Highly Sensitive People And Depression: What You Need To Know

By Anni


Today’s topic is highly sensitive people and depression.  A dear reader recently contacted me, because she is having a hard time figuring out if her teenage daughter is seriously depressed or if she is just being a typical teenager who also happens to be a highly sensitive introvert.

This got me thinking about how a lot of what we do as HSPs must look terribly alarming to non-HSPs.  Take, for example, some of my own antics over the past few years.  I walked away from a successful career with a six-figure income.  I destroyed my social life, ending roughly 99 percent of the “acquaintanceships” I used to participate in.  I insisted on creating a schedule that allows me to withdraw from all human contact for several hours most days.  And to top it all off…  Whenever I would hit a low mood, I stubbornly refused to talk about it and instead went to hide in my bedroom behind closed doors.

C-R-A-Z-Y, right?

Yes, some people may see me as loonie-bin material, but guess what?  I don’t care.  I don’t care, because I feel healthier and happier now than I ever have in my 40+ years of life.

With that being said… In certain circumstances, highly sensitive people can be more vulnerable to depression than non-HSPs.  I’m an ex-poster-child of HSP depression myself.  There are times when concern is warranted.  We shouldn’t just write off all of our weird behaviors as HSP-quirks.

So let’s have a closer look at highly sensitive people and depression.  What makes us more vulnerable to depression?  How can you tell if a highly sensitive person is depressed?  And how might a highly sensitive person’s recovery from depression look different from other people?

Highly Sensitive People And Depression - why do HSPs get depressed, how to tell when an HSP is depressed, and what an HSP needs to recover from depression.

Highly Sensitive People And Depression: What You Need To Know

What Makes Highly Sensitive People More Vulnerable To Depression?

HSPs are more likely than non-HSPs to become depressed, especially if they have had a troubled childhood or otherwise stressful life.  Here’s why.

1. Chronic Overstimulation And The Inability To Control It

Highly sensitive people tend to get overstimulated more easily than non-HSPs.  Stimulation is anything that wakes up one’s nervous system and it takes less to wake up an HSP’s sensitive nervous system than it does to wake up a non-HSP’s nervous system.  It also follows that the same amount of stimulation that will make a non-HSP comfortably alert might cause overarousal for an HSP.

Overarousal or overstimulation is a feeling of being frazzled and out-of-control.  And when you are feeling that way for a prolonged period of time or too frequently, it stresses you out and tires you out.  It’s like becoming hung over from experiencing life.  It’s mentally and physically exhausting.  It often comes with bodily symptoms, such as headaches, that make it harder to bear.  It clouds your thinking and makes it inordinately difficult to problem-solve.  It can make you highly irritable or a teary mess or both.

It basically feels like your brain is so tired it starts to shut down.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of an HSP who has either never heard about the HSP trait or doesn’t really get what it means…  You don’t know what overstimulation is.  You don’t know why it’s happening to you.  You think you are the only one who this happens to.  You have zero clue how to prevent it or manage it or overcome it.

In that situation, it’s not terribly surprising that you will start feeling less than positive about life in general and eventually sink into the hopelessness of depression.  And to make matters worse, overstimulation isn’t just “in your head”.  It’s a physiological process.  It’s stress.

Chronic overstimulation leads to chronic stress leads to depression.

2. Being Sensitive To Everything, Including Potential Causes Of Depression

Depression has many potential causes.  And since highly sensitive people are more sensitive to pretty much everything, they are also more sensitive to potential causes of depression.

This is one of the reasons why you might see siblings coming from the same dysfunctional family environment with vastly different outcomes.  People who are exposed to prolonged stress as children risk developing a dysregulated stress response system.  They grow into adults whose bodies overreact to stressors and have a harder time returning to a normal state after being stressed.  HSPs are more likely to be vulnerable to these influences, because they absorb the circumstances more and their bodies are more sensitive to stressors to begin with.

But HSPs are not just vulnerable to depression caused by a troubled childhood and the associated stress.  There are a multitude of other causes of depression that might affect HSPs more than non-HSPs.  Medications, hormonal shifts, diet, environmental stressors, other people’s moods…

All these things have the potential to affect us more easily and more deeply, therefore making us more vulnerable to depression.

