A three-part series on how to thrive a highly sensitive person. This is Part 2.
Imagine you and your friend go to the gym for a week.
She does light walking on the treadmill 2 times this week for 30 minutes each time. You run 90 minutes for 5 days.
Whose muscles have worked more? Whose muscles need more rest to get ready for next week’s training?
You or your friend?
It’s the same situation between HSP and non-HSP.
In Part 1, we came to understand that HSPs come with an innate ability to notice more. More of what? More of the subtleties. The subtleties of what? I have to say..of everything.
If you’re an HSP, this will not require much explanation. You’ll get it right away.
You pick up details happening around you that 80% of people miss.
Tim looks pensive. He didn’t yesterday. Seems like he’s having trouble getting his words out. There’s a kind of heaviness in his voice. He also seems distracted, lost in his thoughts. Meanwhile, his wife Rita doesn’t seem to be looking at him. She’s addressing everyone else in the group, but she’s not looking at Tim. Something seems wrong. Maybe something has happened between them.
You tell your friend Sandy “Did you notice Tim and Rita both seemed different today,”
Sandy shrugs. “Nope. Should we get more cake?”
Classic case. Sandy doesn’t see these subtleties. You do.
For HSPs, noticing the subtleties isn’t just restricted to noticing people. It could be anything in the environment. The room smells different, it smells like my childhood friend’s perfume. This song has few beats that sound like the song on the radio yesterday.
Do you make these things up? How come you pick up things that 80-85% of the people around you don’t see? Is this some disordered hyper vigilance? Is your awareness intentional? Something that you manufactured? Something that you consciously control?
Your higher awareness is part of a trait that you have and that others don’t. It’s biological. There are brain differences that make HSPs more attentive to stimuli.
“Most people walk into a room and perhaps notice the furniture, the people—that’s about it. HSPs can be instantly aware, whether they wish to be or not, of the mood, the friendships and enmities, the freshness or staleness of the air, the personality of the one who arranged the flowers.” – Dr. Elaine Aron
What then happens with this higher awareness?
HSP’s Depth of Processing
Along with higher awareness, HSP brains also deeply process all the extra information coming in. HSP brains automatically start organizing this data and start to make sense of it.
Notice how you saw the subtleties of Tim, but then your brain automatically starts processes the information to organize it?
“Tim looks pensive” doesn’t stop there. The HSP brain automatically starts the deep processing. “He didn’t yesterday”…
In other words, HSP brains not just have a higher awareness, but also an innately greater ability to process that awareness inside of them.
All this means that HSP nervous systems have to work harder to process all the incoming data coming into them.
This is where the difference between you and your friend’s weekly gym routine is the correct comparison.
You worked harder in the gym, you need more rest. HSPs nervous systems work harder than non-HSPs (because of the extra awareness of subtleties). HSP’s nervous systems need more rest. As simple as that.
The HSP noticed Tim, compared him with the Tim from yesterday, noticed Rita, compared her with the Rita from yesterday, then noticed Rita with Tim, Rita with the others. Phew!
Sandy bypassed this whole thing. All she noticed was the cake missing from her plate.
So of course, the HSP nervous system is more stimulated than Sandy’s.
What does stimulation feel like?
It’s a physical thing. It’s a bodily reaction.
First, it’s important to remember that stimulation happens for all human, and several non-human species. Sandy salivates when talking about cake. A dog’s tail wags when you talk to it with adoration. A baby smiles when you talk to it with love.
What is all this? It’s stimulation. It’s a reaction that shows up in your body in response to environmental stimulus.
When it’s within a trait’s comfortable range, stimulation is what drives us forward. Sandy makes a decision to walk over to the dessert table. A dog walks closer to you so you can pet it. A college student decides to major in architecture after being mesmerized from his trip to the Taj Mahal. A couple decides to adopt a foster child after their eye-opening trip to a foster home.
Without stimulation, there is no motivation to initiate action. If the image of a cake didn’t excite Sandy, she’s having little reason to want to fill her plate with it.
It’s really when stimulation is outside your optimal comfort zone, then it can feel like hell.
Your body feels a little zapped. Uncoordinated. It feels like you’re about to crash into a mental shut down. There’s an overload on your system, and you cannot think straight. Perhaps your heart pounds faster, brain starts working on overdrive, thinking becomes flustered, it’s a feeling of “feeling too much.”
