The Role of Sensitivity and Social Anxiety

Issues of sensitivity are common in cases of social anxiety. Individuals who have a sensitivity to things such as light, sound, or smell may find that it presents additional complications with social anxiety. On occasion, sensitivity disorders are proven to be similar enough to cases of social anxiety that they are mistake as such and those persons are misdiagnosed.

Understanding what is involved with sensitivity and sensitivity disorders can prove to be a valuable tool in understanding social anxiety. It is possible to have more than one condition in association with social anxiety. Interactions between those additional conditions and social anxiety can be problematic for a person and impact how their condition is diagnosed and treated.

What Is Sensitivity?

Most people think about sensitivity in the form of people who are easily offended or hurt by things. While in some cases that may be true, sensitivity in this case refers to a condition where a person is almost overly aware of their surroundings. A person with social anxiety may be considered a highly sensitive person or HSP.  Most HSPs exhibit symptoms of anxiety and are often diagnosed with anxiety disorders like social anxiety.

Sensitivity is frequently associated with holistic and non-traditional medicine, with professionals in those fields citing it as a diagnosis over anxiety disorders. However, that does not mean that sensitivity does not have a place in the traditional medical and psychiatric community. Many believe that sensitivity and sensitivity disorders can serve as warning signs or precursors to other mental health conditions like social anxiety. 

  • Symptoms of sensitivity--Individuals who are considered to be HSPs tend to be much more empathetic than their peers.  With an increased sensitivity to emotions, they may find it harder to cope with emotional stress because they do not properly learn how to do so as HSPs. Empathy may allow HSPs to interpret the emotional and mental states of their peers.  However, they may inadvertently warp those interpretations when social anxiety is added to the mix.

Other symptoms of sensitivity include sensitivity to pain, which may cause them to avoid situations where mental or physical pain is a possibility. They may also be easily overwhelmed by stimuli and be easily influenced by others. HSPs, like those with social anxiety, also tend to withdraw themselves from others and become more introverted in their behavior. These symptoms often make HSPs highly prone to developing social anxiety or experiencing trauma that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

  • What are the causes?--Most of the accepted causes of sensitivity are environmental. Usually, someone who is categorized as an HSP is exposed to something in their environment consistently from a young age that causes their sensitivity to develop. In some cases, it's due to stress or trauma that was present in their childhood homes. Others, abuse and bullying at school is cited. When there isn't an environmental cause to be found, it is suspected that something in a person's mental structure or genetics predisposed them to sensitivity.

High Sensitivity Disorders

Cases of high sensitivity disorders can include HSPs and those who are overly sensitive to certain stimuli. Most of the time, high sensitivity disorders involve an oversensitivity to light or sound, or other such naturally occurring phenomenon that is interpreted by the senses.  It is occasionally referred to as hypersensitivity, yet many psychologists and medical professionals will point out that they are not one in the same, with one being biologically based and the other emotionally.

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As with social anxiety, high sensitivity disorders can involve triggers that cause distress when a person is exposed to them. Some triggers may seem irrational for the response that they garner, like smells, touch, sound, and sights.  When exposed to their triggers, a person who is highly sensitive will usually withdraw from them. Most of the responses that high sensitivity disorder sufferers exhibit are largely similar to social anxiety. As with sensitivity and social anxiety, those with social anxiety and high sensitivity disorder will often find that the two conditions interact with one another.

  •  What about sensory processing disorder?--In some cases, sensory processing disorder (SPD) may be brought up when discussing high sensitivity disorders. It involves the process in which the body's nervous system translates the messages that the senses send to the brain.  SPD is usually considered when a person's high sensitivity response increases to drastic levels. The effect SPD has on the brain's interpretation of stimuli can be focused on a specific sense like sight. While many experts stress that SPD is not the same as high sensitivity or hypersensitivity, they do carry many of the same traits. The difference typically lies in how the person's nervous system and mind responds to the stimuli.


Hyperacusis is a condition where a person is unable to tolerate regular, everyday sounds. Some medical professionals will categorize Hyperacusis as intense sensitivity to sound, although it usually goes beyond standard sensitivity disorders. Hyperacusis is usually seen as separate from other hyper sensitivity disorders because it is often a byproduct of another medical condition like tinnitus or as a side effect of medication.  It generates unwanted stress and can largely interfere with a person's ability to live their life normally. The condition can present in varying degrees of sensitivity, from finding certain sounds annoying to finding others outright painful.

They symptoms of hyperacusis, while specifically caused by sound and noise, are similar to some degree to the symptoms of social anxiety. The condition develops over time, but those with it will notice that they become increasingly uncomfortable around noise. They may become distressed and experience anxiety-like symptoms like changes in heart rate, trembling, and tension. Often, they will try to limit their exposure to the sound, either by moving farther away from the source or by covering their ears.

