You’re at a party. On the surface, everything seems fine. You’re smiling, joking, sharing stories and having a good time. Except…
Underneath this careful mask of pleasant chit-chat, you’re like the Terminator. Scanning the room, picking up every nuance of behaviour in your line of sight. You can see who’s happy, who’s faking it, who’s offended, who’s jealous… you can see it all.
Whether it’s socializing, working, or just cruising around the house, some people identify as being extra sensitive to details and easily distracted by small things. Today, we’re going to look at the link between this hypersensitivity and it’s cause: anxiety.
Detail vs anxiety
I want to talk today about the difference between being observant or having an eye for detail versus being chronically anxious, because they can appear to be the same thing.
Chronic anxiety is really really common but it’s not talked about. It’s often not diagnosed as anything because so many of us have it that it’s just normal.
I had chronic anxiety for almost my entire twenties, probably through high school as well, and I didn’t realize I had it until it went away after a lot of confidence-building work.
I was also very aware and conscious of details. It helped me in the workplace and other areas – I could always spot the things that were going wrong and needed fixing. I always thought that that was kind of a strength, and it’s not that it wasn’t, it’s just it wasn’t driven by some sort of high IQ or anything like that like I’d hoped, it was actually about anxiety.
When is it anxiety?
You know it’s anxiety if you’re not always like this.
If you’re relaxed when you’re home alone in your happy place, and you find you’re not hypersensitive to detail and chronically looking out for things all the time, then maybe this is more about anxiety than it is about being observant .
See, if you’re just “really observant” then it won’t ever turn off – you don’t turn off your strengths.
You don’t turn off being strong – it’s there or it’s not. So if you are frequently and consistently observant but you relax sometimes, it’s probably anxiety we’re talking about. The attention to detail is a symptom of anxiety that can play as a strength.
Because anxiety creates hypersensitivity.
Hypersensitivity to danger
I mean, what is anxiety? Its concern about the future, isn’t it? It’s an attempt to predict risks and threats and dangers in the future. That buzzing sick feeling that we know of as anxiety – its a kind of hyper-alert feeling isn’t it? It keeps you on your toes, keeps you ready for action, fight-or-flight response kind of preparation there.
Right before fear, there’s anxiety.
Now what’s happening (I won’t go into too much detail on this) is that your cortisol – your stress hormones – and your adrenaline are pumping. You’re behaving neurologically as if you’re in danger.
And these are actually hormones going through your body – that’s what creates that sick stomach; that’s your digestive system being turned off to flood the energy to your muscles in preparation for fight-or-flight. There’s a lot of shakiness; that’s adrenaline going through your system. And hypersensitivity.
Hypersensitivity to sound. Struggling to be able to distinguish different levels of importance about what you’re looking at, like everything catches your eye. Sensitivity to temperature.
This is your body on high alert for any potential threats.
seeing danger everywhere
Now some people – because of the way maybe that they were treated in school or because of a surprising, shocking or traumatic event – have developed this hypersensitivity because their brain has come to believe that there’s a threat around every corner, and you’re reacting as such.
And then what happens is that your mind starts to go in overdrive. It starts to turn things that aren’t threatening into threats.
A really common one is what I call “mind reading” which is where you look at someone and you think you can guess what they’re thinking (and it’s usually a negative thing). You’re worried about what they’re thinking.
So someone might yawn when you’re talking to them and you start to see that as a threat to you socially, like “Oh no! They don’t like me!” Your brain is so highly-tuned, those stress hormones are so high all the time, that everything’s potentially dangerous.
And it becomes difficult for you to distinguish between real threats – something that you know has evidence that could lead to you being harmed versus something that you had to add a lot of stories to, to make it a threat. And you can’t tell the difference anymore.
You‘re kind of always “on” – always on alert. Everything you point your perspective at, everything you focus on, instantly gets jaded with this potential threat kind of assessment.
That’s when you start to worry about being worried!
You’re worried all the time and it starts to ruin your life doesn’t it? You start to feel miserable, you start to lose your ability to enjoy stuff, and then you start to worry that you’re going to feel like that. So you’re now worried about being worried – I call it ‘anxiety squared’ – it’s anxiety multipled by anxiety.
And then usually on top of that, you also punish yourself for being this way! So anxiety itself is uncomfortable, and then you’re worried about being anxious, so that’s double uncomfortable, and then you‘re guilty about being someone who worries about being anxious!
Before you know it, you’re in outright misery just because your cortisol levels are up and you’re reacting to it.
the retreat reaction
This causes a retreat reaction. You get this with people who have agoraphobia; those people who are scared to leave their house. They’re actually scared of being in their house as well usually, but they’re less scared of that than being outside. They’ve actually physically retreated.
