How I Deal With Panic Attacks as a Highly Sensitive Introvert

A highly sensitive introvert recovers from a panic attack

When you’re a highly sensitive introvert who’s calibrated to absorb everything, your “seismographic needle” is always on the move.

Being energetically sensitive is a tough gig, yet it’s part of the package we introverts and highly sensitive people (HSPs) live with. It’s like being a walking seismograph — except we’re the instrument, the quake, and the measurement all in one.

Depending on how in tune we are, the sensory inputs that cause our quakes rarely stop and everything registers: excess noise, talking, commotion, personal space invasion, and even skin sensitivity. On top of that, our thresholds are naturally lower. It’s important to be aware of — and manage — these inputs so our daily tremors don’t become the big ka-boom. But if they do, self-acceptance, and even the occasional panic attack, can do some good. Yes, good.

What It’s Like to Feel So Much

When you’re calibrated to absorb everything, your seismographic needle is always on the move: jittering, jumping, spiking off the scale. These little earthquakes everywhere are exhausting, hinting at danger in even non-threatening situations. These quakes range from the low-grade anxiety that never quite goes away (3-4 on the Richter scale) to full-fledged breakdowns (Holy 9.0 Batman!).

I remember when I realized I was physically clenched most of the time at work, ready for battle for no reason at all. I’d be sitting at my cube — answering emails, feeling the anxiety of an introvert in corporate America — and notice my whole body was contracted. It’s all part of the fight-flight-freeze response our brains deploy to protect us. Today, it’s unrelenting expectations and the hustle culture we’re fighting, not saber-toothed tigers; our poor craniums just can’t tell the difference.

We may not realize a tectonic shift is coming until it hits. While not prone to panic attacks (I’m more of a depression and hypomania girl myself), I had the mother of them all during a “relaxing” vacation at the beach with my family.

I Need Alone Time for My Mental Health

Like so many introverts and HSPs, I need to be alone — a lot. To maintain my mental health, I need a whole bunch of not-too-much, even pleasant things. And I need sleep. 

These needs have deepened now that the pandemic has me working from home. Instead of an office where people can walk up to my cube at any given moment and startle the bejesus out of me (another way we introverts and HSPs quake), I’m in my apartment most of the time with just my two sweet Bombays to keep me company. Yes, I have conference calls and trips to the grocery store. I’m in a committed relationship and my partner is over many nights a week. But, largely, I’m alone.

Not so on my vacation, though, where four other humans were talking, laughing, and just plain around for nearly five days straight. You can see where this is headed …

Panic at the (HSP) Disco

On vacay day number two and after a trip to a crowded grocery store, my mouth and eyes started to tingle. By the time I got back to our condo, my face was numb. I asked for time alone to deal with what was coming. I laid down, focused on my breath, even took a bath. Something about the steam and hot water in that tiny bathroom made me claustrophobic and I went into full panic mode: weeping, gasping for breath, feeling completely desperate, and thinking if it didn’t stop soon, I might have to go to the ER. Sound familiar?

A cold shower, more alone time, and the realization that a doctor wouldn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know helped calm me down. (While I don’t often have panic attacks, stress has sent me to the ER more than once.) When everyone got back, I told them what happened, but could barely speak for hours afterwards. Thankfully, things got better. I made it through the rest of the trip and even managed to enjoy myself.

On the long drive home, I realized that my private earthquake had actually helped me. My panic attack was like an energetic release valve, offloading an excess of stress and anxiety that I didn’t realize had been building up. I can’t explain the “why” of it. I just know that after it was over, it felt like a reset button had been pressed. 

I was able to communicate some of my bottled-up feelings to my boyfriend: How much more could happen this year? Why is it so hard to talk when I need to the most? Getting some of that off my chest, I dove back into work and personal projects with new energy for the first time in a while. 

I don’t want it to take a panic attack for me (or anyone else) to feel good again. (And after coming across this article about how highly sensitive people get mentally and emotionally flooded, I now prefer the term “flooding.”) But if it has to happen, I choose to see my high sensitivity — the trait that sometimes fuels such anxious build-ups — as a gift, not a hindrance. And, these days, there’s plenty of evidence to support that.