ยท         How Does Hyperacusis Affect Social Anxiety?--Persons with both hyperacusis and social anxiety will often find that their symptoms for both conditions are similar. They may have similar triggers, and one may trigger the other during social situations. Many people with severe cases of hyperacusis will choose to avoid socializations because of the high chance of encountering noise.

A person with hyperacusis often finds it difficult to focus when there is noise, even if they are able to manage their symptoms. If they have social anxiety in addition to their hyperacusis, it can become difficult to handle their anxiety. The lack of concentration means that they are unable to effectively use treatment methods like coping strategies. Some people with social anxiety use sound to cope when they are feeling overwhelmed or are faced with triggers. Music, white noise machines, and recordings of soothing sounds are popular methods, yet they may not work for someone with social anxiety and hyperacusis.

The Effect of Sensitivity on Social Anxiety

The majority of the effects that sensitivity will have on social anxiety lies in aspects such as diagnosis, development, and treatment.

  • Development--As stated earlier in the article, those with sensitivity and sensitivity disorders are more prone to develop social anxiety. Anxiety in general is a common response to many health conditions, often because they are unable to properly process and deal with the stress the condition causes on their mind. In some cases of social anxiety, sensitivity may affect how a person responds to their triggers. Depending on how a person handles their social anxiety, they may develop sensitivity to their environment. In cases where those with social anxiety have largely withdrawn themselves socially, stimuli that are present in social situations--sounds, sights, touch--become difficult to handle, even if those stimuli were not what triggered their social anxiety.

  • Diagnosis--Misdiagnosis is common with social anxiety and sensitivity disorders. Similarities in terms of symptoms and a lack of information are often responsible. Most of the testing measures for the conditions involve questionnaires, which can be inaccurate if the person taking the test is not entirely honest or is unsure of their answers. Many tests, such as some for sensitivity, are contingent on how the person feels.  Some tests may have vague questions or too many possible answers for questions in order to cover as many factors for diagnosis. Tests administered by medical professionals while face to face can sometimes be better than self-administered tests because they can seek clarification and pick up on signs that the person may be unaware of.

  • Treatment--Typically, the biggest effect that sensitivity is going to have on social anxiety will be treatment. With the earlier example of sound sensitivity, coping strategies that involve noise will not be as effective in helping a person's social anxiety. There are some effective coping strategies, such as those listed at the end of this article, that may work for those with sensitivity and social anxiety.

Effective Coping Strategies

While the majority of the coping strategies used by those with social anxiety are largely specific to social anxiety, there are some that are better suited for those who have social anxiety and sensitivity. Those with a sensitivity disorder may have their own coping strategies that are specific to their condition, yet they may also be suitable for coping with social anxiety.

  • Desensitization--One of the usual coping strategies for noise sensitivity disorders and hyperacusis is desensitization. This usually means exposing the person to the sound that triggers their sensitivity. It can be done in a controlled environment with a recording, or the sound can be recreated if possible. While exposed to that sound, the person is then instructed to do something that they normally find calming and relaxing as a distraction. They can be exposed to the sound multiple times with increasing duration until it no longer has a serious effect on them.

  • Distractions--For most cases of social anxiety, finding something to distract yourself is a recommended and easy coping strategy. Some choose to find something in the room and focus on it when they feel that they are becoming overwhelmed. When sensitivity is added, some distractions may not work, depending on the degree of a person's sensitivity. Finding a distraction that can drown out the stimuli that is triggering your sensitivity can take time. It should be noted that not all distractions may be safe, so use precaution when trying things out.

  • Talk to someone--While social anxiety might make it hard to interact with others, talking to someone can help calm you down when things get the better of you. If you're overwhelmed by your sensitivity and social anxiety, getting your feelings off your chest is sometimes the best way to feel better.  Talking to someone about your sensitivity and social anxiety can help you sort through all of the things you are feeling. Sometimes, anxiety can cause you to seriously misinterpret something in a situation and be frightening. Having someone you trust to talk to about it can help you figure out if you are right to be afraid. Venting can also help relieve internalized pressure that is building up due to social anxiety and sensitivity in a safe and healthy manner. Holding it all in simply adds to it and it will eventually build up to an unhealthy level.

  • Take a break--Sometimes, everything that you try to alleviate a response to sensitivity and social anxiety just doesn't work. There's too much going on to allow you to focus on calming yourself down and to keep trying where you are at is only making things worse. The easiest solution? Take a step back, and leave the situation so you can calm yourself. Not all situations are under a single person's control, which can make it hard to remove the stimuli or triggers that are causing your sensitivity or social anxiety to respond. If anything, removing yourself will work and allow you to not only get away from what is bothering you, but allow you to try other coping strategies to calm yourself down.