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Managing High Sensitivity

They see too much. They feel too much.

“It is like feeling with 50 fingers instead of 10,” comments Dr. Judith Orloff, a New York Times best-selling author, leading American psychiatrist, empath, and author of The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People.

One of the greatest advantages of living in the 21st century has been the advancement of science, particularly in the area of mental health. As a result, today science is in a position to validate a group of people we may have often dismissed as ‘too sensitive.’

Yes, the ones who moped for days together about a seemingly trivial comment, those who felt ‘destroyed’ by a stranger’s criticism, or those who found it difficult to recover from the death of an ant trying to climb up the sink, or even those who did not forget a taunt someone made during a lunch break when they were seven.  And there are those that tend to look at the world more deeply than others. Any of these traits may qualify someone as what scientists call ‘highly sensitive persons.’

The term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) was first introduced by clinical psychologist Elaine Aron in 1996, who defined HSP as those who scored highly on a particular personality trait-sensory-processing sensitivity or SPS, on her 27-item questionnaire. These people are extremely emotionally sensitive and highly reactive to both outer and inner stimuli such as pain, noise, light, or hunger, and often to the emotions and feelings of those around them. About 15–20 percent of the people are highly sensitive. Let us try and understand HSPs a little better and bust some myths!

Signs of Highly Sensitive Persons

1. Are they introverts?
They may or may not be introverts. They have a highly sensitive nervous system. They process more and think more about events, situations, and people around them. They observe subtleties in their environment that others may never see. Because of their sensitivity, they may take time to communicate with others because they really care about the reaction from people, which may make them come across as introverts or aloof. But HSPs can be highly empathetic people. They are very aware and can soak up others’ emotions, sometimes feeling it more profoundly than the other person himself/herself.

2. Are they thin-skinned and weak?
‘Toughen up’, they are told by parents, teachers, and friends. Beautiful artwork can make them tear up, or a harmless ribbing can set them off emotionally, taking them a long long time to recover from. And just as seamlessly, a sight of joy, two people hugging each other, can make them extremely happy and joyful, even bringing happy tears. Their high-sensitivity is seen as a sign of weakness in their personality that somehow needs help. But that may not be the case.
Dr. Aron’s studies showed that HSPs can be very capable, sincere, aware, thoughtful, and diligent colleagues, employees, or collaborators. It is just that they perceive the physical world around them very differently. In fact, Aron points that high sensory sensitivity can actually offer an adaptive edge to people, beyond having to deal with the hurt and the emotional yo-yo.

3. They are Intuitive
They are highly intuitive people. They can read people and situations around them like the back of their palms. Owing to their sharp intuition and perception, HSPs end up creating great works in whichever field they may be, which often becomes path-breaking. Their inner eye also affords them the time and space to engage creatively and deeply with their work.

“Those who are able to dial down the relentless swooping and cresting of emotions that is the almost invariable accompaniment to extreme sensitivity, are able to transform raw perception into keen perceptiveness,” shares Dr. Orloff.

4. Emotional Soak Pads
They internalize the emotions, feelings, and moods of people around them and so just knowing about an adverse event such as  abuse or rape can affect them deeply—to the extent of affecting their work and daily life. They may spend hours mulling over the incident, feeling overwhelmed and heartbroken over the victim’s plight.

5. Neurology of HSPs
Kagan, a psychologist from Harvard University found that about 10–20% of infants were unique in that they had a nervous system that made them more reactive to normal stimuli than other kids. These infants ran the risk of growing up with anxiety or being afraid of trying new things. A brain imaging study in these kids showed they had a hyper-responsive amygdala. Amygdala in the brain processes fearful or threatening stimuli. In kids with a sensitive amygdala, the smallest events can trigger off the neural sensors making them react more severely to a relatively less important event.

Dr. Aron found the specific traits of hypersensitivity could also be due to certain changes in gene expressions. The gene variation that makes them more vulnerable to depression and anxiety (due to its connection with mood-regulating hormones-dopamine and serotonin), also is responsible for making HSPs better decision-makers because they are impeccable at assessing risks and intuiting.

But another problem here is that a lower neural threshold for the release of stress hormones, as is possible among the HSPs, can quickly lead to a rush of adrenaline and cortisol. Constantly elevated stress levels can bring in a host of other health problems of the heart, poor memory, fatigue, and lower bone density.

How do I know if I am a Highly Sensitive Person?

The answer to this can be best answered by certified psychologists and experts, but see how you respond to questions like

  • How strongly do you react to criticism emotionally and physically?
  • How rich is your inner life?
  • Did your parents and friends perceive you as being sensitive in your childhood?
  • How sensitive are you to loud noises and chaos?
  • How sensitive are you to new changes in your environment or life?
  • Do you get affected by others’ moods?

Your response to similar questions from Dr. Aron’s test will give you an idea about where you stand in terms of being sensitive. We all are sensitive to a lesser or greater degree. Nobody likes to be criticized or blamed and there have been films (remember ET?) that get almost everyone choked up. But that alone may not be enough to label one as too sensitive.

6. Parenting and Schools Become Important
When children are highly sensitive, a minor remark or bullying incident can leave a deep impression in their minds and could spiral into something more severe emotionally. Similarly, even a small positive reinforcement could have a disproportionately high positive impact on the child’s motivations and willingness to perform or learn.