3. Deeper Feelings, Including Bad Feelings

Highly sensitive people tend to have stronger emotional reactions  – both positive and negative – than non-HSPs.  This means that when we feel bad, we feel REALLY bad.  We might cry more easily.  We might get hyper emotional.  We might go into a place that’s really low and really dark.

And when we don’t know what to do with these emotions… How to frame them…  How to respond to them…  How to manage them…  How to relieve them…  We might get stuck in that low, dark place, not knowing how to find our way out.

4. A Wild Imagination And Rich Inner Life

One of the hall-marks of high sensitivity is depth of processing.  We tend to process information more deeply than non-HSPs.  We like to think a lot.  We like to consider and ponder and dream and fantasize.  This is one of our greatest strengths, but it can be a double-edged sword when our brains are mostly focused on imagining all the ways in which things can go wrong and dwelling on everything that is bad.

Again, when we don’t know how to manage our thought processes…  When we don’t know how to examine or objectively assess our own conclusions, we might get stuck in a scary dark place and not know how to get out.

5. Feeling Like You Are Different And Flawed

Highly sensitive people are a minority.  We constitute an estimated 15 to 20 percent of the population.  Although that’s not a tiny minority, many of us have learned to blend in and hide our true selves.  So even though you may have run into many other HSPs over your lifetime, you may not know it.

This can make an HSP feel very alone.  Different from everyone.  Somehow flawed.  Broken.  A misfit in a society that thrives on speed and noise and stimuli.

To exacerbate these feelings, HSPs tend to have high levels empathy, which makes them sensitive to other people’s feelings and opinions.  So the inevitable “you need to toughen up” and “quit being so sensitive” and “do you have to be so high-maintenance” comments will make matters worse.

We feel like we don’t belong.  We feel like we don’t have a place.  We feel alone.

And depressed.

How Can You Tell If A Highly Sensitive Person Is Depressed?

I’ve known that I’m an HSP for quite a while now.  I know what it means, I know I’m not alone, and I have learned to see it as a strength more than a weakness.  I know how to take care of my body and limit my exposure to potential stressors.  I know what causes overstimulation for me and how to avoid it for long periods of time.

Yet, after years of work, I’m STILL not completely immune to overstimulation.  Sometimes life gets away from me.  Sometimes I push myself to do more than I know I should.  Sometimes I’ve been doing well for so long that I forget I have limits.

It doesn’t happen that often anymore, but sometimes I still get overstimulated – like waaay overstimulated – and it’s not pretty.  Because when I feel bad, I feel REALLY bad.  I become a big ball of emotion.  I sink low.  I cry.  I exaggerate.  I generalize.  I say that I can’t live like this anymore.  I say that I hate the world.  I say that I try so hard but nothing is ever enough.  I say that I just can’t stand anything anymore.  I say that life is too hard and I don’t have what it takes.

You know…  All the things that depressed people say.

Yet, for me, this is not depression.  I have been depressed, and when I was, this is how I was feeling the vast majority of the time.

Now, these lows are a blip.  They don’t last more than a few hours max, because I know I simply failed to respect my limits and I just need to go sleep it off.

I’m not saying it’s acceptable or desirable to go that low and my goal is to get to where I can avoid lows like this altogether.  But it also doesn’t help to overreact to something that happens infrequently and is fixed by a few hours of sleep and solitude.

So based on my own experience, an HSP who is NOT depressed might still have some pretty low lows.  But for an HSP who is NOT depressed, these lows don’t last.  An HSP who is NOT depressed will bounce back fast.  She is content a majority of the time.  She knows what she needs and how to give it to herself.  She is out in the world, but consistently retreats inward to rest.  She engages in activities that give her life meaning.  She looks forward to the future.

On the other hand, a depressed HSP can’t bounce back or has an increasingly hard time doing so.  A depressed HSP is feeling hopeless much of the time.  A depressed HSP lacks confidence in herself.  A depressed HSP lacks balance, either being out in the world way too much or barely at all.  A depressed HSP lacks meaning and lacks excitement about the future.

So to figure out whether an HSP needs some kind of help or intervention, I wouldn’t give very much weight to intensity of feeling in any one instance.  Instead, I would look at mood and outlook on life over time.

How Is Depression Recovery Different For Highly Sensitive People?

