Help for the Highly Sensitive
COVID-19 has been hard on everyone. And there are unique challenges that we each face depending on a number of variables- age, employment, relationship status, location, etc. One of those variables is our temperament.
The Highly Sensitive Person is a term coined by Elaine Aaron based on her extensive research. It describes an innate trait found in 15-20% of the population. There are four main characteristics of this trait:
1. Processing at a deeper level
2. Prone to overstimulation
3. Strong experience of empathy or emotional reactivity
4. Increased sensitivity to subtleties
Here is a blog post that explains these in more detail.
Elaine Aaron recently described her own (highly sensitive person's) response to COVID-19:
Corona Virus Reflections.
"I am often asked in interviews how HSPs are handling it. I joke, “Oh, about the same as left-handed people.” That is, it all depends. I like this interchange: One person said, “We’re all in the same boat,” and another responded, “No, we’re all in the same storm, but in many different boats.” Some of you are in horrible situations, in leaky boats or those going under, and some of you are just riding out the storm, calm or even happier. Most of you are probably in between.
Then I add for the interviewer that I am betting that HSPs are being more careful, for ourselves and others. And seeing the bigger picture, into the past where this has happened before and was predicted for years, and into the future, at what all of this might mean for humans in decades and centuries to come. And HSPs must be feeling many feelings, even more strongly than others—pain and grief for the sick and those and who have passed. (And the new grief of vulnerable grandparents separated from those grandkids who grow so fast; Zoom is not enough.) Deep sadness for those devastated financially. Maybe frustration, even anger. Our feelings go on and on.
I also say that some HSPs report enjoying the relief from the usual overstimulation out in the world. I hear from some HS introverts that they are actually enjoying much of it.
On the subject of feelings, I apologize if in my last email I seemed flippant about virus news being The Same Old Same Old. Truthfully, I was just feeling frustrated. When is this going away!!! (I still do not use the panic-sounding word pandemic, except to write it here.) I am a (cautious) high sensation seeker, easily bored, and was wishing that things would change--for the better, not to stay the same week after week. But I see now that changes must come very slowly. For people at risk especially, this may go on until there is a safe vaccine.
I now think of my husband and me as living in a monastery (something the very spiritual part of me always wanted)—with intentional sameness and almost four hours of rest and meditation each day, with useful work in between. No leaving just to have some fun. Our groceries are brought to us. No one else has entered our house since this began. So I am also very safe, as long as we stay cloistered.
Added the next morning: I am very happy with my sense that I can grow inwardly even more quickly here in my cloister. I feel its truth. This is just me, but it reminds me of something Maharishi used to say about aging: the trick is to “ride the tiger,” or let the dangerous thing take you forward rather than eat you up.
has written two helpful blog posts for those of us who are highly sensitive."
As a fellow HSP, this felt very validating and normalizing for me.
Here are 2 other blog posts she referenced that I found useful.
This one is help with a general big picture perspective.
This one is help for managing the living space with others.
I hope you find these useful.
Elaine's website is full of great resources for HSP's or people who love HSP's. You can find it here. She also has an electronic newsletter you can sign up for with wonderful insights and resources.
Living in uncertainty is difficult. We are all experiencing that in high definition. Do you know what you feel in your body when uncertainty steps forward? I do. I feel it in my torso- from my upper chest down to my lower belly and I don't like it at all. It feels tight, restless, unwavering and thick. It makes me wish I could step away from my insides and walk around empty.
My daily meditation practice helps me with these uncertainty sensations more than anything else I have tried. Nevertheless, there are days when meditation feels inadequate and I have to tolerate the sensations in my body and the thoughts in my mind.
Uncertainty can arise as an outcome of a variety of situations. Sometimes things happen that we have absolutely no part of; we don't cause it or encourage it. COVID-19 is a good example of this. Other times we may make a choice that directly leads us to a place of uncertainty. Either way, we all will find ourselves facing it at some point and we may not be able to control how long it stops to visit with us.
My family and I are currently in an interesting situation of uncertainty which is indirectly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, during a run I was feeling particularly restless about it. Earlier someone had encouraged me to, "have faith." As I was winding through the trails I was curious about what this meant. What is faith? What do I do to have faith? Is it a feeling? Is it a choice? Will it make me feel better? Several ideas began to emerge as I pondered these questions. Here's where I landed:
1. For me, faith means I don't quit pursuing my values just because I feel the weight and discomfort of uncertainty. One of the definitions I found of faith was, "complete trust or confidence in someone or something." This does not match my experience of having faith. If I could rewrite it I would define it as, "continuing to choose to trust someone or something because it matches your values."
