High sensitivity makes you more conscious of yourself and others and therefore more vulnerable to other people’s perception of us. Highly sensitive people notice every shift in facial expression, tone of voice or gaze. They soak up the body language of people around them and are able to capture subtle messages, secrets and unspoken truths. They naturally and automatically detect when there’s a discrepancy between words and underlying intentions.
In order to thrive, a highly sensitive person needs to be surrounded by genuine, authentic, kind and compassionate people. Sensitive souls need a safe environment in which they feel comfortable opening up. Obviously, we can’t always choose our environment. Whether it is at a work meeting, a conference, an art opening, a party or any social event that implies being in contact with a lot of people at the same time, sensitive souls are likely to find themselves in high alert state.
As they capture the slightest signals and strongly react to external stimuli, their nervous system gets easily overwhelmed when the amount of social interactions and received data reaches a certain level. This is when their survival mode is activated. It can show up in various ways like:
– Feeling paralyzed, frozen and unable to speak (Shutdown response)
– Avoiding eye contact and trying at all costs not to be noticed (Shutdown response)
– Leaving the room on an impulse, suddenly disappearing without telling anyone, running away, escaping the situation (Flight response)
– Being defensive, aggressive, reacting in a disproportionate manner, getting angry, initiating conflict (Fight response)
Physical reactions such as an increased heart rate, fast breathing, blushing, heat flashes, stuttering, sweating, chest pain, a tight throat, suffocating, digestive problems can be a consequence of a dysregulated nervous system.
Highly sensitive people are more prone to social anxiety because of their nervous system’s hyperexcitability. As a result of their extreme receptivity and emotional sensitivity, when a strong emotion runs through them, it releases a strong rush of hormones that completely shakes them up and throws them off balance.
A person’s gaze pierces them like a sharp knife. Without meaning to, they give a lot of importance to other people’s opinions of themselves. They worry they might look weird or ridiculous. They worry people might judge them, make fun of them, despise them, reject them and exclude them from the group. They anticipate the possibility of being rejected and therefore implement coping mechanisms and unconscious strategies to protect themselves. Among these strategies, we find:
– Avoidance: the person will refuse invitations, withdraw, isolate
– Addictions: cigarettes, cannabis, alcohol, drugs…
Addictions are a coping mechanism whose aim is to regulate the nervous system.
When highly sensitive souls are facing social anxiety, they fear others will notice they are not comfortable as if it meant giving all their power away, so they will do anything to hide it.
Smoking gives the illusion of being confident in our body and enables us to maintain our composure. It prevents us from biting our fingernails and from not knowing what to do with our hands. When we don’t know what to say or do, at least we can always smoke. Also, asking for a cigarette or a lighter is a great way to start a conversation when you’re shy.
Alcohol is certainly the most used substance in case of social anxiety as it releases inhibitions and fears and we feel a strong discomfort in a particular situation, it soothes and relaxes our nervous system. It enhances highly sensitive and shy people’s ability to communicate with others. Alcohol neutralizes the action of two neuromodulators that are essential to how we perceive our environment and that influence our vigilance and alertness: noradrenaline and serotonin. It increases the secretion of endorphins that connect to other receptors and also have disinhibiting properties. Alcohol activates GABA neurotransmitters that induce relaxation. Moreover, ethanol boosts the level of dopamine, involved in the reward and addiction system, which creates a pleasant feeling of euphoria. Under the influence of alcohol, a person can feel omnipotent, when, at the same time, the way they perceive risks is seriously impaired. That’s where danger lies, we feel very confident and therefore tend to take more risks. Besides, our body is constantly seeking homeostasis, the balance of our internal state, so to counter this abnormal boost, it’s going to self-regulate by lowering the neurotransmitters in our blood. This is why the next day, anxiety kicks back in! This is the rebound effect. When that occurs, the temptation to start drinking again might be high. This is how the vicious circle of addiction starts. It’s fair to say that alcohol is often used to soothe anxiety when it actually induces more anxiety. It can also lead to a lack of interest, motivation and involvement at work, difficulty concentrating, excessive weight gain, issues in interpersonal relationships, depression, conflict, violence, car accidents and other high-risk behaviours like unprotected or unwanted sexual relations, and on the long run important health issues… When a person is dependent on alcohol, it is essential to have a medical assistance to deal with withdrawal symptoms and avoid relapse, before they’re able to grow back their self-esteem and confidence.
Smoking cannabis is often used to calm, soothe and relax, however, it often tends to strengthen anxiety and can even lead to paranoiac and obsessive episodes. An Australian study (BMJ 2002) even suggests that it could awaken dormant mental health disorders like schizophrenia.
