HSP Top Tips for embracing the Magic and surviving the Mayhem of Christmas

toa-heftiba-470540
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Having been overwhelmed over the past few weeks with illness (mine and other people’s) stress (mine and other people’s!) and a growing feeling of ‘busy’ – (hence the silence on the blog front),  I have been thinking a lot about Overwhelm and that all too familiar feeling for an HSP of ‘Too Much’!  This isn’t strictly a post about my journey as an introvert HSP, but it is a post about a very specific time of of year that offers way too much ‘too much’!!.

daniil-silantev-469634
Photo by Daniil Silantev on Unsplash

Let’s face it, unless you completely shut yourself away and hibernate (and there are many times I wish I was a hibernating mammal!!) you will be exposed to ‘Too Much’ of pretty much everything in the run up to our festive season!  Everywhere is busy, everywhere is bright and loud, people are ‘heightening the happy’ to entice you to buy stuff, to eat stuff, to participate at school christmas fairs, to shout, cheer and boo at the panto, and to make your house look ‘merry and bright’  – all of which just fills our bucket so quickly.  ‘Tis also a season for ‘getting together’ with EVERYONE, so the pressure to socialise is enormous, added to which there are fewer places to retreat for peace and calm, so for introverts, and especially HSP introverts it can be particularly difficult.

But this is where it gets so confusing, right? Because most of the things I’ve talked about above are what give the magic to Christmas, it’s not all bad, so why do we still feel so drained?  Here’s the thing.  Overwhelm can as much come from too much of a good thing, as it can from the not so great stuff.  Christmas time for me is a time full of mayhem, and too much social stuff, yes, but it is also full of absolute magic, and both the magic and the mayhem can play havoc with us HSPs if we are not careful.

So, without further ado – how do we ensure that we survive the mayhem and enjoy as much of the magic as possible, without tumbling into such severe over-stimulation that we crash and burn before the Big Day?  For me, the key thing is to get through the season mindfully.

  • Be very mindful of Boundaries.  Be clear with yourself that if you go to everything you are invited to, and spend every day at the Christmas Market, you WILL get overwhelmed.  Don’t be pressured into attending every christmas party, or every christmas drink, even when people call you a party-pooper!! Make it an active policy to say ‘No’ to some things. I try to limit the number of social engagements in a week to no more than 2 or 3, especially if they with more than just a few people. This may even include declining an invite to something ordinarily you would enjoy, you just need to acknowledge the cumulative effect.  I also follow Elaine Aron’s advice to avoid any explanations about why I’m not going along, it is enough to politely decline, and to just say it doesn’t work for you.  If you do go to lots of things, make it a conscious choice to do so, and make conscious plans for ‘down-time’ to empty your bucket
  • Be mindful about who you spend time with and be proactive:  if there are people you want/need to see, suggest dates, times and places so you can choose quieter venues and times.  So have a morning coffee rather than lunch or dinner, and choose the little tea shop tucked away from the main street, rather than the big-chain coffee shop in midst of all the hustle and bustle.
  • Be Mindful about the timing of when you go to places: Christmas markets, department stores, garden centres, Santa’s Grottos, high streets with Christmas lights, are all really magical places to visit at Christmas, and I love browsing round them and soaking up the beauty and sparkle, but they are also places I quickly become overstimulated.  So I NEVER go at weekends and seek out the quiet times.  I choose to visit them either early in the morning, or later in the afternoon when the crowds are fewer. I always consciously time-limit myself. I always ensure that I have identified a quiet corner/escape route so if it gets too much I don’t have to waste time working out where I need to go to recharge, I just follow my recovery plan!
  • Be Mindful with the magic! Too much of a good thing can be just as overwhelming and there are numerous magical things going on over christmas to tempt you.  But remember that we don’t have to ‘participate’ directly in everything to feel the magic – one of the wonderful things about the HSP brain is that your imagination and capacity for joy in even the smallest of beautiful things allows you to fully experience the magic and the joy in more subtle and less draining ways: by watching your favourite festive film, a walk in nature on a frosty morning, listening to carols or your favourite christmas songs, getting stuck into some christmas crafts,  planning a fairytale christmas eve for little ones, snuggling in front of the fire with a hot chocolate and spending quality time with loved ones.  Do these things mindfully, really letting your appreciation, gratitude and joy soak in, and you will experience the magic without the drain and overwhelm of being ‘out there’ with the crowds.
mira-bozhko-172999 (1)
Photo by Mira Bozhko on Unsplash

Try these tips over the coming week and see if they allow you to relish the magic and minimise the impact of the mayhem – let me know how you get on, and share any hints and tips of your own!

