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!

My First, Second and Third HSP ‘A-Ha!’ Moments (and yes there have been many)

ballet shoesOne of my earliest memories is of the day I went with my mum to visit a local dance school to have a look at what was on offer, so I could decide whether I wanted to do Ballet or Tap-dance.   While decision-making can be a slow process for us HSPs (and I have numerous memories of the impatience of other people as I struggled to choose which sandwich or ice cream I wanted, or which colour pen I should use), this time the decision was instant.  I loved the elegance, gracefulness and quiet calm of Ballet, but was taken aback and totally overwhelmed by the onslaught of noise that hit my senses when we opened the door to the Tap class.  It sounded to me like the contents of the biggest cutlery draw was being hurled down from the sky, and I just wanted to hide – it was all “Too Much”.

Too Much and Not Enough

This experience is one of so many that reflect a general trend in my life for seeking a gentle, quiet path.  Instinctively I’ve always wanted to keep stimulation to a level that was ‘comfortable’,  shying away from and shutting out things that felt ‘too much’.

But this  often leave me feeling like I didn’t quite belong to the world everyone else did: I felt at-odds with my friends in a way I couldn’t explain and at times that I was perceived as a ‘party pooper’ and a bit serious and even ‘boring because I was so intense and ‘needy”.  I felt that my family found my sensitivity ‘too much’ too – the exasperation at how much hard work it can be to deal with the big emotions was apparent, the rolled eyes when I got upset about something ‘trivial’ and the disappointment I sensed sometimes that I wasn’t more talkative and ‘go getting’.   As I got older my awareness of how different I felt grew.  At school I was drawn to more solitary pursuits rather than team games, I found being around people all day quite draining, and although I would join in with the social life of being a teenager and a young adult, I frequently just didn’t ‘get it’ in the way that most of my friends did, I didn’t seem to crave it in the same way.  And people found me intense, because I could talk for hours about the meaning of life, lying awake staring at the stars into the early hours of the morning.

Once I left home, became a student, and then started work, I found a similar pattern of being around people and the constant ‘demand’ for socialising, and living in a shared house, leaving me feeling exhausted – and I used to just push through it, ignoring the cries from my mind and body to slow down.  My teenage and young adult years were a period of burning the candle at both ends.  Of working hard, and playing hard.  To keep up with everyone else I was throwing myself into institutional life, shared living, frequent socialising – and it took its’ toll.  It was constant effort and resulted in glandular fever, repeated tonsillitis, colds and flu and of feeling permanently exhausted.

I felt that everything was ‘Too Much’ and that I was ‘Not Enough’.

This pattern is a familiar one for me, and despite being an educated psychologist with an interest in personality, and experiencing near total burn-out a number of years previously, it wasn’t until I become that I came across Elaine Aron’s work, and the trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity.

Being a parent as an HSP is tricky.  It’s even trickier when you also have children who are HSP – so much so that I will devote a specific post to the topic.  But it was this that ultimately lead to my first A-HA moment.

My First AHA moment

light bulbAfter months and years of sleepless nights (and days), a baby that was colicky and extremely alert (ALL the time), a toddler that was fussy about seams in socks, who was immensely stubborn, acutely ‘shy’ and also very demanding of physical contact – in ways that the children of my friends were just not – I googled these things after a particularly exhausting and desperate day.

I don’t remember if it was the top result, but it was certainly in the top 3 – up popped “HSPerson.com” and The Highly Sensitive Child.  As I read, the world became a different place.  Anyone who has been through this will totally understand when I say that the following is what went through my mind:

  • instant resonance and recognition
  • relief that it was a real  ‘thing’
  • excitement that it was not just a ‘thing’ but that it was normal 
  • Affirmation – of your gut instincts that knew there was nothing ‘wrong’ with your child, even when people were hinting that maybe they were autistic (because of the ‘difficult’ behaviour)
  • hope – that there was a way of moving forward

The switch had been flicked and the light-bulb pinged on.  This was my first A-ha moment.   It was very quickly followed by my second.

