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The Highly Sensitive Body: Handle With Care

Several years ago, a friend recommended a book that would completely transform my self-awareness and interactions with the world, as well as the way I viewed self-care. Dr. Elaine Aron’s “The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When the World Overwhelms You” explores the traits of sensory process sensitivity found in 15 to 20 percent of the population. Signs of high sensitivity include:

  • being easily overwhelmed by bright lights, loud noises and harsh smells;
  • feeling rattled by severe time constraints;
  • needing to avoid high-drama individuals, violent TV shows and upsetting situations;
  •  susceptibility to addiction, especially alcohol abuse and overeating;
  • enjoying a complex and colorful inner life;
  • preferring close, deep relationships over a large group of acquaintances;
  • having strong intuitive gifts and future-oriented perceptions;
  • being drawn to spiritual, artistic and helping career paths;
  •  requiring lots of quiet time to process, decompress and reflect, and;
  • being told as a child that they were “too sensitive”, or being a gifted student in school.

Highly Sensitive People (“HSPs” otherwise known as “empaths” in New Age circles or “burden bearers” in Christian discussion- although each of these terms have particular nuances that differentiate them slightly from HSPs) experience the world in high-definition. If they don’t have a keen awareness of their personality type and the skills to manage it, their high-def filter tends to be plugged in all the time.

Highly sensitive people often grow up thinking that something is “wrong” with them because they’re not all that interested in what modern society most values, they tend toward introversion (although one-third of HSPs are considered extroverts), and they attract high conflict people due to their thin boundaries, high empathy, and a tendency to have strong emotional reactions. HSPs are also prone to complex health challenges, including autoimmune illnesses, allergies, chronic anxiety, and burnout. There are a few different theories as to why this is. Findings from research conducted by Tufts University psychiatrist Ernest Harttman and from Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan are compelling. In investigating the connections between boundaries and personality, Dr. Hartmann found that people who score high in creativity have a tougher time separating their everyday reality with their fantasy life, and allow more of their environment to impact them. Jerome Kagan focused on “high reactives”- people who possess a sensitivity to events in the environment that imply a new challenge. Brain imaging studies in this population showed a hyperresponsive amygdala, the region in the brain that decodes fear and acts as the body’s alarm circuit, which makes them far more susceptible to clinical anxiety, PTSD, elevated inflammation, and diseases of aging.

If you suspect that you have traits of high sensitivity, you may be thinking right about now, “this sucks… and it explains a lot!” High sensitivity is a gift to be handled with care, one that can actually contribute positively to your well-being, wholeheartedness, creativity and interconnectedness. However, if you’re not conscious of your exposed wiring and you don’t take the time to build a life that honors who you are, you may soon find yourself sick, depleted, victimized and depressed.

WHAT IS A HIGHLY SENSITIVE BODY?

Simply, a highly sensitive body is one that possesses a hypersensitive nervous system, an amplified stress response and a porous stimulation barrier.  

I have a deep respect for science and tend to steer away from wellness woo-woo. Thus, a little disclaimer: the theories around a “highly sensitive body” and its causes are just that- theories- ones which I strongly ascribe to from personal and professional experience. Commingling physiology and psychology is tricky business, and we’re in an age now where we’re beginning to realize that we still know so little about the delicate relationship between the body and the psyche.
 
My hypothesis is that a lot of the mystery health challenges and body breakdowns we face today are the result of maladaptive coping strategies and modes of living which are incompatible with our internal machinery, as well as the result of a societal denial of our true nature as emotional beings who require connection to each other and our environment in order to thrive. Many of these health challenges are also rooted in early childhood due to adversity and trauma, which rewire the brain and nervous system, impact vagus nerve functioning, and set us up psychologically to neglect important signals from our bodies. A wealth of research on disease supports this, and if you’d like to learn more about the connection between health outcomes and adverse childhood experiences, I recommend starting with Dr. Vincent Felitti’s “ACE Study.” 

Highly sensitive people are hit particularly hard due to their porous boundaries, empathic qualities and tendency to shut down as a coping mechanism. A person exhibiting symptoms of chronic fatigue or a thyroid disorder may in fact be holding in emotional toxicity from years of anguish that they have never properly released, and these feelings translate to psychosomatic illness and disorders- pain felt within the body. However, the vast majority of medical doctors will not refer a patient showing signs of a physical dis-ease to a professional who deals with the mind-  a psychologist, counsellor or coach-  and even if they did, many mental health professionals simply do not have the tools to bridge the treatment of mind and body in a way that brings long-term relief to the patient (although this is beginning to change). That’s the other part of the issue- we live in a time where we expect a pill to fix all of our ills, including our mental health challenges, many of which can be rectified or eased through behavioral, nutritional and environmental adjustments. It’s no wonder that the psychopharmaceutical industry is amassing multi-billions of revenue per year.