In the meantime – MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!

 

The botany of spaghetti heads!

brain-954823_640The past few weeks have been for me the epitome of one of the most tangible characteristics of being highly sensitive, which is to say that I have had a brain-bucket overflowing with the unruly spaghetti things of life (teenagers, relationship difficulties, work uncertainty, Christmas is coming and everywhere is busy, full of bling and noise, it’s approaching that time of year when my dad died, when my husbands’ dad died, it’s cold, it’s dark, everyone else is a bit miserable, the news is gloomy etc etc.).

In short I have been feeling a trifle overwhelmed -hence the gap in blog posts!.

It has also been a period when the significance of botanical references in relation to HSPs has been illuminated for me, not least because I have been marvelling at the state of the Orchids in my front room.

I am talking about the theory of innate temperament differences that has been described by Boyce and Ellis in terms of Dandelions and Orchids.

For anyone who is unaware, it starts with understanding one of the things that has been discovered about the different outcomes seen in highly sensitive children, outcomes that are highly dependent upon childhood environments.  And for HSPs, as someone told me very early in my journey of discovery, “it is all about environment”.

Dandelions and Orchids.

dandelion-2295441_640There are those who, like Dandelions, can thrive in pretty much any environment, no matter what is thrown at it.   A dandelion seeds readily, it pops up in all types of soil and conditions, and its’ hardiness and quality doesn’t differ hugely. It always blooms with its’ attractively bright yellow mane, and subsequently produces a seed-head that is so wonderful it entices you to help it propagate by blowing the seeds into the wind! It is also highly resistant to attempts to make it suffer – that is, it is considered as a weed because of its’ profligacy and stubborn refusal to tame itself!   Most of the population are Dandelions (around 80%).

orchid-2952074_640Orchids, on the other hand, will only truly thrive and show you their stunning blooms if they have the right conditions. They won’t necessarily die if they have the wrong conditions, but you won’t get to see them in their true glory with those spectacularly delicate and beautiful flowers. But the fact that they need the ‘right’ conditions, doesn’t mean that they are difficult to keep, it just means you need to find what works for them, and stick to it.   Orchids are the 20% who are Highly Sensitive.

My Orchids

This distinction has been very apparent to me with my own Orchids, which I have had for many years, and which have been surviving fine in my dining room, but which have failed to flower for years. In fact, they have failed to flower since I brought them home and their initial blooms faded.  I thought I was looking after them well: they were placed in good light but protected from both direct sun and extremes of temperature (so I thought) in the window of an East facing room . But they just didn’t seem to be thriving. A few months ago I decided to move them, just to see if it would make a difference, not holding out much hope. So since then, they have been in the window of my West facing front room.

The difference has been staggering. I have not done anything different in terms of my care of the plants – I have watered them in the same way (which is very little) and that is all.  But since I have moved them they have not stopped flowering, and the flowering began almost instantaneously following the move.

For me, this was proof that environment is everything to the Orchid. One simple change made the difference between two living plants that weren’t doing a whole lot, and which certainly were not showing their true potential, and two plants that have been glowing with beauty and really showing off their flowers. The first lot of blooms, which lasted months, have finally faded.  I have trimmed those away, and the next lot are already budding and waiting to burst into life. This is despite the relative neglect they have from me, and that they both really need to be re-potted.

For me this demonstrates life as an HSP. Environment is everything.

It’s all about Environment

We can be seen as difficult, because we can’t thrive just anywhere, and it can take some effort to identify what the right environment is, and to make it happen. But, if you get it right, life is actually a whole lot easier. I see this with me, my husband and my son. If we are feeling in a good place, we can be incredibly easy to be around, and ask for little but give a lot. But if we’re not, we can be incredibly irritable, stupendously stubborn, intransigent and spoiling for a fight.

In short, if our needs aren’t met, we’re not always that nice to be around, but if they are, we are hugely supportive, thoughtful, caring, loyal, appreciative,  and joyful beings.

