the suggestion of the Tonglen process. I love the HeartMath quick coherence technique, but may experiment with the one you’ve recommended.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thanks for suggesting HeartMath, Christy. It’s a good one, too! And, yeah, you need to overthink some more… 🙂