HSP can reach this state faster and more often than 80-85% of the population.
Why does that happen?
My response is “Why should it not?”
You’re sensitive to nuance. Your trait makes you take in a lot of nuance. What else do you expect should happen other than the nervous system responding?
You: Tim. Rita. Tim yesterday. Rita yesterday. Tim and Rita. Rita and Tim.
Now this sounds like a problem doesn’t it?
If over stimulation felt like a tender walk through a rose garden, then HSPs wouldn’t be so upset.
But overstimulation of the nervous system can feel like all hell broke loose. Particularly because most times, you haven’t asked for it. It all happens outside of your control. The awareness of the subtleties is automatic. The deep processing inside the brain is automatic. The over stimulated nervous system from doing all this extra work is automatic.
And what happens when we experience things that we don’t understand or have control over?
The first step to thriving as an HSP is to understand over-stimulation and stop calling it fear.
Unless you know about your trait, chances are you will not understand how awareness and over-stimulation are working through your trait and into your life experiences.
All you know at a conscious level is that you are “feeling too much”, as represented by the physical symptoms you feel. Heart racing, breath shallow, palms sweating, foggy thinking, overwhelm etc.
Unfortunately, because over stimulation can have the same physical tone as anxiety and fear, the temptation to confuse the two happens quickly.
“It is important not to confuse arousal with fear. Fear creates arousal, but so do many other emotions, including joy, curiosity, or anger . But we can also be overaroused by semiconscious thoughts or low levels of excitement that create no obvious emotion. Often we are not aware of what is arousing us, such as the newness of a situation or noise or the many things our eyes are seeing.” — Dr. Elaine Aron.
When you label over-stimulation of the body as fear “I must be afraid if my heart is beating faster”, then what do you think happens?
Next step is that you will look for a trigger. Then you hypothesize. With an exceptional imagination of an HSP, most certainly you will find something to be afraid of. “I must be afraid of meeting new people socially.”
“Once we do notice arousal, we want to name it and know its source in order to recognize danger. And often we think that our arousal is due to fear. We do not realize that our heart may be pounding from the sheer effort of processing extra stimulation.” — Dr Elaine Aron.
If we misinterpret over-stimulation as fear, soon enough it becomes fear.
But unlike fearing an object outside of you, you start fearing whatever’s going on inside of you.
To a certain degree, you can avoid external stimuli like an airplane, large crowds or whatever it is that scares you outside. But how do you escape from your own self? You cannot. There is no way (or need) to change your inherited trait.
“Why is my heart pounding so fast?” is a scary position to be in when all you know about heart-pounding is that it’s something that happens when you watch a scary movie. Or when a dog barks up on you from behind. Or when your school principal yells at you.
You have come to relate heart pounding with fear.
“If my heart is pounding, I must be afraid of meeting these new people.”
But when you know your trait, you understand that your heart doesn’t just pound when you face obvious danger, but also when you are automatically aware of “too much” or “too new” sensory stimulus.
“Ok, so it’s the “newness” of everything that I am unconsciously picking up on that makes my heart pound. That woman seems cold and aloof: I don’t like the vibe. This man seems nervous: I wish I could help him relax. Meanwhile, I am uncomfortable with how long this event is: Wish I knew. I also feel that my heart is pounding, I can feel every single beat.”
There is a big difference between the two states.
With the first, you are faced with symptoms that you don’t understand. With the second, the understanding of the trait helps reduce the symptoms.
Without having much control over the symptoms (heart-pounding), the first situation leads you to anxiety. But the second allows you to understand your trait and hang in there without freaking out.
Once HSPs stop confusing over stimulation with fear, they’ve freed themselves up significantly. The fight to overcome fear is an honorable endeavor, but the fight to overcome a trait is hurtful one. The HSP trait doesn’t need to be fought. It needs to be understood. It asks you to make a good plan to optimize life using the strengths of your trait, not struggle with a life that rejects it.
In Part 3 of this HSP series, we’re going to do just that. We”ll take specific steps to stop the war against our sensitivity and start thriving from who we really are.
Featured photo credit: Highly Sensitive Person via unsplash.com