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.
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
I 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.
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.
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.
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.