The good news is that while HSPs are more affected by a bad environment, they are also more affected by a good environment.  So as long as they get what they need, the chances of recovery are high.

Here’s what an HSP needs to both prevent depression and recover from it:

  1. An understanding of what overstimulation is
  2. Tools for reducing and managing overstimulation
  3. Knowledge of her own particular physical sensitivities and triggers and ways to control them
  4. A recovery plan for overstimulation and low moods
  5. Tools for managing thoughts and emotions
  6. Self compassion = An understanding and appreciation of the benefits of being an HSP
  7. Good boundaries
  8. People who understand high sensitivity and are supportive of an HSP’s lifestyle requirements
  9. TIME TO RECHARGE!

What’s Your Experience?

What about you?  Are you an HSP with depression?  What has been your biggest struggle?  What has helped you the most?  I would love for you to chime in in the comments below! 🙂

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About the author 

Anni

Hi! I'm a life coach, a Certified MBTI® Practitioner, and a mentor for stressed out introverts and highly sensitive people. I used to be one myself! My mission is to help you discover your true self and create a life you ACTUALLY like.

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  1. Hi Anni. Another great blog. I relate so much to the topics you write about. I am also an HSP however, I am an extrovert which comes with its own unique set of challenges. (The best description I have come across is that it’s kind of like living with one foot on the gas one foot on the brake)! Although you do not identify as an extrovert yourself, are there any suggestions you might make to us, the subcategory of extroverted HSPs?

    1. Hi Yvette, thank you so much for reading and commenting! I’ve actually been thinking about extraverted HSPs a lot lately and gearing up to write about it soon. My 6-year-old is an ENFJ and HSP, so even though I’m an introvert myself, it hits close to home. The vast majority of HSP resources out there are really aimed at introverts, so the other side definitely deserves to be addressed more.

      1. You’re so right Anni! I can’t wait to read your blog. ENFP over here and we are definitely a group that is needing extra attention, as it sounds like you well know!

    2. Thank you SO much for posting this comment, I logged in just now and came straight here to leave a similar message because after finding this post this morning it’d been sitting with me ever since, and I decided it was too important important not to also mention here and it actually just totally made my day to see that I’m in even better company now than I’d realized I was this morning when I originally came across this article…. So thank you both for coming and being here first, I really needed you. :-). I am 32 years old, a mom of one and I minored in Psychology (I like to say that I studied Psychology because I was already good at it ;-)) and only just in the last year have I really begun to identify and embrace the qualities about me that make me special and really started to understand how and why I have got to take care of and protect myself. Love myself and trust myself, unequivocally.. But somehow, this is the first time I have ever been officially introduced to the idea of myself explained, in writing, in print, etc…. It seems hard for even myself to believe, but it’s true. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate just stumbling across this and how excited I am to know that it’s out there. I will most definitely pass this along. But yes, The only thing I thought was worthy of mentioning here was the fact that we can be extroverts as well, I’d say above all just in general deeply and very internally and emotionally we are very much living right inside, yes all the time, no matter what, and always and always like breathing in and out, taking in every single drop of everything, constantly we’re aware of what’s really going on, the underlying mood in a room full of people, or shift of one to the next…. There’s Something I have always said to sum up our highly intelligent levels of understanding at any given moment in time, and it’s this, “Ignorance is Bliss. And I have never had that luxury…”. So glad you all are here. And thank you so much again for it, too!! -Lori Pena

      1. Hi Lori, thank you so much for chiming in! I can totally relate to that quote. There are definitely times when it would be nice to not be quite so aware. 🙂

  2. I am an HSP and I will tell you what I do to manage my sensitivities…. I take self care to a new level. I get an energy flow massage and a cupping massage each month. Some may think that’s excessive, but it’s vital for my well-being. I meditate each morning to control my thoughts that can get overwhelming. Meditation has also brought me awareness. Awareness is the most precious gift I have given myself. I practice yoga. I take nature walks. I listen to uplifting podcasts. I follow my bliss minute by minute when I can. I do what makes me happy and let others’ do the same. I also incorporate gratitude in my life wherever I can. Usually while on my walks, I let the gratitude of Mother Nature fill me. I take baths with essential oils and read uplifting books. I incorporate essential oils whenever I can because beautiful smells make me happy. I listen to music because it brings me joy. I set intentions before I do something that I may not want to do. I try to see the good in all people and have compassion for their struggles. I don’t take things personally! People react based on their own belief systems. I share my inner world only with people who will get it. I’m on a constant journey of self acceptance. All of this I wished I knew when I was younger, but because of my struggles, I now know real joy that I didn’t even know existed.