How to Deal with HSPs

If your therapist tells you that you may have the trait, the next step is trying to save your mind and heart from pulsating between the emotional extremes that you are so used to as an HSP, and walking the middle path.

“Some psychotherapy including cognitive-behavioral therapies along with mindfulness, meditation and Yoga could help modulate the association of events with inappropriate/ very high levels of sensitivity,” says Neha Singh, senior psychologist at Trijog counseling and mental health organization.

Make your downtime sacrosanct. If you are an HSP, you have to realize that your brain processes a lot more information and the emotional charge around events and spoken words or even subtle behavioral clues is just too intense, for you to be in a constantly tensed up emotional state. Thanks to your thinner boundaries, you are also soaking the disturbance and emotional turbulence in people around you. So give yourself a break more often. Reduce your exposure to sensory stimulation from time to time. Make sure you get 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep with zero stimulation.

Meditate. Studies have shown that practicing meditation helps lower anxiety and activity in the right amygdala while processing negative emotions. Reduction in right amygdala activity is associated with a general reduction in reactivity and distress.

Meditation can help you become more centered and stable in your emotional reactions. A common experience among people who have been meditating for a long time is that meditation helps them draw a subtle but real distinction between the event, people, and their higher selves and this gap helps them see the perpetually changing nature of things.

Practice deep breathing techniques. Practicing pranayamas and deeper breathing techniques can tremendously help you in dealing with chronic stress levels by reducing the stress hormone levels. Regular practice of the SKY technique for 2 weeks is known to reduce the production of stress hormones like cortisol b 56%; lowers inhibitions and provides deep sleep for longer. It has also helped people with generalized anxiety disorder lower their levels of anxiety significantly, with 41% achieving remission within 4 weeks of practice.

Spiritual knowledge. While sensitive people may react easily and emotionally to events and people, their empathy and sensitivity lend them to be aware listeners. Their emotionality can be channeled to improve self-awareness. If they can absorb peoples’ emotions, they can also absorb wisdom and spiritual knowledge from myriad sources, which can be uplifting. Their hearts are already open to receiving higher knowledge about existence, about their minds and body. Emotions aren’t always a bad thing. It is not being aware of them and their sway on oneself that creates problems. The sensitive lot just needs to be shown the way. When their vision about life is broadened through knowledge, they find within themselves the ability to distance themselves from the drama that no longer serves them.

Spirituality can offer techniques for highly sensitive people to build resilience and inner strength. So they can see the real from the exaggerated every time there is an unfavorable or disturbing event or unpleasant remark. Asking oneself questions like, “Is it about me or the other person? Is the other person coming from a space of hurt or misinformation? Will this matter a few months or years down the line? Can I learn from it? Am I coming from the space of fear?” and then totally accepting one’s response to these questions will help them calm down.

Cut off energy vampires. It is important to become aware of people and situations that drain your life energy. Highly sensitive people can become easy victims of energy vampires. They are people who will come to you to complain, rant, frighten or provoke you one way or the other, knowing that you are always available and too sensitive to turn them away. “You have to lovingly but matter-of-factly say, ‘I see you’re going through something; when you want to get into solutions, I’m here for you, but right now this is hard for me to listen to,”’ Dr. Orloff explains. “Tone of voice is everything.”

Dr. Orloff also talks about prepping oneself to face an inevitably unpleasant or egregious situation, liking facing a particularly rude coworker. “Visualize a shield around your body, keeping negative input out,” Orloff writes.

Undoing the trauma. Singh says, high sensitivity could also be an outcome of trauma in the childhood or growing up years. To deal with the hypersensitivity, one will have to treat the trauma first. For this, the person may have to go back, unlearn and let go of the guilt or feeling of insufficiency that the traumatic triggers created in the individual.

Becoming aware. Before this, we probably knew people who showed signs of high sensitivity. We probably didn’t make much of it or perhaps without intending to, piled on them, made unsolicited remarks that did not go down well with them. But now we know better and we can act from there. They do not need us telling them about something they are woefully aware of, which is that ‘things get to them.’ Neither is asking them to ‘toughen up’ likely to help because if they could, they would.

Do not judge. Give them space. If you have an HSP in your life, you will need to learn to give them more space and be non-judgmental about how they relate to their outer world. Unknown to you, their inner life is vivid, complex, and makes sense to them and them alone. They may say things or create things that do not immediately make sense but do not dismiss it only because you are unable to perceive them. Being non-judgmental with HSPs can help kindle a deeply meaningful and mutually rewarding relationship with them, where they share with you the world of their thoughts and creativity, which may often stump you.

There are plenty of qualities that HSPs demonstrate, including creativity, better decision making, better intuition, more empathy, effective risk assessment, more awareness and being in touch with the subtleties of one’s surroundings and one’s own mind and emotions. These can always be enhanced for a better, richer and more fulfilling life. After all, the world can use more warmth, thoughtfulness, and compassion that comes easy with highly sensitive people.

The Silent Retreat

Whether you are just beginning your meditation journey, or hoping to go deeper into the practice, these few days make the rest of your year more alive, productive, and full of energy.