2.. With that definition in mind, perhaps faith is a mindset that I have to keep choosing, similar to choosing a value to pursue. I may not get there and stay there. And maybe even if I choose faith I will still feel uncomfortable. This might mean having faith is making choices which align with my values despite the feelings I have from not knowing where those choices might take me. For me, the bottom line that I must grapple with is that having faith does not equal feeling better.
3. Having faith doesn't always mean that things will go well or get better. It does mean that I am open to learning from the consequences that arise as a result of the choices I make and that I value these consequences even if they are undesirable.
This is a big shift for me. My parents taught me that most questions or situations had a right and wrong answer and it was critical to choose the right answer. Though my own belief about this idea has changed, those old stories still whisper loudly in my ear. My younger self, who will always want to please her parents, still tries to convince me that if I choose the wrong answer things are going to be catastrophic and my parents will be disappointed in me. I have to care for my younger self, comfort her and let her know that all choices have complex outcomes, that choosing faith is brave and beautiful and that my adult self can manage whatever comes.
I found this idea very comforting; no matter what happens, I can manage it, and even evolve because of it. Whether it's something that happens to me, or due to a choice I make (even a choice that I, myself, feel a little iffy about), it's going to be okay.
The Peace of Wild Things
I was at McFarland Park and Soper's Mill yesterday. It was a sunny, spectacular, blustery day. I hope you were able to get out too.
I frequent these places and as such I know the typical attendance. The increase in the number of people on trails is striking! Parents trailing young kids with wagons, colorful sunglasses and too-big hiking boots. Jovial dogs smiling at everything and everyone. Kids playing in creeks, getting lost in the wonder of the woods.
The silver linings of COVID-19 are there if we look for them. Air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have significantly decreased. In some areas water quality has improved. I like to imagine our world taking a huge, cleansing in-breath. Ahhhhh....
Do you notice how you feel when you are in nature? This morning I was in the woods. It was so very quiet. All I could hear were the birds and... wow, all I could hear were the birds. The silence was so soothing. I inhaled deeply and checked-in. I noticed what was happening in my body. I felt calm and peaceful. Just minutes before, anxiety and restlessness were inhabiting my body.
Just minutes before.
Nature is a balm for your soul.
Wendell Berry speaks eloquently of this in his poem, "The Peace of Wild Things". He published it in 1968 but he could have written it yesterday.
"The Peace of Wild Things"
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
It's a beautiful day today. Go find nature and rest. Even if just for a moment.
The Practice of Calm
In my last blog post I talked about accepting and being curious about the "here" I am in. I relayed the (hopefully) encouraging idea that if we make the effort to look around in our "here" with curiosity, it tends to grab hands with calm and bring her along too. And when we are curious, we automatically begin the process of acceptance* because curiosity requires a state of openness and vulnerability.
As I was thinking about these ideas, I realized that they work backwards and forwards. Start with any of these-- calm, acceptance or curiosity and you will generally stumble onto one of the others. And then I listened to yet another amazing blog post by Brené Brown who had some wonderful, research-supported ideas about calm that I want to regift to you. But first, a story.
One of the things I have observed about myself lately in this COVID-19 state of close-quarters-with-my-whole-family is that I have NOT been staying very calm with my son. He and I have many similarities. One, we are both highly sensitive. Two, we are both anxiously-flavored. Any of you who might also have these qualities or know others who have these qualities know that a mix of sensitivity and anxiety can be incendiary.
Another thing you should know about my son is that he is very much like my father. My beloved father loves to be right and his goal in any conflict is to win. I grew up learning how to argue and debate by watching him (and fighting with him) but my introversion did not allow me to process words and thoughts very quickly, so I never won. But I definitely learned to try. My son, however, has an especially-fast brain processing speed. Are you starting to get the picture?
Here's what it looks like-- everything has become a debate. All of our grief and weariness of being locked in manifests into argument with the sole goal being to win (maybe I am like my Dad, too!). Even compliments disintegrate into argument. There is palpable tension in our house and I find myself tight, tense and straining my voice constantly. Worse yet, I can't figure out how I keep getting into these situations with him.
And then, the universe dumped this podcast in my lap. I highly recommend this listen. It's relatively short and if you don't know if you are an under-functioner or an over-functioner you will get an extra bonus. What I loved about it most is that it gave practical and data-driven tools to cultivate a practice of calm.