    1. That is awesome! Thank you so much for sharing, Kellie. I don’t think anything you describe is excessive. You are simply giving yourself what you need and what makes you happy. Exactly what needs to happen. 🙂

    2. Thx for sharing youve come a long way. Very much like yourself it has taken me almist alifetime to accept this side of me. I am on my way.

  3. I went through a tough childhood,Had a stepfather who was cruel and my mother did nothing to support me instead she was even worse.My name was wewe mjinga(swahili for you stupid),grewup hating myself and not believing in myself.Life’s been tough for me and I always blame myself for everything.people tend to say am emotional and I overeact,no one understands me.African cultures view hsps or depression as weakness,so you can imagine how many times I have been told I need to toughen up.tears are running down my cheeks as I read this articles as I finally found someone who knows and understands all I go through.this article is what I needed to help me.am grateful

    1. Hi Sylvia, thank you for sharing your story. It sounds like you’ve been through a lot. Please know that you are not alone – there are many of us who understand.

  4. Hi I am wondering where the term came from HSP? Is it self diagnosed? I work as an OT we work with sensory sensitivity. I have a few myself as well. Do you work with any therapies? Thank you. Your descriptions are interesting and to me it sounds like a mixture of conditions. Glad you are learning to self soothe ,a lifetime journey for us all.

    1. Hi Carolyn, thank you for reading and commenting! The term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) was coined by Dr. Elaine Aron who has researched the concept extensively and published several books about it. It’s technically not a condition or a diagnosed disorder. It’s a genetic trait that’s found in 15-20% of people. If you are interested in reading more about it, there are several articles on my website (https://www.solutionstoallyourproblems.com/introvert-life/). There are also self-tests and tons of info on Dr. Aron’s website: https://hsperson.com/test/.

  5. Ya, I know this is me, I often feel like I over think things too much and yes, I’m for sure I am an extroverted hsp. I feel with getting sad for a few hours (to the point of long periods of time in which I cry) mostly during the summer when I’m isolated from my school friends and I have a really hard time when i dont get the social time i NEED to have. I am continuing to look for ways to deal, thx for putting this up so I am more await of who I am.

  6. I have been depressed for most of my life . For 50 years I have been treating this . With poor results . I found out RECENTLY I have AD/HD with several co-morbid conditions. Hypersensitivity being one of them . As a result ,my behavior has alienated &angered most people . I’m so lost & sad . I’m desperately seeking help to get my life on track , before it’s to late . I don’t want to look back & feel my life is a waste

    1. Hi Lisa-Marie, thank you so much for reading and commenting. You have been struggling for a long time! Figuring out the exact causes behind my bad feelings has been key for me and it sounds like maybe you are on the cusp of doing just that? Now that you know that you have AD/HD, sensitivity, and other conditions, perhaps you will be able to find treatments that are tailored better for your exact needs. I sincerely hope that some of my articles on depression and high sensitivity help on that journey, even if in a small way. Take care!

  7. Thank you so much for this article. I too am a HSP extroverted, since having depression I don’t go out. People have always told me I’m too sensitive and too emotional. This has helped put things into perspective and I commend you for trying to help others out there like ourselves.

