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!

The Highly Sensitive Brain – Part 1: Having a HS Brain really is ‘A Thing’…(or Having a Head full of Spaghetti is REAL)

scott-webb-342400
Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

In my previous post I shared my first and second HSP ‘aha’ moments, which were #1 when I stumbled across information about the Highly Sensitive Child (HSC) and #2 when I then discovered the information about the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).  My overriding feelings were relief, validation and excitement,  accompanied by the thought, on repeat “OMG, that’s amazing! It’s ‘A Thing!!’”. 

From my experience, this is a pretty standard reaction when someone makes the same discovery, and this description of it as ‘A Thing’ seems to be an HSP short-hand for all those BIG emotions we feel that seem excessive to everyone else and the head full of spaghetti feeling ALL THE TIME that no one else seems to experience or even to understand (How often have you had someone say to you “You think too much!” – as if thinking were a bad thing?).

For anyone reading this who may not be sure, and who may be trying to work out whether they are HSP or not,  here’s part 1 of the introduction, here’s what that ‘thing’ is…

 The Highly Sensitive Brain – In a Nutshell

Some people just seem to be more finely and keenly attuned to and more ‘sensitive’ (both physically and emotionally) to their environments.  They also think about and feel things very deeply. And they cry easily, about anything!

It was the psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron who, in the 1990s, first used the term ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ (HSP) to describe people who share these common characteristics.  It’s now widely accepted that these characteristics are a core part of an innate temperament trait, which Dr. Aron called Sensory Processing Sensitivity (not to be confused with Sensory Processing Disorder).

Some Basic Facts

  • Being HS is something you either are, or you are not.
  • Like me, 70% of HSPs are also introverted, which means that 30% are extrovert.
  • The trait is found in 15-20% of the population. It’s found across all cultures, in equal numbers of males & females, young & old. It’s normal, a bit like being left-handed.
  • The trait is not unique to humans.  Similar distinctions are found across the animal kingdom in the same 20% HS 80% non-HS proportions.
  • Neuroscience has now confirmed that the brains of HSPs are wired differently from those without the trait characteristics.  HS brains process information more deeply, connecting current information with past knowledge and experience, and with the emotional centres of the brain, in a way that non-HS brains don’t.
fabian-burghardt-84752
Photo by Fabian Burghardt on Unsplash

In evolutionary terms the consensus is that High Sensitivity is one of two survival strategies that together ensure species survival.  The highly attuned nervous system of the HS animal enables it to notice more quickly when something has changed in the environment, and to spot something new – a tactic useful in identifying danger, and also in spotting opportunities more quickly.

So it’s a really important trait – which in the modern world allows us to see insights into difficult issues and problems that others may miss.  It is undoubtedly a high energy strategy though, and perhaps 20% is the maximum any system can adequately support before it becomes a disadvantage.

The 4 Keys of an HSP : In terms of humans, Dr. Aron has identified four components of the trait, which must all be evident to some degree for someone to be considered as having the trait (rather than simply having sensitivities). They are reflected in the acronym DOES:-

  Depth of Processing

O   Overstimulation & Overwhelm

  Emotional Reactivity & Empathy

  Sensitive to Subtlety and Sensory Sensitivity

Depth of Processing: HSP brains process everything very deeply, all the time.  This is the nub of the trait.  This could be information about what they are feeling, experiencing, thinking, remembering, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting – anything.  It means that we are highly reflective and thoughtful, and this can be seen in our decision making (sometimes painfully slow to those around us),  in how we approach problem solving (often very insightfully and creatively), in how we respond to others, especially our empathy, and in the meaning we create and attach to most things in our lives.

It’s this intense and deep processing of everything that causes the spaghetti in the head feeling and which makes the way we experience the world so very different from the way in which everyone else does.

It’s also what’s behind the other three ‘keys’ of emotional reactivity,  sensory sensitivity and propensity for overwhelm common to all HSPs.  It is these aspects of being HSP that others are most likely to notice in us.

Over-stimulation and Overwhelm: Because our brains are taking in and processing so much information so much of the time, our  brain ‘bucket’ gets full more quickly than other people’s and we find ourselves with that all too familiar feeling of ‘too much’ .  The hustle, bustle, noise, bright lights and general pace of modern life compounds the issue for us.  We feel a much greater need than others to withdraw and to ’empty’ our buckets, especially if we are also introverted.  We can also become quite irritable and snappy when we are feeling overwhelmed, because we literally cannot take any more stimulation, and if we can’t withdraw, we sometimes lash out!

Emotional Reactivity and Empathy:  Our HS brains naturally draw on our emotional centres to help us make sense of things, and this allows us to more readily create meaning from a situation, to apply relevant context and to see amazing insights.  It also enables us to be more quickly attuned to the emotions of others, and HSPs are generally very quick to pick up on what others’ are feeling and to show natural empathy.  This is one of the great gifts of the HS brain, but it can also be problematic because, strange as it may sound, it can sometimes be difficult for HSPs (especially HSCs) to fathom whether what they are feeling is ‘theirs’ or someone else’s emotions, and this contributes to overwhelm too.  I have a future post planned on this specific subject, so watch this space!

Sensory Sensitivity and Subtlety: The HS brain notices a lot more than the non-HS brain. Fact. This is not because we have a better sense of smell, or better hearing or eye-sight etc. it is simply that we filter out a lot less than other people, we pay attention to the detail.  And because we also process what we notice more deeply, we see the small things that others miss.  This might be something that has changed in our environment, where someone has moved a piece of furniture slightly, or it might be a slight change in the mood of a room, but the first person to notice, is most likely an HSP.

This means that we tend to be more quickly affected by sensory over-load, whether that be bright lights, strong smells, uncomfortable fabrics (discomfort from scratchy fabrics and seams are commonplace amongs HSPs!), lumpy seats or beds (think the Princess and the Pea!) and so on.  We are also more reactive to stimulants like caffeine and alcohol, are more sensitive to medication, and sadly can be more prone to allergies like hay-fever and immune system illnesses like ME.

Elaine Aron’s website has more information about DOES and the trait, including a short questionnaire to help you determine whether you are HS or not.  Take the Test.

rosemary-armao-332609
Photo by Rosemary Armao on Unsplash

In a nut-shell though, having an HS brain simply means that you have a heightened, highly attuned, highly sensitive nervous system, which enables you to notice subtleties more readily than others, and to make sense of those things more readily.   This capacity for noticing the subtlety, and understanding the implications, has lead to HSPs being described as ‘human antennae’, the proverbial ‘Canary in the Coal mine’, and also the ‘rose in the vineyard’ – providing an early warning signal for when things are not right, and also for being able to interpret that information in a meaningful way.

There are very real challenges to being an HSP in the modern world, but huge benefits too, both for the HSP and for society as a whole.  These are things that I will delve into in the coming weeks, as understanding all of this is where the journey happens.

But in the meantime, look out for Part-2 of the beginners guide, which highlights the first key lesson that all HSPs must learn if they are to accept who they are, and that is that ‘It’s Normal’.