HappyStance

As I promised I would in my previous post, after I published it, I went and read what Elaine Aron had to say about the distinction between anxiety disorders and HSP overwhelm. The subject is actually an FAQ item on her website.

Fear Itself

The article is quite long, and its messages are rather mixed. I was appalled to find that Aron comes right out and says at one point that anxiety is “normal” for HSPs, therefore it is not a mental disorder in us. This seems like an extraordinarily bizarre and irresponsible statement for a mental health expert to make about 15-20% of the population. However, when you read the whole article, her message is more nuanced (sometimes to the point of self-contradiction). My take on it is that she is reframing anxiety symptoms to circumvent the stigma that is still associated with mental health issues.

If I interpret correctly, the problem with this approach is that reframing mental disorders out of existence can cause people to not get help for them. It can also cause mental health professionals to respond inappropriately to distress in HSPs.

Of course, I could be totally wrong about her intentions. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to write an article on this subject suitable for an audience that includes people who identify as HSPs, mental health practitioners, parents of HSP kids (HSCs), AND random members of the public who may know an HSP, or are just curious about SPS. It would’ve been better to write separate articles for each of these groups, or at least divide the long article into subheadings for each group which can be accessed directly from a jump menu at the top, as each needs very different information and perspectives. A more targeted approach would also make for a much shorter read for each group. Instead, she skips around from addressing one group to addressing another within the article, which is very confusing.

Happy Is As Happy Does

A fish peeks out from between the tentacles of a sea anemoneI do recognize that any discussion of emotions and their impact on behavior is bound to be loaded, even without the additional stigmatization associated with mental disorders. Deeply embedded cultural hostilities towards HSP characteristics such as emotional reactivity, deliberately-paced decision-making, and distress at overstimulating sensory experiences makes it difficult to discuss them neutrally. And that goes way back.

For example, in animal studies that are often cited as early building blocks of the psychology of personality, what we might now call the HSP and/or introvert group is characterized as “shy,” while the non-HSP group is characterized as “bold.”

This is a great example of how our language is so riddled with preconceptions, it is hard to see the outcome for the assumptions. For instance, there are implicit gender role associations for all words related to action, because activity is strongly associated with the stereotype of “masculinity.” Consequently, action is inherently preferred to inaction because sexism values “masculine” characteristics above “feminine” ones. While this bias is increasingly disassociated from the actual gender of a person, the characteristics themselves are still ranked according to the old gender caste system.

So “boldness,” a state of activity, is implicitly perceived as preferable to a state of inactivity, which is designated as “shyness.” This conceptualization is not only biased, but inaccurate, since so-called “shy” fish were not more reserved about interacting with other fish, but rather about entering an open area with less cover from potential danger.

What if we called them the “sensible” and “reckless” fish instead? Puts a totally different spin on it, doesn’t it?

None Too Happy

Getting back to the O in DOES, overwhelm (or rather overstimulation, perhaps not quite the same thing) is presented as a defining characteristic of sensory processing sensitivity. I question whether research has definitely established this. Correlation and causality are not the same thing. If a lot of HSPs are anxious, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Sensory Processing Sensitivity itself is the cause of that, any more than it follows that deep processing must automatically result in overstimulation. Surely that depends on culturally-determined contexts and expectations? Which would make overstimulation an effect of being an HSP in a non-supportive culture, not a primary characteristic of SPS itself.

Personally, I am finding it a lot more useful to reframe overwhelm as a possible symptom of anxiety disorder than vice versa. Long-time readers of this blog will know that one of my core struggles is to take my own experiences and feelings seriously enough. Possibly this comes from being ridiculed and punished (in some cases physically) during my childhood for being upset, no matter how valid my reasons, and as a result, developing a whole ‘nother knotty and conflicted layer of emotions about my emotions.

I resisted the demand to hide my inconvenient feelings (as if I could), but at the same time, came to feel that showing them made me vulnerable. So in the end, I did buy into pretending to be more OK than I felt to some extent, even while I railed against having to do that (you should hear my rant about the socially permissible answers to “how are you?”).