  8. Hi everyone. Iv been in a relationship with an hsp woman for over 5 years until we broke up. I am not an hsp myself. I actually never knew what an hsp was (to be honest i thought it was just a character flaw) up until about a year ago, and due to constant drama caused by my highly sensitive and emotional gf (now ex) i researched and found out that im not crazy and that she is an hsp and that being an hsp is an actual thing. She denied it all the time to me and tried to convince me that im just a cold unemotional robot, until a relationship therapist we hired confirmed that she is definitly and hsp. Shes been telling me that im highly insensitive all these years because she believed that everyone should be like her. Although i saw hsp as a negative mental health condition similar to adhd, particularly since it leads to anxiety and depression, I i still loved her and accepted her and told her, look you can be an hsp and i accept u as an hsp but dont expect me to be an hsp and try to turn me into an hsp, but she couldnt. I also tried to convince her that she needs to practice meditation and improving her emotional intelligence (EQ) since a major component of EQ is controlling your emotions and being able to change emotions on cue/command, but she didnt put in any effort to meditate or practice EQ for 5 years i was with her, always made excuses that she had no time or her living situation was too hectic or that she is too busy etc. She would constantly get upset (90% of the time i had no clue why) over the smallest things and when she brought them up to me after giving me the silent passive aggressive treatment for hours i would be shocked and mad that such a small stupid thing would upset her, and she couldnt just ignore it since she never worked on it and never practiced meditation or EQ improvement techniques. I personally loved the positive traits of hsps – very sweet kind loving and caring, but the negative traits to me outweighed the positive ones significantly – high intolerance, no patients, quick to snap and get angry, anger, very quarrelsome and argumentitive, contemptuous, negative, anxious, moody, cant get out of a shitty mood, overly self concerned, and very very critical. (Sorry hsps i know the truth sometimes hurts, but only the truth shall set us free) I really loved her but she would constantly be bothered by something which would ruin way too many days. All i asked of her was to not cause drama and be positive about our relationship, and she couldnt do it for even 1 week! I dispise drama and dont want it in my life and hsps seem to be highly dramatic people that dwell on every thought in their heads. So my advise as a non hsp (highly educated and succesful) man who dated an hsp woman for 5 years is to, really work on improving your EQ – especially the component of being able to change emotions on que, since 90% of the $h#it you get dramatic about does not matter in the grand scheme of things! Dont dwell on your highly sensitive thoughts, join a meditation class (different from yoga). You are focused on the wrong things, there are way more important things to focus your effort on than being dramatic and negative over the little things. Find your lifes purpose and occupy yourself with that, so you can use your high empathy (one component of EQ) to help the world and dont be so focused and concerned just about yourself. This way you will be busy focusing on things that truly matter (doing something good for the world) and not on things that dont matter (most of the shit your highly sensitive brain trips out about that will not matter if u ignore it for 5 minutes). Good luck to you all and i hope that you will get something positive from my experience and message. Bless.

    1. I think am dating a hsp. He’s gone from idolising me to pushing me away . He’s got trauma from his childhood , & loss of loved one & loss of toxic relationship.
      He gets very low & is very happy the next day or hours later . He gets very tearful too. He’s met a good person in me who’s so patient . He’s very up & down and am trying so hard . I told him he needed to think about what he wants & now he’s refusing to answer my text or calls . Why do I feel so bad in putting him in this position. I want to go with the flow but it’s hard not knowing when we are seeing each other .

  9. I feel every ones moods and even peoples moods on the phone .My problem is I don’t participate in my life like I want too.I’ve been treated for depression but never felt that was it .Lazy brain syndrome was diagnosed put on aderall.But I shut down If people are in bad moods and I only shop at night because I don’t want to be around people.Do you think I am a sensitive?

    1. I think marital betrayal can be an extremely stressful and traumatizing experience for anyone, but especially for HSPs who tend to be more vulnerable to the negative consequences of stress. And getting past it probably requires lots of time, self care, and boundaries.

  10. Hey… Whatever i found above. I felt these are my feelings and somebody has stolen them and gave words to my feelings which i never tried.
    Thanks so much but the issue is I am not getting out of it. It is consuming my life slowly.

    1. Hi there, being able to put words to your feelings is the first step. Once that’s done, you’ll be in a much better place to address those feelings. I hope you’ll find lots of tips on my website for getting out of it.

  11. I am new to realise that I am a HSP. I have had major depression for 22 years and struggle daily. I have never mastered dealing with grief. My father died ten years ago and still upsets me most days. I love babies, but they are a trigger in a bitter sweet way. I have had three miscarriages, the first was with identical twins, which was a dream of mine. If I watch anything on tv about babies, I am a blubbering mess. However I love working with young children. My sudden divorce that I didn’t see coming really threw me for a loop. So it is one day at a time for me at the moment.

  12. This is me! But I suffer with depression aswell. My family don't understand me and I just get told to get over things and toughen up. I'm 41 and been living with this all my life really. Thanks for helping me realise its an actual thing!

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