The Highly Sensitive Brain Part 2: It’s Normal! (or There’s nothing wrong with having a head full of spaghetti!)

austin-chan-275638The fact of some people being more highly sensitive than others is not a modern feature of humans, it has always been thus, but it is only in recent years that the idea of there being an underlying temperament trait to explain this has been revisited.

It is principally through the work of Dr.Elain Aron (who drew on the work of Karl Jung), that we now have a much clearer understanding of High Sensitivity as an innate temperament difference. Her seminal work, along with advances in neuroscience and greater collaboration with other disciplines, who independently have come to similar conclusions, have led to the following key findings:

  •  It’s now widely accepted that 15-20% of the normal population have this innate trait. Whilst a minority, this proportion is considered to be too great to constitute a ‘disorder’ – It’s Normal
  • Recent advances in neuroscience are enabling us to see that the brains of all HSPs have in common a depth of processing that is different from other brains. It is deeper and more involved, and also more connected to the emotional centres of the brain. This is why HS brains notice more subtlety (including of the senses), and why they tend to appear more ‘emotional’ in response to things. It’s Normal 
  •  Similar proportions of HS -vs- non-HS have been found in well in excess of 100 other animal species, leading scientists to conclude that it’s simply one of two fundamental strategies ensuring successful survival of the species.  Having a HS brain makes you much quicker to respond to prospective danger (and the vast majority of HSPs will report a very strong ‘startle’ reflex in response to sudden movement or sudden loud noises: this is one of the earliest signs in a baby that you may have a HSC on your hands!).  The other typical strategy is that of ‘don’t stop and think, just do it’.  Having a HS brain – It’s Normal
  • For years having a HS disposition was considered a vulnerability, and therefore treated as a ‘problem’ but we now know that whilst it can be a vulnerability, it can also be a huge advantage. It all depends on the quality of a person’s environment during childhood [look out for Orchid & Dandelion post coming soon].  But, whatever the outcomes, It’s Normal.
  • It’s Normal – BUT as only 20% of the population are HS, it is different from the ‘norm’. Our culture idealises the ‘go-getting, just do it’ strategy, as the best strategy, rather than one of two equally necessary strategies.  As a consequence, because HS is different from the ‘norm’ it is not treated as normal, (negative) value judgements are made about being HSP and the natural qualities of HSPs are undervalued.
  • It’s Normal, but it often doesn’t feel like it. The modern world is busy, loud, bright, troubled, and this often leads to HSPs feeling overwhelmed. When we’re overwhelmed, we are not at our best (in fact no-one is, it’s just we are in that place more often!) and this further fuels the misconceptions about HSPs.

It is for these last reasons that the first step to accepting your HS nature, is to acknowledge, accept to yourself and truly believe that it is normal.  Once you have done that, you can start to work with your nature, and you can start to understand how to live successfully in the modern world, drawing on the particular strengths that your trait gives you, and managing better those aspects that can make life more challenging.

To begin to see the both sides of the HSP trait, here are some key features beginning with The Bad Spaghetti.  Some of the more challenging aspects include:

