2 Ways to Calm a Highly Sensitive Nervous System

20141010_100545 lake pic turning leavesA Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is someone with the genetic trait of high sensory processing sensitivity. HSPs make up about 15% of the population, and have uncommonly sensitive nervous systems.

To me, the theory that many children who have attention deficit disorder are HSPs whose brains are trying to cope with the onslaught of sensory input, makes a whole lot of sense but is a topic for another blog post.

When the volume is turned up on the already very stimulating world, what is a highly sensitive person to do for relief? As you can imagine, or as you know if you are an HSP, this sensory overload can be overwhelming.

Here are my two broad and general tricks-of-the-trait, none of these ideas invented by yours truly, but rather adopted as habits that I’ve been naturally drawn to for their positive effects:

  1. Limit substances that negatively alter your nervous system. This includes caffeine which HSPs tend to be very sensitive to. Hello stimulant. If I have too much coffee, my heart beats out of my chest, I become anxious, irritable and generally want to jump out of my own skin. And by too much, I mean more than a cup or cup and a half in a day. Many HSPs need to avoid caffeine altogether.  As I understand it, alcohol is both a stimulant and a depressant, so you get to be anxious and depressed if you consume enough of it.  Unfortunately, many HSPs overuse alcohol as a way to numb their central nervous systems and obviously this can lead to much bigger problems over time. Personally, I just feel bad if I consume more than one or two drinks; the brain fog that sets in almost immediately, the feeling of poison in my body, the tiredness to follow.  And I always feel better and clearer with none. The same goes for junk food.
  1. Increase activities that calm your nervous system. Exercise, yoga, meditation, time in nature ( or any quiet time). Highly sensitive people can enjoy stimulating environments such as weddings or parties, but we just crave less of it, and need to recharge in silence more often. After a certain number of hours, if I am in a noisy, chaotic or otherwise stimulating environment, I will find myself “checking out”. I’ve hit a wall. I cannot take in any more. And if my physical space is very limited (think a crowded bus or a concert, for instance), my tolerance level drops significantly.

 

There are many gifts to sensitivity, yet another topic for a new post.  But these gifts cannot be realized unless we are tuned in to our bodies, our feelings, our own needs. And when we do tune in and honor our unique temperament, not only are we living with more integrity and peace, but we also have more to offer this noisy, beautiful world.

~ Dana

Uncluttered

Dana: It has indeed occurred to us that we have not posted in while.  Since Brittni’s identical twin girls (my granddaughters) have been born, things have been busy- as in all-hands-on-deck busy.

Let’s just say Brittni’s hands are a tad full. And so is her heart. And mine. And all the hearts of all who love these precious babies. 22555514_10214107010612056_8322138864080415592_o

Somehow, in October, Brittni managed to design a pumpkin for her fantastic seasonal art job with the JACK-O-LANTERN SPECTACULAR.  (I don’t have the photo of this years pumpkin; this particular photo is from a previous year’s drawing but is a favorite).  Have you heard that highly sensitive people are often also highly artistic? I’m kind of blown away by the creative work of the pumpkin artists, year after year. And one of them happens to be my daughter.

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Other than that artistic escapade, it’s been pretty much all babies all the time for Brittni, as is the case with new twin parents, and especially for nursing moms.  Double the joy and love and cuteness – and half the rest! The sleep deprivation is real, people.

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My husband and I got away for our anniversary- 30 years! – and had a fabulous time.  We are pictured here holding superfood smoothies from Newport Rhode Island’s JUICED cafe.   Just as some people like to scope out the brewery or best restaurant in a city, I like to find the cold-pressed juice and smoothie cafes. The one I am holding is called their Turmeric Turbo and is made with turmeric, pineapple, carrots, lemon, ginger and banana. It was delicious and left me so energized. You can bet I’ll be trying this recipe at home. IMG_20171104_111216_322

Last month I wrote about  Priorities  and this month I am more committed than ever to keeping my focus on my top three: Family, Health, and Writing. Honestly, that is all I have time for. These three areas of life keep me busy for sure, but in a clear and satisfying way. They are all interconnected for me- when I feel healthy and vibrant, I have more to give my family and my writing flows as well.  When I spend time with my family, as well as adequate time alone, I am inspired to write and to stay healthy. And when I write, I naturally fall into healthy habits. My life feels busy right now, but it does not feel cluttered.

