Five of the anxiety disorders that may co-occur with the high sensitivity trait are:
1. Generalised Anxiety Disorder
2. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
3. Social Phobia (Social Anxiety)
4. Panic Disorder
5. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD):
Most HSP’s are likely to indicate an higher level of anxiety and worry. The key
question is around the level of excessive worry and for how long it has lasted.
If the level of distress caused by the anxiety has lasted for more days than not
over 6 months and is impacting daily functions, relationships and work, and if
the distress is impacting sleep, concentration, irritability etc, then its possible
there may be an anxiety disorder alongside the high sensitivity trait.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD):
An Highly Sensitive Person may be feeling distressed about persistent thoughts or worries, and they may even become a bit obsessive about them, or develop some compulsive behaviours to try and cope. However a person with OCD will develop very severe compulsive behaviours that have become irrational and move well past the original purpose and meaning of the behaviour. With OCD the compulsion interferes
with regular daily functions.
Social Phobia: (Social Anxiety Disorder)
It is not uncommon for highly sensitive people to be fearful and nervous about social situations, perhaps even withdrawn or overly concerned about the opinions of others. However, a social phobia describes a marked and persistent fear of social or performance situations when open to scrutiny by others, that ultimately prevents a person from acting as freely as they would like to and renders them potentially powerless to overcome their fear in most situations, leading to significant avoidance. Further, there is distress about their social anxiety. The impairment in social phobia inhibits social engagement to a greater extent than it would for an highly sensitive person. Put simply, the highly sensitive person may experience a milder form of the symptoms.
Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia (PD):
Most HSP’s are likely to have experienced the physical symptoms of high anxiety (eg sweating, heavy breathing, shaky hands, nausea, dry mouth etc) or a full panic attack (eg anxiety symptoms with very laboured and fast breathing, muscles tensed up, tight chest, pounding heart, can’t speak, looks similar to a heart attack). These can occur due to emotional overwhelm and perceived intense stressors including fearfulness and terror. Panic Disorder occurs when there has been more than one panic attack and the person develops an intense fear of having more panic attacks. Agoraphobia occurs when active avoidance leads to an inhibiting fear of any space where something difficult or embarrassing may occur, such as a panic attack. This intense avoidance of overstimulation interferes with daily functioning, which is beyond the HSP’s experience of high anxiety and tendency to limit, withdraw from or avoid highly stimulating circumstances.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD):
HSP’s in distress may appear to have some PTSD symptoms. Perhaps they have strong physical symptoms of anxiety and re-occurring frightening dreams or vivid memories of an upsetting time. PTSD requires that a trauma meeting specific criteria will have occurred, and there may also be detachment from others, excessive startle response, nightmares relating to the trauma, insomnia, insecure attachment, among other things. It is important to note that HSP’s have stronger emotional reactions than others, and therefore may recall events as more significantly impacting than a non-HSP’s memory of an similar event. Although distressed and impacted about the past, it is not PTSD unless the trauma meets particular criteria and these additional issues are present.
Dr Elaine Aron has distinguished the difference between high sensitivity and anxiety disorders in a book she has written for Psychotherapists. This page offers a very brief comparison based on her distinctions to assist your understanding. Please note that this information is not intended to substitute professional medical treatment and is not adequate for a diagnosis of an Anxiety Disorder.