Somatization, or the bodily communication of psychological distress through physical illness and pain, depletes the body of vital energy. In his brilliant book, “The Tao of Fully Feeling”, psychotherapist Pete Walker explains that somatization often injures the body through the chronic tightening of musculature to avoid feeling. “Muscular contraction against feeling is a psychological form of self-hatred,” he writes. “It’s a vicious way of saying no to healthy aspects of the self. This clamping down on the self not only depletes our energy, but also restricts the blood supply to various parts of the body, making it more susceptible to disease. Many digestive disorders appear to be caused by the stifling of feelings through visceral connection.”

We humans seem to be losing our ability to understand feelings through bodily perception. Instead, we intellectualize our emotions, packing them into neat little boxes and cognitively storing them. Even our language for feelings has been stifled. We’re no longer thrilled, touched, ashamed or stupefied. We’ve traded in our rainbow of options for happy and depressed- perhaps because we’re not sure how we feel anymore. Our bodies have been separated from our minds.

Highly sensitive people contend with  strong forces which have the tendency to either serve them or sabotage them, depending on how those forces are applied. By nature, they’re environmental sponges, soaking up the energy and noise of all they come in contact with and directly absorbing the external stimuli into their bodies. Processing their daily reality requires time and space, both of which are usually in short supply. Lacking the opportunity to thoroughly understand and release whatever has been thrown their way may lead to a toxic emotional buildup not uncommon from what might be exhibited in complex post-traumatic stress disorder or chronic anxiety. Highly sensitive bodies need to cry, to express anger, to speak up, to nap and to retreat into silence on a regular basis if they’re to function optimally. However, the opposite tends to happen. Highly sensitive people learn to adapt by ignoring the messages of their bodies and switching off their internal radar. Rather than self-partnering and honoring the subtle signals within, they’ll happily step outside of themselves in order to focus on others because they feel empowered by their empathy and healing nature… until that eventually backfires.

WHY DOES IT MATTER?

We’re living in a time where the human life span is ticking upward and new advancements in science could dramatically increase our years on this planet. Yet, so many people are experiencing inexplicable body breakdowns in their thirties, forties and fifties, impacting their joy, productivity, and overall quality of life. Conventional medical doctors often seem at a loss to explain why this is occurring, and routinely dismiss conditions manifesting as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, thyroid disease, reproductive issues, allergies, migraines, and various autoimmune syndromes.

It is beyond evident that so many of our bodies and minds are really struggling to adapt to the world of today, but since we cannot change society or other people, we’ve got to focus on what we can change within ourselves.

This is great news, because it makes our jobs a lot easier (HSPs love to dream about saving the world- a blessing and a curse!). Since the medical community is at a loss for concrete answers regarding many of the illnesses and conditions that impact HSPs, they’re often left to figure out how to save themselves, which is probably why there are now so many forums, coaches, and alternative health practitioners addressing specific conditions that impact millions but that do not receive the proper funding or interest in traditional channels. This is simultaneously helpful and dangerous, so it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, you alone are responsible for your health.

HOW SHOULD I CARE FOR MY HIGHLY SENSITIVE BODY?

There are many things you can do to support a highly sensitive body and encourage optimal health- both physical and mental. While I could write a book on all the specific foods, supplements, activities and behaviors that benefit HSPs, here are six of the biggies.

1. Create Unbreakable Self-Care Routines: One of the many upsides to being highly sensitive is that you’re automatically incentivized to pay close attention to practicing good self-care… because if you don’t, you’ll experience the consequences of neglect quite profoundly. Self-care isn’t just about scheduling time for a massage or an Epsom Salts bath. It’s also about being able to say “NO” to things, asking for help, and taking naps when you’d rather be achieving or producing (I wrestle with the last one myself!) Commit to putting non-negotiable self-care time on your calendar, whether that means 15 minutes of quiet each day, taking an assertiveness class every week, penciling in that daily yoga class, or having an hour before bed each night to read something uplifting. Self-care isn’t selfish- it’s the mark of an adult who respects herself and the people she loves.

2. Emote on the Regular: When I was living in China, I’d be awoken every morning by long and furious shouting echoing from the mountaintops behind my home. Upon investigating, I found out that some of the elders in the town engaged in this practice to support heart health. We have few safe spaces today to cry, yell, pummel pillows with our fists, or dance with glee- it almost seems insane to express our feelings. As FEELING beings (rather than DOING beings), processing and releasing old emotions makes space for new experiences and prevents rigidity in both body and mind. Find a place where you can go to safely express whatever storms may be brewing within you. In cramped, urban settings, this can seem like a tall order, but sometimes a long walk in the evening or a leisurely warm shower can provide you with the privacy you need. 

