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Thursday, 12 February 2009

The Highly Sensitive Person

There is an interesting discussion going on at the moment on one of the readers sites that I am a member of regarding depression, and the affect that it has. Many of my friends both on and off the Internet seem to be experiencing more than their fair share of troubles at the moment, and I am certainly no exception to this. I was hoping there may have been news regarding the outcome of the meeting I attended last Friday by now (it will be a week tomorrow), but so far nothing. I try hard not to get frustrated by this, but it is exceedingly difficult when so much is at stake, not that I expect them to understand that.

Getting back to the subject of depression, I have a theory that a lot of people on Internet forums (myself included) are what are termed as highly sensitive people (HSP's for short). This phrase was coined by US based psychologist Elaine N Aron, after many years of study. Elaine has written several books on the subject, the best known of which is entitled The Highly Sensitive Person.

I found this book in a shop in Glastonbury a couple of years ago, and it really struck a chord. Basically what Elaine says is that a highly sensitive person is one who is more sensitive than most to external stimuli, such as bright lights, noise, etc. and very often physical pain. Because of their inability to screen this out, they tend to withdraw from the world. Others tend to label these individuals as shy, quiet, withdrawn etc, as they misinterpret sensitivity for something else.

Socialising or working in a noisy environment for these people can be a huge problem. At various points in my life I have been given most of these labels. I have always struggled in social situations, where there is loud music, flashing lights etc, and crowds, finding it difficult to screen all this out and concentrate on one conversation at a time. Until I read this book, I had never even thought of myself in that way. Because people have always told me that I am introverted, shy, too quiet (I was forever being told as a child, which I hated), I should go out more etc, I thought that that was what I was. Because I was not like them, I was not 'normal'. Looking at the way some of these people behaved, led to me to think that if that was normal, I wanted no part of it, leading me to withdraw even more.

The problem is that our society values those who put themselves out in the world, not being afraid to explore and be extrovert, and able to cope with all these stimuli. Sensitivity is viewed as a negative when there are some very positive aspects to this trait, such as being alert to danger, having more acute sensory perceptions, and the ability to tune in and empathise, as well as inspiration and creativity. I posses most of these in abundance, as do most of my friends.

My partner and I are definitely HSP's (him much more than I am). With him it also manifests as sensitivity to pain and what goes on within the body, whereas with me, it is more about external stimuli - noise is a particular problem for me. That is why I found it so hard at my last job, working in an environment with loud music constantly blaring out has to be my idea of HSP hell!

There are different degrees of sensitivity, depending on your own nervous system, and of course upbringing. Elaine's book seems to suggest that it is to do with the brain, and how we process and deal with different types of stimuli. There are two ways in which we do that, the first of which is called the behavioural activation or approach system. This is the part which is curious and wants to learn and explore. It is what pushes a young child to get up and walk and to experience different things. The other system is known as behavioural inhibition (notice the negative connotations) or pause to check system. This is the one that holds us in check, advising caution and less risk taking.

Some HSP's have very active pause to check systems, whilst others have systems which are more equal in strength. I suspect that I am one of these, while my partner falls more into the first category (i.e. his pause to check system is stronger). In someone such as myself, where the 2 systems are more equal, this sets up a dichotomy or struggle between the 2 opposing parts, making the person both curious and cautious at the same time. Part of me wants to go out into the world exploring and trying new things, while the other part is cautious and reticent, needing constant support and reassurance. That is why it is so important that sensitive children receive adequate support and encouragement from their caretakers. If they don't (and my partner didn't) then it could easily lead them to fear anything and everything, as the world is just too overwhelming for them to deal with.

Luckily I seem to have found ways to get round and work with the dichotomy that I experience. Knowing my own limitations, when to rest, when not to, and finding the balance. Because of the culture in my last job, and indeed most companies these days, it can be extremely difficult to find the balance and the space that you need. In my last job I didn't get the space and the breaks that I needed, and the results have not been pretty.

It is essential that as both children and adults HSP's be encouraged to explore and try new things, as failure to do this reinforces the idea that the world is a threatening and dangerous place. At the extreme end this can easily lead to conditions such as agoraphobia, obsessive compulsive disorder and of course panic attacks. My partner experiences these from time to time, and I have had one or two myself.

The book certainly helped me in a lot of ways, and it is on that I would recommend to anyone. It certainly helped clarify things for both of us, and made us understand that there is in fact nothing wrong with either of us, despite being told the opposite for most of our lives. The book did though bring up a lot of issues for us to deal with and work through, so it is not necessarily easy, but it does bring understanding, and with that comes wisdom.

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