And it wasn’t just others from whom I was protecting myself. During the decades I lived with undiagnosed depression, when I didn’t know what ailed me, and therefore didn’t know there might be accessible solutions for it, underplaying my own misery to myself was a form of unconscious self-protection. Looking back, I can see that if I had become fully aware of how bad I felt before I had found solutions, drowning as I was in the depressive incapacity to remember past happiness or envision a better future, I would quite probably have ended my life. Even filtered, the pain was often so bad that I am still amazed (and extremely grateful) that I did not.
A very large orange sun just touches the horizon against a dark background.

Many Unhappy Returns

Identification of problematic emotion is further complicated by the fact that mental disorder definitions can be confusingly relative. This is particularly true of symptom lists for depression, which almost universally assume the possibly depressed person was once – recently – happier, AND is capable of remembering that, which is almost never the case for people with chronic and/or treatment-resistant depression. Relativity is not only an impediment in diagnosis, but in benchmarking recovery. If the way I used to feel is my measure, I’m doing really great now. But that bar is so low, it’s under the floor.

Whatever its origin, my pattern of not recognizing the intensity of some of my reactions to situations in my life doesn’t serve me well. Or, rather than not recognizing, maybe it’s more that I don’t take them seriously enough, because I still fear I don’t have the power to change them?

In either case, facing what isn’t working is key to making effective decisions about it.

C’mon, Get Happy

Which segues nicely into the happiness part of this post, and I didn’t even do that on purpose! Oh, wait, should I reveal that? Silly question – who am I kidding? I’m an HSP with a strong conscience and weak self-expression filters.

I have been critical of some of the more new-agey and superficial approaches to happiness, particularly those that advocate positive thinking as if a brain impacted by a mental disorder can be harnessed and redirected in much the same manner as a brain that isn’t.

And yet, I think there is a germ of truth in there somewhere, even if these particular approaches don’t go deep enough to uncover it. One form of thinking your way out of unhappiness, reframing, can be powerful, for sure. Realizing I’d been living with undiagnosed depression for decades changed my life. And realizing I was an introvert did it all over again. But did either of those things make me happier? Not directly. But it would be fair to say that they ultimately made me less unhappy.

Anyway, when I heard about Yale University’s Science of Well-Being course, I was intrigued. It was developed in 2018 by the head professor of the school of psychology, who became concerned about all the unhappy students she was seeing (as well as her own unhappiness, an interesting admission from an advanced and highly-respected expert in emotional management, training students for a career of helping the unhappiness of others, at one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world). Unexpectedly (to the university, at least), the course was wildly successful, becoming the most popular course ever offered. Now it is available free to anyone.

Three towers of stacked stones on a rocky river shore with a waterfall flowing down a high bank on the other side in the background

I checked it out, and found it intriguing in several ways. First of all, the time commitment is modest, as it consists mostly of short readings and videos, there are no assignments to submit, and you can take it at your own pace. So even for an HSP struggling with overwhelm/anxiety it sounded doable. You’d think being doable would be a non-negotiable condition for any type of solution, but considering whether a treatment is practically feasible for people with the condition being treated is not always a strong point in medical research.

The second attraction of the course is that it doesn’t just talk at you. That is to say, the intention is not just to communicate information, but to support actively integrating it into your life. This is a radical – and welcome, and very long overdue – departure from academia in general. The videos are hosted in a living room to underscore this point, which also has metaphorical implications. Perhaps the yawning gap between the creation and distribution of wisdom that recently caused my country to go so hideously astray is being bridged at last.

Happy Medium

One of the things I am trying to better understand is how my brain interacts with stimuli. I’d especially like to know more about how to differentiate between forms of stimuli, and to assess whether the things I do when I’m “supposed to” be doing something else are helpful stimuli, or if not, what is there about them that is more appealing? The course curriculum sounds like it might address this sort of question.

Until I know more, I am also trying to be mindful about overstimulation. So when I started the course yesterday, I didn’t just pile video upon video, but stopped after the introduction and the first major point to let it sink in. That point is: Knowing things is NOT half the battle.