Let me distill it for you:
First, I really like her definition of Calm:
CALM: Perspective, mindfulness and the ability to manage emotional reactivity
Here are some ways to practice calm per Brené Brown's research data.
1. Try to be slow to respond and quick to think, "Do I have all the information I need to make a decision or form a response?" Usually when we feel panic it's actually due to a lack of data.
2. Stay mindful about the effect that calm has on anxious situations. Anxiety and panic are contagious. But so is calm. Notice how if you pause, others pause. If you lower the volume of your voice, others get quieter. Why? Largely because of mirror-neurons.
3. Commit to the practice. While you can get there within one situation, you will have to renew your commitment and practice regularly. It's not like riding a bike where you learn the skill once and then can then go "off-line".
4. How to practice:
It's important to note that if you weren't raised by parents who practiced calm, your default will likely be to over-function or under-function in times of stress. Don't beat yourself up because you aren't naturally calm. I was not raised with parents who practiced calm. Most of us were not raised by parents who practiced calm. Most of us have to learn and practice. Every. Day.
After I listened to this podcast, I renewed my commitment to calm. For the last two days I have been quite deliberate with this in a few ways. One, I pause after my son says anything. I think about what he is really trying to say-- the spirit of what he is trying to say. Two, I deliberately speak more quietly and slowly.
By doing this I became aware of many things. One thing, in particular, was so helpful. What I started to hear, beneath his words was, "I'm scared." and "I'm worried." and "What if I get sick?" and "What if you get sick?" and "I feel insecure." And when I could hear those very real fears I was so much more able to give him what he really needs.
A calm mother who embodies the message, "It's going to be okay."
And, "We will get through this."
And, "I love you."
The result has been much more impactful than I thought. I'm actually a bit shocked at the positive impact on the entire family of me when I practice calm. I am realizing that (fortunately and unfortunately) I lead the energy in my family quite a bit.
Without a doubt this practice will be a mess. I will have days where I feel successful and days that will feel like epic fails. That's okay.
I say "Hello" to both.
*be kind to yourself and remember that acceptance is a process, not an outcome. Much like forgiveness, we don't arrive and stay put. We weave in and out of acceptance and... denial, rejection, defensiveness, etc. Acceptance is about coming back to the well again and again- committing to that openness, curiosity and vulnerability over and over.
**have you seen the new movie, "Little Women"? There is a fabulous scene that depicts calm. The scene portrays Jo getting feedback on her writing from Professor Bhaer. He tells her directly that he doesn't like her writing and she has a strong reaction. He stays absolutely calm and still connected to her.
Hello to Here
"The only place to begin is where I am, and, whether by desire or disaster, I am here. My being here is not dependent on my recognition of the fact. I am here anyway. But it might help if I could learn to look around." --Pádraig Ó Tuama
In The Shelter by Pádraig Ó Tuama, is the book currently on my nightstand. It is about finding home wherever you are. The first chapter, "Hello to Here" has been a comfort to me as I navigate the COVID-19 odyssey, alongside you.
Like you, I have been challenged to find structure in the chaos, choose movement over immobilization and strive to find opportunity where I feel threat. Each day I both succeed and fail in these endeavors. But of course, success and failure is not what this is about.
I am reminded by Pádraig's words that acceptance of being here and curiosity about what here is like are the path to calm in this chaos. Calm does not mean happy or content or even comfortable. Calm does allow me make choices that align with my values, and to tolerate this place where I am.
I live in a neighborhood that has seen a lot of transition in the last few years. As a result I have nearby neighbors whose values don't align with mine. The other day they were out doing things that were upsetting to me. I tried all of my tools and could not find relief for the anxiety, irritation and powerlessness I was feeling. Worse than the feelings was the uncertainty of not knowing how long I would need to tolerate my neighbors and my reactions to them.
I went for a run (which by the way, I ended up quitting, mid-run) and I began to "look around" in my mind at this place where I was, my yucky, "here". I saw my discriminatory tendencies, my ugly prejudice. I later shared with my husband the things I had found and was able to continue to explore my "here". It did not necessarily make me feel better. But it did make me feel more honest and less superior. It allowed me to see that my feelings were a little bit about their actions but also about my own darkness. In that way, I found some agency; of those things I might be able to affect change.
It's hard to demote the goal to feel better; I wanted those feelings to go away and right now! I was reminded that though a normal desire, that's not really what I am striving for. COVID-19 is a massive reminder that we have no idea what is around the corner or the feelings that will tag along.