And for me, uncluttered is a must.

How about you?

 

The Heart of a Sensitive Child

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Daughter:  One of my biggest fears going into motherhood is that I might find myself helpless against the world’s determination to shape and reshape my daughters’ views of themselves. That I might have to stand by and watch as they are told who they are and who they should be, and that it won’t line up with their own truths.

I know this is largely unavoidable. Doesn’t it happen to all of us? Life seems to be a process of knowing, forgetting, and then relearning what sits at our cores. Perhaps that process of forgetting and then remembering ourselves is all part of the game. But it’s a relentless game and some, I think, are especially prone to getting caught up in its depths. I hope that my girls can be a little hardier a little less yielding – than I was. I hope that somehow I can help them dig their heels in and stand their ground against the confusing whirlwind of molds to fit and cast descriptions to fill.

I was never inauthentic per say, but I certainly paid attention and what I saw and heard taught me that perhaps I was wrong about a few things. The funny thing is though, I think the earliest version of me – the four and five and six year old version – knew much more than I gave her credit for.

I knew back then that free time was my favorite thing and that home was my favorite place. I knew that loose comfy leggings were the obvious clothing choice because dresses and skirts and constrictive jeans did not lend themselves to free, spontaneous cartwheels. I knew that my body was perfect because it let me run and play and dance and climb trees.

I knew that daydreaming was not only acceptable, but a wonderful creative escape that fully deserved my time and attention. I knew that there was nothing more beautiful than a well-illustrated children’s book. I knew that I loved to make art and that someday I would be an artist. I knew I didn’t like to sit still unless I was reading or making art.

I knew that I didn’t like church because I had to sit still…and listen to stories I did not understand and because it made me angry that women could not be priests. I knew that girls were just as strong and smart and worthy as boys and I knew that it was okay for boys to wear pink or play with dolls or cry.

I knew that being myself was more important than being accepted; despite hating to attract attention to myself, I flat out refused to follow the trends of my peers for fear that this would make me “fake”. I knew that bottling up my frustration, excitement, anger, sadness, joy, and fear was not worth it.  Well to be clear, I did not consciously “know” this, but rather I did not yet know how to not wear my heart on my sleeve.

I knew that it was wrong when an adult at school yelled at a student who was just confused and distracted and scared. I knew that it was wrong when a teacher exasperatedly took a book away from a little boy who was “not ready for that level of reading”. I knew that it was wrong when another teacher grabbed me by the hood of my jacket and yanked me backward when I was rushing down the hall at the end of the school day in my eagerness to get home where I could feel safe and free. I knew a lot of things that happened at school were wrong. And I think those early school years were when I started to forget some of the important things I had known.

I started to let the world around me teach me new lessons. I learned that it wasn’t okay to be shy and reserved. I learned that comfortable clothes were not always the right clothes and that daydreaming was not a wonderful creative pastime, but rather a recipe for getting in trouble at school.

I learned that, after kindergarten, art was only worthy of forty minutes out of the seven-hour school day one day per week. I learned that sitting still was a very good thing that teachers praised. I learned that boys and girls were separate and that if I was friends with a boy I would be teased by my classmates.

As I got a little older, I learned that my body was supposed to look a certain way and I learned how to hide what I was feeling. I learned that being accepted was at least as important as being myself, if not more so.

I had gathered a whole new body of knowledge that I found rather difficult to live with. If only I’d had thicker skin, had been more oblivious to the subtleties around me… Had I been somehow immune to the new and peculiar life lessons I was learning, I surely could have saved my unsuspecting family – and myself – the strain of endless meltdowns, physical illnesses, anxiety disorders, and other futile embodiments of a child caught off guard by a world she didn’t easily fit into.

As I’m sure many a like-minded, soul-searcher can attest to, it is no small task to sift through the layers upon layers of oneself in order to find what is real and worth keeping and what is not. As I sift, I am seeing more and more that the la

yers worth keeping – the real layers – are the ones that have been here all along. And I want more than anything to watch my daughters grow and dream and thrive with a level of trust in themselves that will allow them to hold onto what they know.   I want their own truths to be so solid, so illuminating, that the rest just falls away.

School Fever

Daughter:  Some of my most potent memories of  kindergarten are of seemingly insignificant moments that, to me, felt larger than life, such as when my teacher would have to say my name who- knows -how- many times before she got my attention. That was always so embarrassing.