Cocaine, which is becoming more and more popular, is one of the most addictive drugs. It blocks the reabsorption of certain neurotransmitters and therefore increases in the synapses the concentration of dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin, which are related to pleasure, happiness, excitement, sexual desire, motivation and joy. After taking cocaine, a person feels a rush of energy, euphoria and wellbeing and feels omnipotent, invincible and extremely self-confident. It also increases the heart rate, lead to insomnia, impulsiveness and a loss of control. It stimulates the reward system of the brain and therefore creates addiction. The descent that follows is as painful as the rush was pleasant, the low as low as the high was high: fatigue, irritability, sadness, aggressivity, anxiety, panic attacks, megalomania, depression… To numb those feelings, it might be tempting to take some more. This is how the vicious circle starts. On the long run cocaine causes cerebral atrophy, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, heart attacks and strokes…
MDMA, the main ingredient of ecstasy, is a type of amphetamine known for its empathogenic, euphoric and stimulant effects. Known as the “love drug”, it induces the release and blocks the reuptake of monoamine neurotransmitters, thus potentiating serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine and oxytocin activity. It eases verbal as well as non-verbal communication, stimulates the senses, especially tactile experiences and increases physical attraction between people. It alters the mind and sensory perception. It increases the heart rate and causes dehydration. The descent lasts at least a couple of days and leaves you feeling low, depressed, anxious and sometimes some suicidal thoughts can creep in.
Tranquilizers, especially benzodiazepines, soothes anxiety, improves sleep quality and muscle relaxation, however they are highly addictive and create important withdrawal symptoms. Therefore, it is essential to stop progressively.
When using these substances becomes a habit, almost a way of life, it slowly starts to influence our behaviours, the choice we make, our life and to alter our personality and define who we are. In the end, it causes a lot of psychological and physical damage.
We can ask ourselves why someone will occasionally smoke a cigarette, drink a glass of alcohol or maybe try a drug once, and why someone will get hooked. Addiction is not only physical but above all psychological. It fills a hole, a feeling of emptiness, a lack of purpose, it fulfills an emotional need. Ask yourself: what do I need? To feel seen, heard, understood, loved, supported, included? To find some meaning and purpose in my life? What is the initial wound? If I felt, rejected, abandoned, betrayed, humiliated, chances are I will create coping mechanisms, unconscious survival strategies in order to protect myself and not experience the same situation again.
Highly sensitive souls are particularly at risk as their nervous system reacts strongly to the pleasant and unpleasant sensations induced by the drug, they are more likely to get hooked and more likely to feel intensely the low that follows. A substance that is initially used to soothe social anxiety will end up creating more anxiety.
If you have decided to change your habits and start a new chapter, free of addiction, it is essential to consult a doctor to benefit from a full support, deal with withdrawal symptoms and avoid relapse.
A therapist can help you identify the root cause, the initial wound, the emotional need. Hypnosis can help you revisit the moment in your life you were hurt in order to contact the child or the teenager you once were, who still exists within you, and finally bring him/her/them what he/she/they need(s). Then hypnosis will suggest new ways of perceiving things, new behaviours in order for you to redesign a life more aligned with who you are deep down.
To overcome social anxiety and addiction, you will be asked to honour your emotions and look your fears in the eye. If you feel anxious around certain people, ask yourself: is this environment aligned with who I am? Do these people share my core values? Are they kind? Do they want what’s best for me? You can take your power back by consciously choosing who you surround yourself with. Trust yourself. Trust your intuition. Trust the messages your body is sending you. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. You might want to cut ties with certain people if they make you feel anxious.
Alcohol and other psychoactive substances blur your intuition and take you away from your essence. When you indulge in alcohol or drugs because you feel anxious, it is like forcing something that is not meant for you, it’s going backwards.
Feeling more comfortable, more at ease in social and group situations will require you to remove your mask, show who you are and let others see your vulnerability. It will be scary at first, but like a muscle that you train, it will feel easier and easier with time and practice, until it becomes natural. When people you open up to respond with kindness, you will feel more and more confident. Showing your vulnerability means expressing yourself, your thoughts, your emotions. It is what creates genuine, authentic friendships and relationships that feed your soul.
Breaking free from addiction is a path towards yourself. It is hard and bumpy at the start, but it gets easier and easier. It’s a unique opportunity to make peace with yourself, to fully accept and love yourself. When you don’t need to hide anymore and just allow yourself to be exactly who you are, this is freedom. When you start love yourself, you send a different energy out into the world, a magnetic force that attracts people and situations that vibe and resonate with who you are deep inside. Life flows and expands, and your experiences become more and more fulfilling.