My Second ‘Aha’ Moment

light bulb

In the moments after I had gone through the HSC questionnaire, my busy-brain was doing its’ thing, and nudging me to take a look at the HSP questionnaire – because the realisation was dawning that whilst what I had just read was a game-changer for my understanding of my son, it could just as easily have been referring to me.  And sure enough, I ticked all but 2 of the boxes on the HSP questionnaire.  At this point my neurons were firing all over the place and I was gabbling away to my husband, getting him to do it too.  And yes, my husband is also HSP (more material for another post!!)!!  This was my second AHA moment.

But it was my third A-ha moment that has probably been the most important.

My Third AHA moment

light bulbWhen you discover the HS trait as an HSP it is a game-changer.  It explains everything, it normalises everything, and almost overnight in your mind you switch from being an outsider, a misfit, a oddity who is somehow ‘wrong’ to someone who is part of a ‘club’ of people, who all experience very similar things.  And as with any group who have felt marginalised, to have a ‘tribe’ and to have feelings of belonging is huge.  It creates a euphoric feeling.

BUT – what I realised over the coming weeks, months and years is that finding out that you are HSP, whilst it is incredible, amazing, life-changing,  is only the beginning of a journey.  Because once you realise you are HSP after a life of not knowing it, you have to learn to understand what that really means to you, and how you need to change your perspectives about yourself and how you live your life.  However self-aware you may have thought you were, you will need to engage in deeper and more reflective practice to really get to grips with what it means to live and to thrive in the modern world with this trait – especially if you are also an introvert.

My first true epiphany occurred about 3 years ago, some 5 years after my first aha moment, and it is only now that I really feel that I truly understand what it means for me (and I’m still learning).

When was your moment of clarity? I’d love you to comment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quiet Revolution: Time to Start Making Some Noise?

Normally when I think of feathers, I conjure up images like these….

Photo by Ray Hennessy and Photo by Jenelle Ball  both on Unsplash

Spitting Feathers…

But this week I was thrown into complete apoplexy and I was “spitting feathers” when I turned to the pages about personality in my recently purchased book “How to be Human. The Ultimate Guide to Your Amazing Existence”.   The book is a New Scientist book,  a popular science forum, so I wasn’t expecting detailed coverage of the finer nuances of personality theory.  I also had no expectation whatsoever of any reference at all to the Highly Sensitive Person (though it would have been nice).  But I was expecting something that was objective and largely evidence based.

I can only describe what I read as the worst form of stereotyping, bordering on parody, that I have seen on the subject for a long time and I needed to refer to my thesaurus of emotions to fully comprehend my visceral reaction to what I read.  If you want to look at the book it’s on page 18, but I replicate below the key features:

Extrovert  Introvert
Cheerful and radiate joy Seldom amused
At home in crowds and parties Loners
Friendly and Open Reserved
Always busy Happy to take things easy
Natural Leaders Followers
Lovers of Excitement Overawed by commotion

Added to which were some simple pictures to further illustrate the differences…(Extrovert: super smiley face, party popper, man conquering mountain, all in a bright, happy yellow…..Introvert: slightly concerned looking/mildly miserable looking face, lone man reading, lone man under a tree, all in a dark, slightly gloomy purple).

bull-46368_640Well, it my HS brain launched into full-on emotional response, I mean COME-ON New Scientist, I thought you were better than that?!  So my week has been spent constructing various responses to share through the appropriate channels in due course, starting here with the personal bit.

Words Really Do Matter

The strand of spaghetti that has come loose this week has been all about the negative language that so naturally seems to attach itself to the words “Introvert” and “Highly Sensitive” and which seem to paint the picture that all introverts and HSPs are either too much hard work (‘too’ sensitive, quiet, emotional, weepy, fussy, reserved) or just not that great to be around (humourless, loners, dull and boring).

Language is such an important part of how we gain an understanding of who we are and how we ‘fit’ into the bigger picture, and sadly this conceptualisation of  Introverts is ridiculously common, even though it’s not a true reflection of us at all (although I think sometimes we come to start believing it just because it’s said so often, that we begin to think surely it must be true?).  And anyone who’s an HSP will know that it’s even worse for the sensitive among us.  (If you haven’t seen the TED talk from Elena Herdieckerhoff  The Gentle Power of HSPs take a look, it sums up the issue beautifully).

