Understanding the nervous system of highly sensitive people
The following is excerpted from “Sense and Sensitivity”, an article by Andrea Bartz in Psychology Today (see link at the bottom of the page). Following a description of what characterizes highly sensitive people, you will also find here practical suggestions:
- Tips for the touchy,
- Dealing with delicate people.
Highly sensitive people are all around us. They make up about 20 percent of the population, and likely include equal numbers of men and women. All the available evidence suggests they are born and not made.
You would likely spot them by their most visible feature, their overemotionality. Shari Lynn Rothstein-Kramer, who owns a marketing firm in Miami, Florida, cries almost daily. The sight of a beautiful outfit or exquisite handbag can choke her up. She recently found a note from a neighbor on her windshield that read, "Park in the middle of your space!!" and teared up on the spot. She had to persuade herself not to let it ruin her day.
The proverbial thin skin of HSPs covers a highly permeable nervous system. Gentle ribbing or an offhand jab can leave them brooding for days. But just as likely, an unexpected compliment or kind exchange can send their mood soaring, while the sight of a dad playing adoringly with his child can bring on tears fueled by a rush of warmth.
Above all, HSPs are defined by their internal experience. "It's like feeling something with 50 fingers as opposed to 10," explains Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist and author of Emotional Freedom. "You have more receptors to perceive things."
The notion that there is a whole category of people whose nervous systems overreact to ordinary stimuli grew out of the personal experience of psychologist Elaine Aron. In 1991, she began seeing a psychotherapist for help coping with her intense response to a medical issue. On Aron's second visit, the therapist nonchalantly suggested that Aron's outsize reaction to a minor physical problem was "just because you're highly sensitive."
Aron's search led her to the work of Ernest Hartmann, a psychiatrist at Tufts University best known for his dream research. Around the same time, he was solidifying the concept of boundaries as a dimension of personality and way of experiencing the world. Life, he observes, is made up of boundaries—between past and present, you and me, subject and object. And people differ in the way they embody and perceive boundaries.
Relieved to find indications that there existed people governed by sensitivity, Aron was disappointed that the feature, however defined, was associated only with pathology. As a psychologist, she says, "I decided to start at the ground and see what people who identify with the word think of it." Thirty "grueling" three-hour interviews later, she was on her way to creating a 27-item questionnaire that is the benchmark for sensitivity. "I have a rich, complex inner life." Check. "I am made uncomfortable by loud noises." Check.
"It's hard to imagine this trait enduring in the gene pool if it led only to negative emotions like depression," Aron says. "The problematic outcomes are just easier to observe than more positive interactions with the environment."
In his own research on thin-boundaried people, Tufts' Ernest Hartmann has found a strong link to creativity that Aron believes applies to HSPs as well. Of hundreds of student artists and musicians he has studied, nearly all test positive on his thin-boundaries questionnaire. Many fewer do among those who are able to make a profession of the arts—suggesting that it takes more than practice to make it to Carnegie Hall.
Their extreme responsiveness to all situations, Aron believes, makes HSPs prone to anxiety and depression in the face of a distressing situation. But it also makes life richer; sights, sounds, flavors, images of beauty are more vivid. It's as if HSPs alone see the world in high-def.
When he surveyed people Aron had identified as HSPs, he found unusual susceptibility to an array of conditions long thought to have a psychosomatic component. Much more than others in the population, they suffered from migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, allergies, and fibromyalgia. Jawer felt the findings point to wide-scale biological differences in HSPs.
Behind it all, says Orloff, is likely a hair-trigger flight-or-fight response. A lower threshold of activation of stress hormones would leave the body flooded with cortisol and adrenaline. Chronically elevated stress hormones are linked with a host of health problems, from heart disease to decreased bone density to impaired memory.
The neural basis of sensitivity appears no different in men and women. But the resulting behaviors—tearing up in joy, getting upset by a ribbing, feeling overwhelmed at a concert or sporting event—may violate even contemporary Western standards of masculinity. HSP males may look effeminate to potential mates. (No, there's no evidence that HSP males are disproportionately homosexual.)
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Tips for the Touchy
Highly sensitive? "You've probably gone through life assuming you're like the other 80 percent of people," Aron says. "The truth is, you need a whole different instruction manual." Here are a few adjustments you can make to sync your life with your mode of sensory processing.
- Designate downtime. Your brain works overtime processing input and soaking up others' moods, so it needs a chance to recover. "Limit stimulation when you can," Aron suggests. "Turn the radio off when you're driving. Use a sleep mask and earplugs at night." Meditation is also a powerful way to tamp down stress hormones. Orloff prescribes quick, three-minute meditations during the day: Sit quietly, put your hand over your heart, deepen your breathing, and focus on something beautiful—a picture of your child.
- Talk yourself calm. Sensitive people aren't doomed to spend life reeling from rejection. It's possible to rein in a response before it spirals down to depression. Fedor carries a checklist in her wallet and runs through it when she feels under attack: "Is this about me? What is the intent of the other person? Am I reacting because this brings out fear in me?" Similarly, Rothstein-Kramer asks herself, "How can I interpret this situation in a different way?" "Practice controlling your reactions," she says; "eventually a little dig won't throw you."
- Change your interactions. Kindly but firmly cut off energy drains. Say your friend is midway through her umpteenth rant about her job. "You have to lovingly but matter-of-factly say, 'I see you're going through something; when you want to get into solutions, I'm here for you, but right now this is hard for me to listen to,'" Orloff explains. "Tone of voice is everything."
- Arm yourself. Sometimes, you'll be forced into a situation that sucks you dry—a conference you must endure for work, a business lunch with an insufferable kvetch. Protect yourself: "Visualize a shield around your body, keeping negative input out," Orloff says.
- Rewrite history. Think back to the decisions you've regretted and the things you dislike about yourself: "Very often, they have to do with sensitivity," Aron points out. The surprise party where you wound up crying in your room and the promotion you turned down because it involved too much pressure make much more sense through the lens of your sensitivity. Acknowledge this.
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Dealing with Delicate People
Since 20 percent of the population is highly sensitive, "you're probably working with or are even friends with one—you just didn't realize it," Aron says. Now that you know the hallmarks of this personality, adjust your behavior to make your interactions smoother.
- Skip the tips. HSPs are mighty sick of hearing, "You really shouldn't let it get to you" from well-meaning friends. They experience it as a put-down, a suggestion that they've done something wrong. Say something more reassuring—such as, that whatever situation is causing them stress will improve shortly.
- Modify your view. In a close relationship, you may discover you've been making wrong assumptions about your partner. You may hear things like "I never liked going to those sporting events or concerts," Aron warns. Forgo the temptation to respond with grief or anger. Just accept it.
- Respect their space. A common mistake HSPs' loved ones make: hovering. "They promise their partner an hour of recharge time," Orloff says, "and then they hang around waiting for you to come out." Better to tell them, "Fine, go replenish, I'll be out mowing the lawn"—and do it.
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