For Those Who ‘Quake,’ It’s Important to Remember That Genetic Factors Are at Play, Too

First, there’s nothing wrong with us for being highly sensitive. How do I know? Biology, baby. Being an HSP or introvert generally means you’re born to it, with a double dose of nature and nurture to boot. In The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Elaine Aron cites extensive research that demonstrates it’s in our genes and that we likely exist “as a distinct set of people.”

However, it is important to note that not all introverts and HSPs suffer from panic attacks, anxiety, or emotional flooding. Research does show that we may be more prone to anxiety and depression, but they are not inherently a part of introversion or high sensitivity. In her book, for example, Dr. Aron emphasizes that arousal is not the same as anxiety or fear, even though it may feel similar in our bodies. She also distinguishes between the “two kinds” of HSPs: those who struggle with depression and anxiety, almost always due to troubled childhoods, and those who don’t. 

Whatever our brand of introversion or high sensitivity, the world is finally catching on that being sensitive and preferring a quieter life is just as important as the hustle, the side gig, the leaning in. Being called “sensitive” used to bug the hell out of me. Just call me “weak,” why don’t ya? Today, I’m pretty sure I’d say, “Why, yes, I am sensitive. Thanks for noticing!” In fact, the more I embrace my highly sensitive introvert traits, the less likely they get noticed for the wrong reasons.

Something else to remember: the sudden panic, intense grief or sadness that drops like an atom bomb from nowhere? It’s not necessarily ours. It may be the product of taking in far more stimuli from our environments than we can ever process. On top of this, many of us are also intuitive and empathic, absorbing what others feel. Remembering that “not all of this belongs to me” can help a lot.

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How I Prevent Panic Attacks (and the Importance of a ‘Whatever Works’ Mentality)

Ultimately, we introverts and HSPs recalibrate through a hand-crafted cocktail called “Whatever Works.” There’s the importance of mindfulness: being in our bodies, monitoring our breath, and running body scans to discover where specific thoughts and feelings hang out.

Lately, I’ve been using the inputs I can’t avoid — the physical vibrations my nervous system picks up from people’s speech and motion — to strengthen my sensitivity muscle. By deliberately turning toward these stimuli (slowing down, stopping, and feeling the vibrations of sound and motion land on my skin), I believe I can increase my energetic capacity. I’m not trying to not be an HSP. But I am trying to expand how much I can absorb so I can do more of what I love without getting worn out.

I use lots of calming sensory tools, too, including some great 3D videos that are free on YouTube. The Psychedelic Trips channel features amazing trance images, for example. Often, I watch without sound, letting the virtual reality visual effects wash over me. (Endless Black Hole is a personal favorite.)

Watching horror movies is even part of my self-care cocktail, an oddity for HSPs, but it’s worked for me since I was a kid. Much has been written about how horror can help us safely explore our human shadows. The deep places where they live are the same places where my energetic sensitivity was born. For me, odd as it may sound, I vibrate on a lower frequency in that space. When I realized it made me feel relief, I embraced it and now use it to my advantage.

Each person’s version of “Whatever Works” looks different. But for all of us, it means taking care of ourselves so we can make changes, move forward, and be content. The point is to learn and to love who we are while we’re grappling with it all. Having panic attacks and absorbing the shocks aren’t easy. But I wouldn’t trade this amazingly sensitive instrument for the world. Would you?

Is the chaos of life overwhelming you as a highly sensitive person?

Sensitive people have certain brain differences that make them more susceptible to stress and anxiety. Thankfully, there is a way to train your brain so you can navigate the challenges of sensitivity, access your gifts, and thrive in life. Psychotherapist and sensitivity expert Julie Bjelland will show you how in her popular online course, HSP Brain Training. As an Introvert, Dear reader, you can take 50% off the registration fee using the code INTROVERTDEARClick here to learn more.

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