This is a pretty radical statement to come out of academia, and I could not agree more. In fact, my major criticism of both “positive thinking” as the road to happiness for people with mental disorders and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is exactly this. It is also one of my criticisms of the Elaine Aron article on overwhelm vs. anxiety disorder that I discussed earlier in this post. She seemed to frequently treat abstract knowledge and emotional experience as if the former automatically transformed the latter. I look forward to seeing how the Yale course develops this point.

Come along with me, if you like. You can sign up here. I don’t promise to stick to a schedule (the course isn’t  pushy about that, but the app through which it is offered is). I am intentionally ignoring the 10-week schedule and taking it slowly for two reasons. First, to fully process a point before I rush on to the next one, for aforementioned reasons of being more mindful about stimulation. Second, to avoid building yet another anxiety-provoking should/can’t resistance loop into my life, the last thing I need.

And I might also decide the course is not useful to me, or is one thing too many when I have already entered a(nother) period of intensive self-exploration. But until any of that happens, it might be fun to have others to chat with about it.

Wide stone stairs in an old stone building lead up a wooden double door. One door is ajar with light showing around its edges.

 

Is Overwhelm the Same as Anxiety?

The deck of playing cards attacks Alice in WonderlandI’ve been grappling with a challenge I variously refer to as procrastination, low motivation, or a need for an astronomical amount of down/processing time, for awhile now. Years, actually. As you can see by my list of labels, the crux of the problem is not solving it (problem-solving is one of my natural strengths), but defining its nature (possibly less of a strength). Longtime readers may recognize this state of bemused non-functionality from the inception of Sensitive Type.

Just to be clear, the tasks I’m having trouble with are self-initiated. Some are associated with work, and I will eventually have to be accountable for them, but there is no one looking over my shoulder from day to day. Others impact only me. Ironically, the space to “be where I am” that I built in to my life in response to my previous crisis reduced the stress of pressure from others, but by also reducing the motivating imperative of deadlines, new stress was born.

Finding the Right Frame

I have framed the issue in many different ways, trying to find one that fits. Continue reading

The Greatest Conjunction of All

World Introvert Day + Caturday

A cat lies on a woven straw mat on the grass. She has a book between her paws, and is staring meditatively off into space.

Thoughts About Overthinking

Blog posts and discussions about Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) frequently refer to “overthinking” as an inevitable characteristic of being an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person). This always raises my hackles. What’s “over” about our thinking, compared to anyone else’s? And why are we comparing ourselves to anyone else anyway? Unfavorably at that? Haven’t we all heard “oversensitive” enough times not to apply any more “over-” appellations to ourselves??

And if the embedded judgment wasn’t bad enough, the term is also imprecise. I have detected at least three different meanings associated with the word. In this post, I discuss these definitions of “overthinking,” and propose alternatives for two of them.

Continue reading

Believe Me

Cassandra was a Trojan princess and priestess, best remembered for being a prophet who was always right, but never believed. The rest of her story is less well-remembered. More on that later.

To Tell the Truth

Bronze casting of a pensive young woman in ancient dress with holes for eyesCassandra only wanted to use her gift to prevent unnecessary suffering and death. But she told people things they didn’t want to hear, so she was pronounced insane, and ignored. Her own family, who had surely noticed her prophecies always came true, nevertheless locked her away, and dissed her along with the rest. They soon had reason to regret that, but by then it was too late.

When they let her out for a feast, she warned her father, the King of Troy, that the centerpiece, a giant wooden horse sent as a gift by Troy’s longtime rivals, the Greeks, was full of invading soldiers. Annoyed that she was bringing their party down, the king and his courtiers jeered at and insulted her.

Desperate to prove the truth, Cassandra grabbed an axe to break it open and show them what they would not let her tell them, but they took it away and laughed at her some more.

I don’t have to imagine how frustrating this was. I know. Like many HSPs, I often perceive things that others don’t. I learned a long time ago that these truths are not always welcomed by people who have not yet seen them (or are working very hard not to). 