ben-neale-206130
Photo by Ben Neale on Unsplash
  • A high need for lots of time ‘out’ to recharge our batteries, or as I like to say, to ’empty our buckets’.  We are often heard to say that we need ‘a little lie down’ , or some peace and quiet, or to express that we just need some time alone, and this is all about just reducing down the stimulation for a while in order to get some space back in our busy brains (perhaps especially true of Introvert HSPs).
  • Linked to the above is a greater need for sleep.  Many HSPs report needing a lot of sleep, and when you consider the way the role of sleep, it’s not hard to understand why.  One of the reasons we sleep is to give our brain time to make sense of all the things that have been happening, and to embed memory.  With so much spaghetti in the HS brain, and with the detailed way in which the HS brain processes  information, there’s more to sift through, and sleep is the one time when you are taking in much lower levels of stimulation, so it’s perfect time for emptying that bucket.  So to me it figures that we need more sleep.  I believe lack of sleep is one reason why many HSPs I know report that they find it much more difficult to recall  events and places they have been in the same ready way as non-HS people (coupled with the fact that we may simply remember different things).
  • A deep sensitivity to Pain.  Both physical and emotional.  Think of the little HSC who has a tiny scratch but has reacted as though their leg has been chopped off!
  • Sensitivity to scratchy fabrics, labels and seams.  This makes many clothes extremely uncomfortable, bordering on irritating for many HSPs.  I for one have to cut ALL the labels out of my clothes, because they literally drive me mad; my son cannot stand seams in socks; and I know of at least one HSP who cannot bear any kind of rumple or lump on her bed sheets (a true Princess and the Pea).
  • Sensitivity to medication and stimulants: caffeine and alcohol tend to affect HSPs more, and likewise, like me, they often report needing minimal doses of medication.
  • Sensitivity to environmental conditions: HSPs are often more affected by extremes of temperature, bright lighting, loud and visually stimulating places, and this is most obviously seen in the very strong, sometimes extreme, startle reflex experienced by HSPs, as mentioned above.  This explains the high reactivity and dislike, bordering on fear, of many HS children to the sound of hand dryers in public toilets.
  • Sensitivity to foods and other allergens: It’s common for HSPs to be more intolerant of or allergic to certain foods, to have allergies like hay-fever and eczema, and to have sensitive skin and eyes.
  • Needing time to adjust: because we process so deeply, it can take us a little more time than others to get used to change and to feel comfortable in a new environment.  Others can misconstrue this as being fearful or cautious.
  • Feeling deeply: HSPs are very quick to take on the emotions of those around them.  It’s a core reason why they tend to be very empathic, but it can quickly drain them and can trigger tears quite readily. It also means that they tend to find it more difficult to watch violent, aggressive or emotionally very negative films, or to read books that are very graphic in this regard.  The news often presents real difficulty for HSPs.   This depth of feeling also has a plus side though (see blow).

There are numerous other ways in which the world can feel challenging to HSPs, but it’s not all doom and gloom.  For most of these things we can do something about to mitigate the effects, once we understand how it affects us (and in the coming weeks I’ll be exploring how I have learnt to do just that).  There are some real highlights to being HSP too, both for us ourselves, and for those around us too.

Now for the GOOD stuff!

sunrise

  • Feeling Deeply: HSPs experience their strongest emotional responses to things that give them joy!  The beauty in nature or a piece of Art; a kind word; spending time with the people they love; being in ‘flow’ doing something they love.  Tears from an HSP are as likely from joy and beauty as they are from negative emotions.  They are able to appreciate life in it’s full technicolour and surround-sound glory.
  • Empathy: The HSPs natural capacity for empathising with others and tapping into anothers’ mood makes them great to be around and it can help them to make great connections with others (as long as they are not in overwhelm, then the empathy quickly goes!!).  It lends them to making great doctors and nurses, advisers, guiders and counsellors, and leaders, and parents.
  • Problem Solving and Creativity: the way the HS brain works means that HSPs are drawing together connections in a way that other’s don’t, that is very creative and meaning-making and which, together with the deep reflective thinking that HSPs naturally embrace, results in novel solutions to problems, unique perspectives and insights, and great creativity &  innovation.  HSPs are commonly found in the writing, music and creative arts communities, combining this creativity with their appreciation of beauty.
  • Deep Connections : HSPs build deep connections with others and consequently make for very loyal and committed friends and romantic partners.
  • Love for Nature.   Research is now providing hard evidence of what we HSPs instinctively know, which is that as humans we are wired for connection with nature.  I know I relish time in nature, and really notice if I haven’t been outside for a while.  It also makes us care a lot about our planet, and we need more HS voices to be heard to make sure our concerns are acted on.
  • Thoughtful. HSPs think, deeply, a lot.  The consideration and reflection that we give to things means that we rarely take unnecessary risks or make bad decisions.  We are great sounding boards for others to explore thoughts ideas. And we have a great capacity for being incisive, getting to the ‘nub’ of the issue (or to put it another way, cutting through the crap!).  Whilst many HSPs are quiet, you know that when we do say something, it tends to be worth listening to.

So, having a head full of spaghetti is actually a brilliant thing, and I’ll repeat one last time, it’s perfectly normal!

Take some time to reflect on that, embrace those tears (and always carry a packet of tissues!).  See you next time!

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