3. Release Tension Through Movement: Endorphins- brain neurotransmitters that transmit electrical signals to the nervous system- manufacture a positive sense of well-being in the body. These endorphins are compromised by stress, and boosted through exercise. Typically, the modes of exercise recommended most for Highly Sensitive People are yoga, tai chi, and other gentle forms of movement. Others may favor jogging and weightlifting, although the latter can be jarring due to high levels of noise in gyms. If you do decide to engage in regular high intensity exercise, prolong your cool down period- take a good 20 to 30 minutes at the end of your routine to stretch, walk, rehydrate and breathe deeply. If you have a history of trauma or anxiety, trauma release exercises (TRE) and defensive martial arts like Krav Maga might be just the ticket. Don’t be afraid to experiment to find what works for you, and make it a priority to work up a sweat most days of the week.

4. Stick with a Simple, Anti-Inflammatory Diet: HSPs tend to struggle with digestive issues, including IBS and Crohn’s disease, as well as numerous allergies to dairy, nuts, soy, wheat and other grains. A simple anti-inflammatory diet primarily consisting of fruits and veggies, fatty fish, lean meats, and healthy oils can make a massive difference in physical and emotional well-being. Like exercise, you’ll want to test out what’s most suitable for you.  Some HSPs really flourish on a Paleo or FODMAP elimination diet, while others do best as vegetarians or vegans because they feel the suffering that animals have endured before becoming meat.  Processed grains, dairy, sugar and high glycemic foods tend to work against the constitution of a highly sensitive person, and caffeine can also have detrimental impacts. In fact, the majority of HSPs I know are unable to tolerate more than a cup of coffee a day. Five to six small meals a day to keep blood sugar stable is almost always a good idea. You’ll want to avoid juice fasts and skipping multiple meals, which can send out stress signals to the nervous system and kick off a fight or flight response.

5. Make Sleep a Priority: Highly sensitive people tend to walk around in a state of hypervigilance while soaking up external stimuli and the emotions of everyone they come into contact with. By the time nightfall arrives, they find themselves simultaneously “wired and tired”- exhausted from having to contend with the world and yet buzzing with the excess energy they’ve absorbed.
Getting at least 8 hours of sleep will help HSPs reset and release the tensions of the day, although they often need a little help nodding off. You’ll want to steer clear of alcohol and prescription sleep aids, which can leave HSPs with a nasty morning hangover. Instead, consider trying valerian root, melatonin, a calcium & magnesium supplement, or kava kava tea. Based on observation, HSPs usually require more sleep than the average person, perhaps because they sleep less soundly, waking up easily throughout the night. It’s also hypothesized that going to bed before 10pm works better with the body’s circadian rhythms and leads to more restorative sleep. A bedtime around 9pm and an aim for 9 to 10 hours of sleep a night might leave you feeling like a shiny new person. 

6. Enforce Strong Boundaries: HSPs have a notoriously difficult time establishing and enforcing boundaries because they’d prefer to keep everyone happy. This attitude is the downfall for HSPs, particularly since they’re prone to being bullied and manipulated IF they haven’t yet developed high self-confidence and found their place in the world. When it comes to boundaries, HSPs are generally better off insisting on iron-clad boundaries until they know they’re entirely fluent in protecting their own space, energy and heart. Don’t be afraid to enlist a coach to help you navigate the complex world of boundaries, or enroll in some assertiveness training, particularly if you’ve got a pattern of being steamrolled by pushy or self-centered people. A word of caution: strong boundaries are often met with strong resistance and anger. Flex your confidence muscles and remember that the people who love you want to see you healthy and thriving- they’re the ones who will honor your boundaries.

These initial suggestions for promoting optimal health in highly sensitive bodies don’t come easily to the HSP and must be learned and practiced regularly. For the past seven years, I’ve enlisted a lot of external support to assist me with some of the areas that I’ve personally struggled with. We all have our blind spots, so don’t be afraid to ask for help! When you're feeling frustrated about your own high sensitivity, remember that it's a true gift which contributes to a life of meaning, friendship and purpose. Our world needs highly sensitive people now more than ever! 

High sensitivity is a superpower once you know how to manage it properly. 

If you’d like to take the HSP test and learn more, check out Dr. Aron’s website.

Another helpful resource is coach Caroline Van Kimmenade’s website, “The Happy Sensitive.”

Are you a highly sensitive person? If so, what are your mechanisms for thriving in the world? How are you protecting and nourishing your body? Leave your comments below- I'd love to hear from you. And, if you liked this article, share it! As always, thanks for reading.

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© Tangram Fitness 2013