I remember one morning at circle time, I was fixated on the material of the sneakers I was wearing. They were new & white and I was tracing designs over the smooth leather with my finger when I heard my name.  I knew as soon as I looked up that the teacher had been saying my name for a while because my entire class was staring at me, some of them stifling giggles.

“Are those new sneakers?”, the teacher asked me. I turned every shade of red
and fought back tears as I nodded my head. “It’s your turn”, she said, looking
both concerned and a little amused. I don’t remember what it was that we were
taking turns doing, probably because my distress over being the subject of
everyone’s mild amusement in that moment made me too numb to fully register
whatever followed.

That was not the first or the last time something like that happened in school. It was bad enough each time it happened though that I started to figure out in my later years of elementary school how to avoid such clumsy calamities. If I focused hard enough, I usually didn’t miss anything important. The thing is though, this took a huge amount of effort, as my instincts were to drift into my own world, which I found to be much more interesting than most things we were doing in school.

Nevertheless, I got better at making myself pay attention. I used everything I had to focus and I started to be praised for it. I became the “good listener”. I could tell that the teachers liked me because I didn’t cause trouble or noise or extra work for them. So I kept using all of my energy to pay attention. I kept being quiet and still and “good” because the praise felt nice. I could see and hear how the teachers got angry with the kids who were not quiet and still and good and I did not want that to be me.

Soon enough I started acting out at home. I was like an erupting volcano who had spent all her energy pretending to be a stoic mountain all day. I would cry and yell and lash out at my family.  And I felt incredibly guilty about this. I did not understand how I could be so well-praised at school and so monstrous at home. How could I be labeled as “sweet” and “respectful” and “quiet” at school while at home I was becoming entirely the opposite?

I didn’t know that the school version of myself was sucking me dry. I simply did not have it in me to be a stoic mountain for more than seven hours each day – seven hours of desks, text books, rules, lines, people, and generally way more structure than is natural for a free-spirited child who craves space, creativity, nature, and movement.

In second grade I discovered the beauty of staying home sick. I really was sick a few times and I swear the joy of not getting on that bus and going to school was worth any fever, sinus infection, or sore throat I had to pay for it. So some days, when I woke up and knew I couldn’t possibly manage to be the perfect school-version of myself that day, I would put on a semi-believable sick act; I’d do the classic holding the thermometer under the lamp; I’d fake-shiver as if I had the chills; I’d sneakily plug in my mom’s heating pad and hold it to my forehead for a few minutes so when my mom checked my head with her hand, she would say, “Oh…I guess you do feel a little clammy”.

I used every trick I could think of and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. On days that it did, I was the happiest girl alive – delving into art projects and books while simultaneously trying to act sick. I could sense that my parents were leery on those days. They weren’t sure what to think and that certainly added a pang of shame to my joy. But the bliss of not having to be who I felt like I had to be at school was just too good to give up. On those days, I was not monstrous at home. I was just me. I was happy and pleasant and not like an erupting volcano. And it was easy to just be me. It was a relief – for both me and my family – which is probably why my parents let it happen sometimes even if they suspected I wasn’t truly sick. We all needed a break now and then from volcano-Brittni and this is how we got it I suppose.

Then one day in school we were color-coding our multiplication tables. I had just finished sharpening all of my colored pencils when the boy at the desk next to me grabbed them from me and broke all the tips off with his hand. He gave them back to me laughing and, as I started to ask him why he did that, my teacher walked up to my desk and said in his deep stern voice, “Brittni, you’ve missed too much school to be fooling around. You need to focus on catching up on your work.”

It took all my strength not to cry as I crouched over my worksheet and started filling in my multiplication table with my now flat-tipped colored pencils. I was angry at the boy who broke my pencils and I was angry at my teacher for blaming me for the commotion, but mostly I was angry at myself for not focusing harder. For letting it happen. For not standing up for myself. And I felt trapped because I knew there would be no more “sick days” for me that year.

 

 

Kindergarten and the Big Bad Bus

bus-878697_1920Daughter: I was in my bedroom listening to the clinking of spoons downstairs as my family finished breakfast. I was the only one getting ready for school because my sisters were still young enough to stay home. I longed to stay home with them and make up fun games to play together. Or at the very least, I longed to bring them with me. But they were not old enough for kindergarten. They did not have to ride the bus.