And I see this too in my own Orchid Child.  He has always been extremely easy in many, many ways.  Polite, kind, concerned to do the right thing, never in trouble at school, always keen to follow the rules, deeply fascinated by things that interest him, a pleasure to be with.  But if he feels criticised, he becomes the Tasmanian Devil, if he is continually placed in situations that force him to be in the spotlight, or to speak up when he doesn’t feel safe, or to always put every-one else’s needs before his own, or which he sees as unfair, he wilts and becomes highly anxious or he becomes unbelievably stubborn and resists every attempt to compromise.

Nature and Nurture: Vulnerability or Strength

But it actually runs even deeper than the here and now.  How well we as HSPs cope when things are not going well for us depends to a huge extent on how well supported we were as children, whether our environment growing up was ‘good enough’, because this determines whether we build true strength and resilience, or whether we become fragile and vulnerable to the vagaries of life.

For many years it had been assumed that to have traits of the type described by HS was a vulnerability in terms of children being more likely to experience emotional difficulties (delinquency, anxiety, depression) in later years (as adolescents and adults). Hence for many years it was seen as necessary to try to ‘treat’ anyone who showed these traits, to ‘fix’ them in order to reduce that vulnerability.

The Orchid/Dandelion theory stems from work that has shown that having the trait of HS can indeed be a vulnerability IF our upbringing was not supportive and IF our childhood environments were not good enough – especially in terms of maternal care. BUT this IF is an important one. Because IF we are luck enough to have had good enough environments and support, we are actually likely to be MORE resilient to such difficulties.

This has been termed Differential Susceptibility (Pluess and Belsky) and also Biological Sensitivity to Context (Boyce and Ellis). It was Boyce and Ellis who first used the term Orchids and Dandelions in this context.

So the Orchid and Dandelion distinction is important not just to enable us to understand how we can make our lives easier day to day as adults, but also in how we ensure as adults that we create the right environments for our HS children. This can be challenging if you are HS and dealing with your own overwhelm (as has been the case for me this week), but we know that nature has given the highly sensitive temperament, how it is nurtured determines whether it is a strength or a vulnerability.

Creating the right Environment

If we are Orchids, we know we have to work hard to create the environments in which we know we thrive, and to adapt to or reject those we know don’t.  We need to develop coping strategies for those occasions when we are in ‘unfriendly’ environments, because we know it will happen – we are in the minority and the modern world is a busy, noisy, bright, at times smelly, and sometimes brutal place – and if we are to be part of it we need to learn how to deal with it and to create resilience and develop the capacity to be mindful with our own emotions.

orchid-4780_640

So how do we do that?…  I’m still working on it, and sometimes it is hard work, really hard, because most of these things don’t come easily to me.  But so far I’ finding the following strategies to be helpful:-

  • Setting clear boundaries: It’s Ok to say ‘No’ and it OK, in fact it’s vital, to set out what is OK and what’s not OK for you.
  • Dealing with Perfectionism:  the bain of many HSPs’ lives and if you are like this, you will pass this onto others, so it is important to challenge your perfectionist tendencies.
  • Exercising self-compassion: recognising that you are human too,  and that your needs are as important as anyone else’s.
  • Make Time & Space for You: give yourself plenty of opportunity to empty that bucket, especially if you have people who are dependent upon you and who need you to be at your best.
  • Clear Values: If we are clear about our values, what is truly important to us,  and live and make decisions according to those values, we will feel stronger.
  • Own your story & Heal Old Wounds: be honest with yourself about things that you need to confront, be open and curious, and be prepared to challenge your own assumptions about yourself.  Be brave.  ‘Healing old Wounds’ comes  from Elaine Aron herself, but she’s right.  Often it is these longstanding stories we have constructed that lead to our perfectionism, shame and other fears that stop us from leaning into our truth.  If we don’t acknowledge our truth and own our story, it stops us from truly embracing our HS needs, and it also then stops us from being able to be truly present for others, to be able to provide support to them from a place of strength and resilience.
  • Own your emotions (but no-one else’s): As HSPs we can take on the emotions of others, often without even realising it.  Developing the skill to recognise what is yours, and what is not, is life changing, as is developing the associated capacity to step away from taking responsibility for other peoples emotions and behaviour.  Another thing we HSPs are too willing to do, often in attempts to keep the peace and avoid conflict.
  • Learn to ‘Let it Go’: Rumination is a complicated product of our deep thinking & seeing so many options and permutations of a situation; of our perfectionist tendencies & fear of making mistakes, or of upsetting someone, or our sense of injustice, of being treated unfairly or unkindly.  And because we have brains that never switch off we are experts at it.  But it adds to our overwhelm. We need to learn to disengage from our analysis of everything, all the time, and because it doesn’t come naturally, we need to find ways of enabling us to do it – the next strategy is one of the best ways, in  my opinion.
  • Practicing Mindfulness, being in the moment – especially in nature: taking time to recognise, acknowledge and appreciate the here and now, and to enjoy just ‘being’. We are human beings, and for HSPs time to just ‘BE’ is so, so important to our wellbeing.  It aids recuperation from the overload of our senses,  it helps us to ‘let go and it helps us to appreciate better some of the things we have in our lives, ‘.

