In the last few months, I have been noticing some odd things and I wanted to make sense of them. I began seeing people around me who seemed to have extra sensitivity to sights, sounds and smells. What was this interesting phenomena? Do these people have super-human seeing, hearing and smelling abilities? Was this somehow linked to greater intelligence? I was intrigued by a girl who seemed to be able to smell everything and was always sniffing me! I was baffled when my partner could hear the smallest whir or buzzing sound coming from a computer or the fridge. What was going on here? I needed to find out.
For some reason, after searching the web, I stumbled upon a book about people who were highly sensitive. Shortly after, I ordered the book and began reading it. (“The Highly Sensitive Person” by Elaine N. Aron) Aron had actually discovered a trait that existed in human beings and in other species–she found that 15-20% of the population had a nervous system that was more easily aroused. These people, and animals, were more sensitive to stimulation than the rest of their kind. After looking at the self-test, I immediately thought, this sounds like me!
At nearly the same time, my therapist recommended a book on perfectionist thinking. ( “Never Good Enough” by Monica Ramirez Basco) I started reading both books at the same time. Hmmm…there seems to be a connection here. I guess always knew that I was a bit of a perfectionist but didn’t really give it much thought. It only seemed to come up when a job interviewer asked me, “What’s your greatest weakness?” But as I began to read this book, I had the same feeling–this sounds like me!
Furthermore, in the last month, I was experiencing a lot of anxiety. Not like the kind of moderate worrying that I had felt in the past or even the generalized kind of anxiety I had suffered from recently, but extreme fixation on a future event that I couldn’t stop thinking and worrying about. I seemed to spend half of my day in an anxious state, unable to still my mind or calm down. I wondered–Could this, too, be related to being sensitive rather than merely a menopausal symptom?
My theory is that menopause or hormone imbalances often magnify problems that are already there. If there are any repressed feelings, they are sure to come bubbling up to the surface. If there is a gnawing dissatisfaction with work, it will probably come to a head. If marital issues had been swept under the rug, they will likely to become impossible to ignore. And if you have any minor vitamin deficiency or hidden health matter that your body has been compensating for, there’s a good chance that the hormonal upset is going to turn these mole hills into mountains.
Looking back I can see that I was probably always quite sensitive, as my family members, friends and past teachers would no doubt concur. As I read the book on highly sensitive people, my life seems to make more sense. I have flashbacks from my childhood. I was the one in my family who had allergies, hay fever and eczema. I was the one who cried in terror when going to the dentist or going to the doctor for a shot.
I seemed to handle changes and the moves the worst. I can remember when I started at a new school and I was so afraid that I wouldn’t be able to figure out how to get home even though we lived across the street! I can recall a period in university where I was so scared of being called on and blushing in class that I usually hid in the back hoping not to be noticed. I was the quiet one. The girl who kept things to herself, wrote in her diary and immersed herself in creative play. Now I’m beginning to think, “Hey, I’m not weak; just more sensitive than others!”
So what does it really mean to be sensitive? I think this trait is misunderstood by many and frequently confused with introversion. Children that seem shy or cry a lot are labeled ‘sensitive’ or maybe even thought of as weak. Adults who don’t want to go to big parties or busy restaurants are viewed as introverted, antisocial or strange. Phrases like, “Don’t be so sensitive! You are overreacting!” are used in attempt to dismiss what appears to be an unreasonable response or too much emotion. Unfortunately, sensitive people are pushed into trying to adapt to the world of their thicker-skinned friends who are the majority of the population.
The fact is that highly sensitive people have this acute awareness of everything that is going on around them. They see, hear and feel subtle things and they process and sort information differently. Of course we all need stimulation. Ideally, we want our nervous system to enjoy a happy medium; not too much arousal and not too little. This is when we can perform and respond at our best. As Aron put it, a situation that is moderately arousing for the average person could make a highly sensitive person feel overly aroused, causing her to feel frazzled–confused, distressed and out of control. She may even completely shut down.
Delving back into my past again, I can see that my body was desperately trying to tell me that all the stimulation around me was too much. In my last nine months in Japan, I had become unable to tolerate crowds, loud noise or music, and bright lights. When I was in a crowded place, it felt like every cell in my body was screaming, “NOOO! Get out of here!”
Going back further, I can remember afternoons at the preschool I worked at when I felt completely overwhelmed and my brain seemed to just turn off and I became unable to cope or respond quickly and efficiently. It felt as if a cord had been cut between me and the people around me. As I have now learned, I was likely in a state of dissociation–a mild detachment which served as a coping mechanism to minimize my stress.
Even when I was healthy, I almost always wore my sunglasses and had my headphones in when I was walking on the street or taking a busy train. I never understood how my coworkers could go out and socialize after a long day at work when I just wanted to go home and enjoy a quiet evening. I didn’t really enjoy large gatherings where people sat around drinking and talking.
For some unknown reason, I loved clubbing despite the loudness, the lights and all the people. Maybe my passion for dancing and self-expression overrode my fear. Perhaps, since I completely absorbed myself in the music I was able to block out some of the other stimulus. Quite often I would just close my eyes and feel the music and it was like nothing else existed. I believe it’s likely that my sensitivity was what allowed me to be so deeply moved by the music in the first place. I think, though, in the end, my nervous system did pay a hefty price.
I’m sure my endocrine system was working overtime to try to regulate my hormones but eventually it just couldn’t keep up. And I’m speculating that my adrenals, in particular, had been depleted from my self-destructive, non-stop hyper dancing weekends. At 41, suddenly, my tolerance for stress dipped way down–the fight-or-flight response was zapped. Although for several years I had been able to adapt my sensitive body to a high stress environment, I had pushed it too far. I think I have gone from being quite sensitive to a highly sensitive person as a result of the severe hormonal fluctuations.
As with most traits, there are advantages and disadvantages to being a highly sensitive person: Noticing lots of subtleties and picking up information that others miss can be an asset, especially at work, but getting too caught up in too many small details can lead to perfectionism and wasted time; missing the forest through the trees. Being aware of how others are feeling can make you a compassionate and empathetic person but on the flip side, you may have the tendency to be affected by the moods of others, have trouble separating your emotions from those of others’ or have poor boundaries. Taking in information without even being aware of it will make you more intuitive but too much can be overwhelming and exhausting. Being alert and aware of everything is sometimes very useful but over-stimulation can cause a person to avoid stressful situations which results in increased anxiety.