The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneAugust 2005: Comfort Zone ONLINE
Coping Corner:
Strengthening Your Decisions Through "Cardiac Exercise"

No, I don't have in mind aerobics. This is subtler.

Because I had a perfectly harmless but pretty intense (to an HSP) heart arrhythmia in conjunction with the lung infection this spring (which I'm now over), I reread a book called The Heart's Code by Paul Pearsall, Ph.D. (Broadway, 1998). That led to quite a bit...

Pearsall is a psychoimmunologist and health psychologist who worked for years on the mental side of heart disease, such as "Type A Behavior," trying to help executives in particular rid themselves of the toxic attitudes that contribute to heart disease. So he's a "hard science" sort of person. He's gathered his data and talks about theories. But this book definitely takes him beyond the range of scientific acceptability.

Pearsall had to listen to more than science when he sensed his own health was in trouble. He describes how for months he felt a deep dread that "seemed to be my heart crying. There was a sense of "impending doom that I seemed to experience in my heart" and an "internal decay" and "toxic energy" throughout his body. The doctors found nothing wrong with him. "My brain accepted their diagnosis, but my heart remained very worried." He finally told the doctors that "my heart was telling me I was dying." Eventually the doctors did a CAT scan, "Just to put your mind at rest." They found very advanced cancer, lymphoma throughout his body and bones, so that even with a bone marrow transplant Pearsall was not expected to live.

From then on Pearsall listened carefully to his heart as it told him who was good for him to be around, who was not, and that he did not have to be passive during the whole-body radiation treatments, but to establish a healing connection with the radiation device, so that the technicians found he needed much less to gain the same effects. His heart helped him receive the loving energy being sent by his wife and sons, and to establish a heart connection with the new cells he received.

During this illness, he also became friends with others facing life threatening diseases and having other kinds of transplants. His particular interest, naturally, was in those having heart transplants. A certain number of them, around 15% (surprise, surprise) were known to report quite spontaneously that they know things about the person whose heart they received, or else their behavior or preferences changed, and when it was researched, it was found that these changes were indeed in the direction of being more like the person whose heart they had received.

What interested me most, however, was his philosophizing about and experiencing how the heart has a different intelligence than the brain. The brain seems to focus on individual survival, fussing and calculating, while the heart seems to be more of a connector, a "social" organ. After all, heart beats are the first sounds we ever heard; they seem to be calming, emphasizing connection and security. But once we are born, it seems that the brain takes over and starts to feel alone in the world and needed to worry.

The brain is given so much power by us and our society, but why not balance that power with something from the heart? Indeed, if the brain can have neurons that store memories, why shouldn't the heart have some? Why shouldn't it "think"? But if it does, the physiology of the two organs says that they would think in very different ways. The heart can communicate instantaneously with all of the body, 73 trillion cells, via the circulatory system. Pearsall thinks, in fact, that the heart in its central location and with its contact with every cell is constantly sending out "info-energy" that every cell recognizes, so that each cell uses its DNA to become a sort of holographic image of the energy coming from the heart. Pearsall also thinks that this info-energy radiates outside of us to some degree (the heart is a very powerful discharger of energy), and perhaps our heart also evolved to sense the energy from the hearts of others, in order to recognize love and safety--something as important to recognize as danger--and perhaps to recognize much more as well.

"Cardio-sensitives" are what Pearsall calls those who had heart transplants and sensed something about their donors. So I was back in HSP country. The characteristics of cardio-sensitives? Pearsall lists "Very sensitive to others," open minded, body aware, music and animal lovers, highly creative, environmentally sensitive, sensitive to climate changes, "compulsive" (take criticism very seriously), vivid dreamers, "gentle and tender," not highly competitive, and so on and so forth.

Are the hearts of HSPs different? Almost certainly. One clue is that mitral valve prolapse (MVP) is associated with personality traits that are also common to HSPs--I happen to know all of this because I have MVP. It is a usually harmless variation in heart functioning, a type of "heart murmur." It is more common in women, but we know that may not mean that women more often inherit a gene for it. It could be that it is a condition associated with or even caused by what the culture calls "feminine" traits. And, it may be that MVP develops when sensitive hearts have to cope with a great deal too early. If you go to the MVP websites run by those who have it, much of what is there reminds you of things HSPs write about.

Also, HSPs are more aware of their heartbeat. Alas, this research is not published, but a researcher studying who has heartbeat detection abilities used the HSP questionnaire and found the two did correlate.

Anyway, years ago I was once teaching a health psychology class and asked the students to do the following exercise. After reading Pearsall's book, I began doing it again myself. I now try to do it often, usually after I meditate. It's very easy.

  • Think of a problem, issue, or decision that has you worried or stumped.
  • Review it using your brain.
  • Now, try to drop your awareness down into your heart. You'll probably want to close your eyes and be still. You might try to pay less attention to the mental chatter, and open your awareness to your heart. You are inviting it to talk to you.
  • Then simply "listen." You may not hear "brain talk," but you will almost certainly and usually instantly find you that know something new about the problem. Every student who did it in the class I was teaching received a fresh perspective on their problem, often one quite different from what they thought.
  • Add the information to your decision-making process. So I do not mean to imply that the heart is always wiser and you should obey it instead of your brain. But its perspective can be surprisingly useful.

Indeed, the Chinese and probably other cultures treat each organ as an individual, and the Chinese know a great deal about the body. So consulting with other organs when they are "speaking to you" with symptoms is probably a very good idea.

Nor need you wait for symptoms. I have found that I if I "center" myself in my solar plexus, I can sense if I am following my "true self." Don't ask me to define that, but it's so. I realize that some of you are way, way ahead of me on all of this! But since we all have a brain bias, it's probably always helpful to have another person's validation that the heart is intelligent and can be heard.

The hardest part may be remembering to do this sort of exercise. I find being faithful to doing physical exercise is a snap in comparison. No doubt that's because the brain does not want to give up its rule, or at least is not used to sharing. But the potential here for HSPs is enormous. Like paying attention to dreams, paying attention to organs and to the body is something anyone can do because everyone has them. But HSPs can do it even better!

August 2005 Articles:
A Letter from Elaine
Let's Review: The Benefits of Being Highly Sensitive, for Ourselves and Our World
Coping Corner: Strengthening Your Decisions Through "Cardiac Exercise"
With Depth: The Shadow Side To High Sensitivity

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