Learning to integrate these things into your life requires effort, and sometimes the capacity to shut out the noise from others feels like a mountain that is too hard to climb.  Over the coming weeks, I’ll explore each one in more detail, but in the meantime, I’m off to unload my bucket a bit more so I can refill it again over the weekend when I meet up with family!

What’s your experience as an Orchid?

The No.1 Lesson I have learnt about being a Highly Sensitive Parent (that I wish I’d known 10 years ago!)

 

liane-metzler-30296
Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

When I became a parent I didn’t know about the trait of High Sensitivity. I certainly didn’t know that I was a Highly Sensitive Person. But I wish that I had known because it would have changed my experience as a parent.  It would have explained and validated all those ‘gut feelings’ I had about things, and why I seemed to find being a mum so much more difficult than all the other new mum’s around me.

During the first 6 months after my child (who is a HSC) was born, my Health Visitor was convinced I was suffering from Post Natal Depression, because I was so ‘flat’.  I knew I wasn’t depressed, I just felt permanently and utterly exhausted, both physically (mainly from lack of sleep), and so very much emotionally.  The first year or two for me is a haze of complete exhaustion and total overwhelm – emotionally, physically and mentally. This only got worse when I went back to work to a job that was in itself emotionally and psychologically demanding.  I was in a constant state of feeling that I was running on empty and felt totally burnt-out.   Consequently I was irritable to be around, and I felt I had nothing left in my tank when I got home from work for my family, or to give to my job.

oscar-keys-60736
Photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash

I gradually came to realise that lack of ‘down time’ together with the constant worry and guilt about whether I was getting it ‘right’ as a parent and the perpetual blaming of myself for the fact that I just seemed to be finding it so much more difficult than other people (and therefore that there must be something wrong with me!), were the main issues. But I still couldn’t understand why this was. Then, 5 years on,  I read Elaine Aron’s Highly Sensitive Child book, which lead to me reading her book The Highly Sensitive Person, and everything suddenly made sense.  From there-on, things got a little easier, because I understood myself better.

It has still taken me some time, though, to really get to the root of what it was I really needed all those years ago, and what I continue to need.

By far the biggest lesson I have learned is Self Acceptance.

Accepting that I am Highly Sensitive means that I can not only understand and appreciate how parenting is likely to lead to over-stimulation, intense feelings & emotions (and, resulting from all of this, irritability and short-temper more often than I’d like to admit), but also it enables me to openly recognise and acknowledge where these feelings and emotions come from. It gives me permission to stop blaming myself for how I’m feeling.  It also enables me to put in place appropriate prevention and coping strategies.  Moreover, I can now see the great advantages my sensitivity has to my parenting.

annie-spratt-370949
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

It’s still a work in progress, and there is some way to go, but having this Self-Acceptance gave me the courage (with the support of my husband who thankfully ‘gets it’) to leave a job in a career that just wasn’t working for me when I had the additional demands of a young child, and which meant it no longer worked for us as a family.  This has not been without is sacrifices, but I believe it has created a path that will lead to a better ending.  Self-Acceptance has given me more confidence to set realistic boundaries for myself, saying ‘No’ more often to ‘non-essential’ demands on my time, and to say ‘Yes’ more often to things that re-charge and replenish me.  It allows me to feel OK about seeking total silence sometimes (many people find it odd that I rarely put the radio or music on in the car) and it has prompted me to be more open to asking for help, because I know I need to, even though it doesn’t come naturally.

I am also just beginning to appreciate that my High Sensitivity is what allows me, among other things,  to connect deeply with my HSC; to be able to recognise when things are not ‘right’, when others may miss the signs; to share imaginary worlds through books; to have deep conversations and to instil in my HSC the wonder and importance of nature as I share my love and appreciation of its beauty and fragility.

As I continue on my journey of discovery I’d love to hear your stories too, so please get in touch!

 

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’.