So as a Highly Sensitive Introvert I have grown up constantly rubbing up against other people’s focus on the negative aspects of both traits, with little affirmation of the positive ones, and blimey that’s hard – especially when all that brain-spaghetti is reflecting, interpreting, ruminating, about this constant, sometimes subtle (more often as subtle as being whacked on the  head with a mallet like those ‘whack-a-mole’ games), feedback that how we are is somehow ‘wrong’.  But because we’re introverts, we don’t talk about it. And if you’re HSP as well, you are acutely aware of just how different people perceive you to be, so we don’t want to draw attention to it, so we don’t mention it.  We therefore remain un-blissfully unaware that actually there are quite a few other people who are feeling the same, even people we know, but who are also pretending that they’re not.

The ‘Story’ of Temperament

I recently watched a TED talk by Barry Schwartz called “The way we think about the world of work is broken”.  He argues it’s broken because so many of the systems used don’t actually sit very well with how human’s actually operate.  It drew many parallels for me with where we have ended up in terms of our skewed society, which is very one dimensional in terms of what we overtly value in a person.  It’s all about the stories that we make up.

The concept of Story is a big one (and I can feel a dedicated blog on this in the ether), but for now suffice to say that human nature is such that ‘story’ is a massive part of how we operate.  It’s how we create certainty in an uncertain world, and our brains like certainty.  The problem is that we create this certainty even if it’s not true (and this is a core part of any therapy – getting the root of false stories and changing it to better reflect the objective reality).

Schwartz highlights the issue of story for work and organisations, which is that unlike the technology of ‘things’ whereby if technology, or the design of something is bad, it ‘dies’.  With ideas, he argues,  they can perpetuate even if they’re not true.  He says “false ideas about human beings will not go away if people believe they are true”, because if people believe they are true they construct systems around them that are consistent with this idea.  And because we are a highly adaptive species, we mould ourselves to fit, whether or not it’s good for us (us being ‘us’ as individuals, and also ‘us’ as a collective species).

For me this is precisely what has happened with temperament (and if you go along with Susan Cain’s argument in her book ‘Quiet’ it stems from the same place as much of what is wrong with modern workplaces too – i.e. Industrialisation).  Inadvertently, as the discipline of psychology has evolved, and the study of personality alongside it, there has been a merging of this industrialisation ‘story’ that the gregarious, outgoing, alpha male extrovert is the ‘ideal’ with the ‘story’ of abnormal psychology that the optimistic, ‘happy’, easy-going, talkative ‘extrovert’ (as opposed to the morose, solitary, fearful, depressive ‘not extrovert’) is the healthy, well adjusted place to be, to create a modern world story that to be well adjusted, you need to be an extrovert.  Over time, the constructs and taxonomies that have been used to understand our natures have simply resulted in self-serving and reinforcing those views, even though they are not really true, because everything is ‘framed” in an extrovert context.  The evolution of The Big 5 personality taxonomy, which has become the ‘go to’ framework for personality theorists since the 1970s, has perpetuated this ‘myth’ about introversion, because rather than being seen as a different underlying trait from extroversion, it has been used as a means of describing the ‘opposite’ of extroversion, the ‘low-scoring’ end of the Extroversion-Introversion continuum.

The same is true of High Sensitivity.  For decades having a more sensitive disposition was seen as a ‘vulnerability’, making you far more likely to ‘suffer’ mental ill-health and related social problems. Consequently therapies and other social ‘interventions’ were constructed on that basis.  And of course this created the story that if you have a highly sensitive nature you are inherently more fragile and ‘flaky’.

These perceptions are in significant part the result of the extrovert paradigm within which researchers were (and still are) operating, which contributed to the creation of labels such as ‘shy’, ‘fearful’ ‘hesitant’ ‘reserved’, ‘hyper-sensitive’, ‘anti-social’, ‘slow to warm-up’ ‘timid’ – all of which can be true of introverts and HSPs,  but which are not necessarily true, and which are certainly not the only defining features of being introvert or HSP, (and which some extroverts experience too, sometimes).  But when children are labelled in this way, they grow-up believing this to be true, because this is how the world talks about them and interacts with them. And so the story survives.