The bus was by far the worst part of kindergarten. There were some parts of kindergarten that I kind of liked, such as my friend Emily who sat next to me for circle time and who played with me at recess. But I did not like any part of kindergarten nearly enough to make up for how much I hated the bus. I was deathly afraid of it. It was always filled to the brim with first and second and third and fourth grade kids who pushed and yelled and stood up in the back and made the bus driver mad. It was so so SO very loud. And getting off the bus when we arrived at school was downright terrifying. I was sure every single day that I would be flattened like a piece of play-dough into the  aisle floor by the stampede of students rushing to the door. And getting back onto the bus to go home at the end of the day was just as scary with the added fear (be it irrational) that I might forget to get off at my house and be stuck on the bus alone all night.

 

Today I really did not want to ride the bus. Even more so than the day before and the day before and the day before. I stepped into my closet and shut the door. In the closet was an old wooden hope chest where my sisters and I kept our dress-up clothes. Desperate and without thinking, I opened it and climbed inside, lowering the heavy lid over myself as I curled into a ball. It was quiet and pitch black in my hiding place and I relished in the comfort of this. This was definitely my best hiding spot yet. I had tried hiding from the bus before, but only once the bus arrived and the panic set in, and then it was more like a chase than a hide – me running around to the back yard and one of my parents running after me. They hated putting me on the bus, I could tell. Sometimes one of them would drive me to school, but most of the time that was not an option.

 

I waited in my cozy hiding place feeling both nervous and hopeful. After a few minutes, I heard my dad’s footsteps coming upstairs. He opened my bedroom door and when he didn’t see me, he tried the bathroom. His footsteps started to speed up as he called down to my mom. She hurried upstairs and joined him in the search. Their footsteps were getting faster and faster, their voices more frantic. They even checked my closet, but not the hope chest.  So far so good, I thought. Maybe I wouldn’t have to ride the bus today after all.

 

Then I heard my dad say something about calling the police and my heart started pounding. I knew I couldn’t stay in my safe little cave for much longer. I heard the terror rise in my mom’s voice as she called my name over and over again and it was too much to bear, so I crawled out. I chose to relieve their panic instead of my own.  I chose to be put onto the bus crying that day.  I chose my worst fear over theirs.

 

Little Girl, Big Emotions

Daughter: The best part about growing up with sisters was having two built-in best friends. Home was always my favorite place to be and my sisters were always my favorite people to be with. We were perfectly spaced apart with a little over two years between each of us. By the time Bethany, the youngest, arrived I was a little over four years old and already the best of friends with my two-year-old sister, Jill. But Jill and I were ready to welcome another member into our circle. I adored them both. They were perfect and the three of us were perfect for each other.

But, although I never showed any major signs of jealousy, I think it was there a little bit from time to time after Bethany arrived. Or maybe jealousy isn’t the right word, but I could definitely sense a slight shift in my mother – probably due to the tiredness and overwhelm that comes with bringing a newborn home to two small children and a working husband – and it bothered me. I was so in tune with her mood that any hints of uncertainty or stress in her voice or body language immediately became uncertainty and stress of my own.

She was just as gentle, calm, and attentive as always, but nevertheless I could see and hear that she was a little extra tired and that her hands were a little extra full. I could see the tiny hesitation in her body as she pondered over how to free up her hands to fold the laundry, make a phone call, help me zipper my jacket. I could hear the occasional “um” in her voice as responding to a two and four year olds’ endless questions and requests was surely a little more complicated with a crying infant in her arms who had needs that were a bit more immediate than shoe-tying, story-reading, and fruit-peeling. There was just a small pause about her now as she adjusted to the art of mothering three – an art that she took to naturally and gracefully. But within that small pause was space enough for my ever-sensitive awareness to take note that Bethany, my precious youngest sister, must be the cause for this subtle but necessary adjustment period.

So I hit her one day when our mom left the room to use the bathroom. There she was, sweet as could be laying in her car seat looking at me. I could have been like my mother; I could have been patient and kind and calm. But I have never been very good at pausing. So I bent over and I slapped my beautiful baby sister on the top of her head. She started crying and the guilt immediately planted itself like a heavy jagged rock deep within my sternum and there it stayed. 

