2008: Comfort Zone ONLINE
1. There were questions about whether HSPs are more sensitive to chemicals (household cleaners, odors, medicines, etc.) and to internal changes in chemicals (hormones, sugar, etc.), and do we have more allergies--skin, sinus, and so forth--and how overarousal or overstimulation might affect these.
First, yes, yes, and yes. The sensitivity to chemicals has been noted by those studying environmental sensitivity, who find most with this difficulty are HSPs.
While no one who I know has formally studied HSPs and hormones, sugar, medications, and the like, there is enormous anecdotal evidence that I hear from HSPs and doctors who treat them. I’m perfectly confident on that one. But see below. On hunger, there is one question on the HSP Scale about sensitivity to hunger. That is there because those who answer yes to it answer yes to the others.
By the way, if you get migraine headaches, look at The Migraine Brain by Carolyn Bernstein. I heard her interviewed and had the distinct impression that most of these sufferers were HSPs. She has found that “the migraine brain” is one that is more reactive to change of all kinds than are other brains. This is what all the types of migraines--those due to hormones, food allergies, etc.--have in common. The brain is reacting with unusual dismay when there are fluctuations in its environment. In the interview, she said that she asked her patients what kind of waiting room they wanted when she redesigned her headache clinic at Harvard. They asked for soft lights, quiet, or soothing music. Sound familiar?
About allergies, three studies have found “inhibited,” “reactive,” or “sensitive” children and adults to have more allergies.
Why? If my theory is correct, we have inherited a strategy that translates roughly to betting on the sure thing, doing it once and doing it right, or observing everything carefully before acting. It is a strategy used by a substantial (often 20%) of the population in any species. We probably come by this strategy via many genetic paths, and so we differ from each other on how we accomplish the strategy, but they all make us different from those who use the other one, which is act first, check later.
One way some of us may differ from the majority is to have lower serotonin (short alleles on the 5-HTT gene), which leads to our inspecting situations more before acting, besides the problem of depression that was discovered first. Other ways are to be sensitive to subtleties generally, to social cues and emotions (such as shame) or to be sensitive in specific modalities such as hearing or smell. Still other ways to be sensitive and follow that strategy is to have an immune system that senses external toxins or changes indicated by allergens, or a general nervous system that notes internal needs or deficits before others do, so that we remedy the situation more quickly. Few HSPs have all of these, but many have most of them.
What is the role of stress in how reactive we are? It definitely increases our reactivity, but I am not sure why. Stress activates many hormones and depletes others. We may, for reasons having to do with our strategy, already have a high level of what easily becomes too high, such as cortisol, and a low level of what can become too low, as is probably the case with serotonin in some of us. So if things are not stressful, we have an advantage over others, but not if they are. One scientist, Thomas Boyce at UBC, thinks that sensitivity evolved so that we could use it to sense all the good things in very good environments and take full advantage of them, and react strongly to bad environments so that we would be more careful in them.
2. A question about how to deal with physiological reactivity and being overwhelmed by sensory input:
I wrote about this some in Chapter Three of The Highly Sensitive Person, of course--for example, about striking a good balance between being too out or in the world and some specific suggestions for coping with overarousal.
But you should also understand that this is what’s on the negative side of the ledger for HSPs. Remember to balance your unhappiness with this side with the pleasure you gain from positive side. As one person put it, “If you could choose, wouldn’t you still choose to be born highly sensitive?” Some days it is a tough question to answer, I admit.
3. Questions to be answered in future issues:
Quick Answers to Questions too Broad to Answer or Answered Elsewhere:
4. Harassment is discussed in the November 2006 on-line newsletter.
November 2008 Articles:
November 2008 Articles:
HSP Living: Answers to Some of Your Questions
For Highly Sensitive Teenagers, Part IV: Friendships
Coping Corner: Highly Sensitive People & Shame
A Letter from Elaine