The Key of Neurosciencebrain-2773466_640

Neuroscience will be the key to helping us change these deeply embedded perceptions as it will give us a new language.  We already are able to demonstrate what HSPs and Introverts already intuitively know, which is that we are just wired differently.   And this different wiring simply means that we interact differently with the world around us and we think differently.  We also now know that being Highly Sensitive can be a disadvantage, but ONLY where the person has received poor parenting during childhood.  With the right conditions, being Highly Sensitive is actually a positive advantage – supporting the development of greater resilience and better outcomes in life (look out for future blog post on Orchids and Dandelions).

Time to start making some noise?

The world of personality psychology seems to be being slow to catch on though.  Since Susan Cain’s book and TED talk, which have been read and watched by millions of people, and which saw the ‘launch’ of the Quiet Revolution (which has, there is no doubt, lead to greater open debate, more writing on the subject, and the beginnings of change in workplaces), I have not noticed a commensurate change in the way in which personality research is framed or interpreted.  The Big 5 remains the mainstay and in its’ present usage does not allow for a way of viewing personality and temperament that accommodates these more recent findings.  It’s time for a step-change in the wider scientific community on the subject of understanding temperament in order that the language used to frame and interpret temperament is better reflective of the whole range of characteristics associate with a trait, not just a select few.  It’s time to start making some noise so those scientists start hearing!

How has language affected you? Do you think it’s time to shout louder? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

 

 

A Head Full of Spaghetti – (My Highly Sensitive Brain)

spaghetti-2619327_1280My head is full of spaghetti – pretty much all of the time.

A head full of spaghetti is all about the feeling that you have a super busy brain, whirring away, constantly trying to make sense of things, reflecting on things, finding connections between things, thinking (deeply) about things, and trying to navigate through the complex tangle of thoughts and feelings that crop up throughout the day as we go about our business.

It was not until quite recently  (embarrassingly late in life) that I realised that this was not true of everyone.  In fact, it’s not true of most people.

Whilst it is true that most people will experience this spaghetti feeling sometimes, perhaps when they are uncharacteristically busy, or they’ve had an unusual amount of emotional ‘stuff’ going on (and often in the middle of the night),  for some of us this is what it is like ALL THE TIME.  And it doesn’t even have to be in response to anything particularly unusual or extreme, although this creates an even bigger tangle, it is simply how our brains operate. All day. Every day.

People like me have Highly Sensitive brains.  We are wired to notice more subtlety in our environments and to process that information more deeply.  We are likened to human antennae, picking up on, and reacting to the subtle signs that others miss.

It was Dr. Elaine Aron who identified that about 20% of us experience the world in this more attuned way, and she uses the term the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) to describe someone who displays the characteristics (more on this in a dedicated post).

Oh, and I am also an Introvert.

This blog is all about life as an introvert and a highly sensitive person, and the journey to understanding, self-acceptance and beyond. It is about what it means to be HSP and introvert. It is about how to be authentic and thrive, with a head full of spaghetti!

 

 

 

Introvert and Highly Sensitive

flower-179004_640I have always been fascinated by psychology and in particular personality, and what makes people react differently to situations, events, each other.  This deep interest has perhaps been born out of my acute awareness as a child that I was different from most of my friends.  I was a quiet, sensitive and perhaps slightly serious child, and as an adult I became aware that these were words often associated with being an introvert (and this is often not seen as a positive thing).  But whilst that resonated with me (and I absolutely identify as an introvert, including the negative connotatons), it never fully explained why I never quite felt that I ‘fitted in’ .

It wasn’t until I hit my 40s, as a parent of small child who was extremely sensitive and dare I say ‘difficult’, that I discovered the work of Elaine Aron.  My son had all the characteristics she describes of Highly Sensitive Children.  The penny dropped, the light-bulb pinged on, and I recognised that I too was probably a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).  This was when everything fell into place.

Since then I have been on a magical mystery tour of self-awareness and acceptance, and I now have a much greater understanding and appreciation of what the mass of ‘spaghetti’ in my head represents.

This blog is my way of finally untangling that spaghetti….and sharing my journey.