But wouldn’t you think immediate physical danger was a special case? It’s only natural that people would pay attention when it was a question of their own survival. Isn’t it? Continue reading

Rest

A slim hand moves jigsaw puzzle pieces laid out on a table.Having accomplished a self-directed life where I answer to no clock but my own, I struggle constantly with the balance between activity and down time. I often suspect the struggle is with self-judgment rather than time management, but I’m never quite confident enough of that to surrender myself wholeheartedly to my periods of rest. Maybe that’s why I need so much of it!

Like most human experiences, this one is neither unique to me, nor new. It was with a dawning sense of vindication that I listened to the following articulate and compassionate defense of down time from a book published by Herbert J. Hall more than a century ago. Hall received his M.D. from Harvard in 1895, and soon gravitated towards patients with “nervous complaints.” He was clearly well-acquainted with negative self talk long before the phrase was coined.

Here is a chapter from his 1915 book, The Untroubled Mind, now in the public domain. Continue reading

Terra Infirma

I knew I was living in a protected bubble, where life AC (After COVID-19) was not so very different from life BC. I knew there were similar pockets throughout the U.S. While I was grateful for the relative safety of my situation, the sense of removal from the chaotic centers of the pandemic has its down side. Many in my suburban city refuse to change their behavior. They are worried enough to hoard toilet paper, but not enough to keep their distance in the checkout line. They don’t know anyone who died yet.

Two blooming purple lilac flower heads

The disconnect between the quiet streets here, blooming with spring, and the fact that we are in the midst of a global tragedy that must change us in ways we can’t even begin to imagine felt increasingly surreal as I read of very different scenarios elsewhere – Italy, Spain, hospitals in New York. But still, I worked my past experiences with making do, getting through it, living with uncertainty, and sheltering in place from my own HSP overwhelm. I told myself calmly and rationally that the brightest and best-trained minds on the planet are working on this, Continue reading

Coping

I wonder if HSPs have an advantage in a crisis, as we are already very familiar with overwhelm. While that’s no guarantee that we are better equipped to deal with it, at least it’s not a new feeling. If we have learned to balance our sensitivities with a sense of perspective, perhaps we can rediscover sooner than others that our emotional reaction is not a measure of our capacity to cope.

Global pandemic really shouldn’t surprise anyone, as we have had a high level of rapid international travel for at least 70 years. What’s surprising is that it didn’t happen sooner. I don’t expect that to be a comfort, but I am ever-hopeful it will promote facing and planning for other future challenges (not holding my breath, though).

Hunkered Down

A chipmunk peers warily out from between large boulders
Continue reading

Remind Me Where I Know You From

As if there wasn’t enough weirdness in my brain, I live with mild prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness. I recently came across this great podcast on the subject, that updated latest research findings, as well as providing a few facts I hadn’t known.



Smiling face of a woman with features blurredI first heard of prosopagnosia about a dozen years ago, in a documentary about a woman who couldn’t recognize members of her own family, with whom she lived. I watched it for the same reasons anyone would – curiosity, and wondering what her very different life might be like.

However, as the documentary described how people with less severe cases of the condition may not even be aware of it, and instead think they have trouble with names, or just need to pay more attention, it began to sound unexpectedly familiar. Continue reading

Risk

A wild goat leaps from one high rock to another against the background of a valley far below, while another goat loks inquisitively into the camera
I have observed that I have a somewhat different perspective on risk from some of my friends. They measure risk – and decide whether to take preventive steps – based on their assessment of how likely an undesirable event is. I, on the other hand, weigh risk and how much preventive action is warranted according to how much of a hassle it would be if it did happen.

Since sensory processing sensitivity is often described in terms of risk aversion, especially in animal studies, I am curious whether HSPs in general identify more strongly with one of the above attitudes towards risk than with the other? Let’s call them “odds” vs “cost.” If you have a moment, please fill out the poll below. Not scientific, of course, but potentially interesting. (If you don’t see the poll, try a different browser or device).