We can't control our "here".
"I say hello to my chaos, my unmade decisions, my unmade bed, my desire and my trouble. ...I say hello to distraction and privilege. ...I recognize and greet my burdens, my luck, my controlled and uncontrollable story. I greet my untold stories, my unfolding story, my unloved body, my own love, my own body." --Pádraig Ó Tuama
What can you say hello to, today?
**I was introduced to Pádraig Ó Tuama through the Poetry Unbound podcast, part of the On Being Project. Simultaneously simple and complex, deeply moving and gorgeous, this podcast provides the listener a new poem on Monday and Friday, all read by Pádraig which is a delight in and of itself. Each poem is read once then explored with personal connection and insights by Pádraig, then read once more. I invite you to give yourself the gift.
Settle the Ball
I recently made time to listen to Brené Brown's post on her new podcast, "Unlocking Us". Her most recent post, Brené on Anxiety, Calm + Over/Under-Functioning is a brief, 25 minute respite from the weight that we are all shouldering.
In it she has several wonderful gifts:
1. A beautiful soccer metaphor that helps us manage the transition we are feeling from the adrenalin rush we all experienced initially, to the weary fatigue and bewilderment that we might find ourselves currently stewing in.
"Settling the ball" is what happens when a soccer player receives a ball from elsewhere and essentially transitions it to usable play. Her metaphor describes taking a chaotic situation and making it manageable. I have referenced it in my mind several times since hearing the metaphor and it helps me stay focused on the best outcome for any given "wild ball" I receive, whether it is external or from within my mind.
2. She also provides a creative and user-friendly solution for those moments when you and your partner or other family members are vying for care; when everyone is functioning at a low percentage and has nothing left to give. Her advice is practical, applicable and accessible. As always, she leads with her own personal story that helps normalize and validate my own experience.
3. I love her research-supported explanation on scarcity and empathy. Have you noticed people diminishing the difficulty of their experiences for fear that someone else has it worse and they are just complaining? Maybe you hear yourself doing that too?! There is plenty of empathy to go around and she reminds us that the more empathy we feel and give, the more we have.
Yes, it's Grief
Recently, my sister gave me the lovely gift of this article on grief. I admit, even though feelings are a main staple of my field, I was initially surprised to see that word. Right now the world feels laden with anxiety and fear, for sure. But grief? YES.
This article helps us understand the foundation of the feelings we are feeling that are at the surface. Anxiety and fear have roots in different kinds of grief and once we can understand that, we can honor those feelings by allowing ourselves to be sad and recognize the losses that we are incurring during this experience. When we tend to focus on anxiety as the primary feeling we don't often give ourselves the chance to be sad about the things we have lost and fear losing in the future.
Getting In-Sync with Others
Bessel Van der Kolk, MD, leading researcher on trauma gives us a 2 minute encouragement to get connected to others, and why.
WE ARE ALL EXPERIENCING A TIME OF GREAT UNCERTAINTY. BELOW YOU WILL FIND A LIST OF LINKS AND RESOURCES TO HELP YOU COPE WITH THE MANY DIFFICULT EMOTIONS YOU MAY BE EXPERIENCING:
Some basics to keep in mind:
A guided meditation for anxiety by Tara Brach, PhD: "Calling on your Awakened Heart"
Having trouble sleeping? Here's a 6 minute YouTube video from Jud Brewer, PhD, MD on why anxiety makes it hard to sleep and 3 things you can do about it.
Three free tapping meditations to reduce anxiety (download of app required).
Free guided imagery for kids and adults by Belleruth Naparstek, LISW. She releases a new guided imagery every day at noon.
A wonderfully-positive post by Jeff, Personal Trainer and Owner of Surefire Fitness in Ames.
Another positive article about being comforted and staying kind by Andrew Penn, Psychiatric RN.
Help and understanding about the emotional process of going through this pandemic by Andrew Penn.
Two beautiful, carefully-curated compilations of visual and listening resources by the On Being Project. "A Care Package for Uncertain Times" and "For the Exhausted and Overwhelmed".
Brené Brown's recent podcast on strategies for falling apart, staying connected + kind, and giving ourselves permission to feel hard things.
A very brief and interesting tutorial on proper hand-washing. It explains why the 20 second rule is important. Very helpful for kids (and adults)!
Elizabeth Wade is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Ames, IA. More importantly, she's a regular human being struggling through this crisis, just like you.