They‘ve just tried to create a safe space. They’ve run away from all the potential threats. They think the threats are out there, but of course the threats are in their mind. Whatever they look at becomes threatening and so they end up stuck in this little comfort zone.
And because they’re there, they’re never testing that comfort zone. They’re not pushing the boundaries, they‘re not creating evidence that they can handle the boundaries being pushed, which generates less self-trust, doesn’t it?
If you’re not seeing yourself accomplish difficult things and overcome challenges frequently you’ll start to believe that you can’t, and that adds to the anxiety.
So now you’re in this situation where you‘ve got anxiety times anxiety times guilt and you’re starting to doubt yourself, like “Maybe I can’t handle stuff,” and that again multiplies the amount you’re worrying, like “I can’t handle anything so therefore even more things are a threat! Stuff that other people could handle is now a threat to me.”
And you just end up in this spiral.
the big secret
So many people have this going on and nobody’s talking about it.
So many people out there are close to having a panic attack or a meltdown at any given time during the day – particularly in social situations – and we’re all like this close to just fucking losing our minds and nobody’s talking about it!
And it’s huge. I mean, look at anyone who’s getting frustrated in traffic, anybody who stays late at work even though they didn’t need to, anybody who’s trying to put on a show socially and make people like them; that’s anxiety. It’s everywhere, isn’t it?
Hypersensitivity is based on a belief system, where you suspect that a) the situation you’re in could get out of your control, and b) it must remain under your control.
The key to anxiety disorders and chronic anxiety – people who struggle with it – is to understand they’re trying to control something that their brain has assessed as uncontrollable. It’s an impossible task.
Your brain is freaking out. Your hormones in your body are freaking out. Because you’re trying to do something your brain thinks as impossible. One half of your brain is trying to control the outside world; the other half is going “You can’t do that, what are we doing? This is stupid.”
And the brain fights itself. That fight is that feeling you get, the anxiety.
I won’t go into it now, but your biggest problem is actually believing you have to control things, believing that you’re incapable of things going wrong, you’re incapable of handling that, and therefore you need to prevent it from happening.
Not only is it impossible to prevent things from happening, but you are much more capable of handling it than you could possibly believe. How do I know that? Because you’re alive reading this post!
you’re doing ok
Every single threat you’ve ever faced didn’t kill you, right? You must be quite capable. There are a lot of people who aren’t reading this because they’re dead – or because they don’t like me – but mostly because they’re dead. Because they couldn’t handle the threats that you’ve been able to handle.
The short-term solution to this is learning how to detach yourself from the thoughts and the hypersensitivity when it occurs. This is a kind of get-you-through-the-day method.
[If you email me firstname.lastname@example.org I’ll send you a video on defusion, which is the technique to distance yourself from your thoughts and feelings, and create some awareness, so they don’t overcome you and cause that observant hypersensitivity, that controlling desire to pick out all the flaws and fix them. You can step back and observe that without having to act on it.]
The long-term solution is about building confidence.
You’ll be less desiring and less compelled to look for threats and risks and details, and less compelled to try and control other people and fix all their flaws, if you’re confident in yourself to handle things going “wrong.”
If you know that you can handle things going wrong then you don’t need to stop them from going wrong. There’s no prevention needed.
How do you do this?
Long long story short: deliberately create out-of-control situations just to build your courage; otherwise known as facing your fears, in controlled experiments.
Confront somebody that you’re safe to confront. Apply for a job out of your league. Start a new hobby. Make uncomfortable phone calls. Where you’d usually send a text or something, call them. It’ll be weird and then you get off the phone and be like “Huh! I didn’t die!” – your comfort zone gets pushed out a bit. Seek deliberate failure. Going to do something you know you’re gonna suck it and doing it anyway. Going to do something new that you’re gonna have to be a beginner at.
Go and face various fears you’ve got. Build up evidence of capability. Show that you can handle uncomfortable things.
I like to have an ice-cold shower every morning. Every morning I get proof that I can handle something really physically uncomfortable, and by handle it I don’t mean that I make the shower warm, I mean that it’s cold and I hate it and then I get out and I’m still alive: I handled it.
break the comfort zone
All of these things break you out of that comfort zone and create evidence that you can handle new unknown unfamiliar situations.
As that evidence builds, your desire to control the situation will decrease, and because you’ll be doing these big bursts of adrenaline you’ll actually use up your hormones, instead of them bubbling throughout your system all the time.
You’ll kind of burn it off.
Really, anxiety is like an acid that you need to burn off. You need to go do something big and then afterwards you’ll get this relief because you’ve used it all up instead of having it just burn through your system.
If you enjoyed it or if you got some thoughts, please leave comments/feedback below wherever this is posted, email me email@example.com if you want your questions answered or you want some more information and I will see you guys all for the next one.