 

Temperamentally Expecting

Daughter: A year or so ago, I was reminiscing over some childhood memories with my family; the good ones, which revolve around being at home, playing outside with my sisters, our cabbage patch dolls, the old art closet, quiet library visits, free time… and the not so good ones, most of which were the simple, though often dramatic, result of my sensitive, emotionally intense, and easily overwhelmed nature. In short, I was no piece of cake daughter to raise. “Wow, I certainly didn’t make your job easy, did I?”, I said to my mom after recounting one particularly dramatic after-school meltdown. She laughed it off, but then said “You know, if you have kids, they very well may be like you”.  And that was perhaps one of the most terrifying things I had ever heard.

Of course my child might be like me; I didn’t need to hear someone say it to know that my offspring might inherit more than a few of my personality traits. But until that day I had not fully and honestly entertained this possibility. I had not truly considered that I might bring into this world a child whose very temperament makes their world feel too big, too loud, too intense, too harsh…. I think I had been hoping that, instead of having a child whose empathy is through the roof and whose list of fears is longer than the Amazon River, I might have one more like my husband, who is, in many regards, my polar opposite. My subconscious was holding onto the possibility that our child might conveniently inherit his resilient, extroverted, and adaptable nature over my thin-skinned, introverted, and easily overwhelmed one.

I realize now how selfish this is – to have a preference for specific personality traits in my child. Sure, my preferences had been partly for the child’s sake, but also for my own sake as a parent. But highly sensitive children are born every day and wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing for them to all have parents who can truly understand their unique needs and struggles and gifts? I was raised by two incredibly nurturing parents who tactfully took each curve ball I threw at them during every stage of my childhood. They navigated the rough waters of bringing up a child to whom the parenting books did not apply and they did it with love and grit and open-mindedness. I want nothing less for my own children.

I am eagerly expecting twins in a couple short months and, needless to say, I am feeling all of the feels. I am happy beyond words. I am also completely overwhelmed, as is not unusual for me, and anxious and excited, and scared and hugely grateful. And I want these two precious humans to be whoever they will be, whether that is “like me” or not. But if either or both of them are “like me”, so help me God I am as prepared as I’ll ever be with first-hand experience to help them navigate this big, loud, crazy, wonderful world.

Be Your Own Good Mother

 

Mother: Being highly sensitive is both a gift and a curse. The gift is in the fine tuned intuition and the creativity. It’s in feeling everything, the good and the bad and knowing that the body never lies. The curse is also in the feeling everything, which can overwhelm the senses. It took me well into adulthood to appreciate that I had a built- in compass for life, and even then I often ignored it or overrode it with fear, the opinions of others, or the sheer act of disconnecting from my own source of power.

But being a mother has been the ultimate lesson in mothering myself. All the things I wanted my daughters to know- about following their inner guidance, honoring their unique gifts, and forging their own paths in life, as well as self- care and simplicity, routine and courage- were the very things I needed to cultivate in myself as well.

Much of raising Brittni -and to a large extent my other daughters as well-involved  encouraging the balance of challenging sensitivities with honoring them. When do you push yourself outside of your comfort zone and when do you say no to overwhelm even if everyone around  you seems to be handling itwhatever it is?   I guess we all have to question our tyranny of shoulds- I should be able to handle that, I should go, I should do it, I should want that, I should be satisfied with this, I should, should should. And at the same time, some limitations are self imposed and beg to be tested. I think it comes down to knowing when something is our own desire or goal versus a perceived expectation from someone or something else.  If it’s a heart desire, then push yourself! If it’s someone else’s or society’s unimportant expectation? Think twice.

Also, it became quite clear that self-care- adequate sleep, a healthy diet, time in nature, alone time, and a decluttered environment -were important to my own and my children’s wellbeing. My takeaway? Be your own good mother.  And then parent from that place of abundance.

Despite the things I figured out early on though, I cannot help but look back at all that I didn’t know, or more accurately, all that I figured out along the way, sometimes late in the game.  I would do it all again in a heartbeat, this motherhood gig, with all its intensity and heartbreak and joy and miracles. I would start over with a wealth of knowledge and experience, and the wisdom of a mother who has been through it already.

Hindsight is like one of life’s cruel jokes. Here you go, it says, now you know exactly what to do! Oh, but time’s up. Sorry.

But I do get to share my journey of motherhood, from the earliest days right up to today, as my oldest daughter is expecting her daughters.  And writing it down, with all the perspective that experience allows, is the next best thing to doing it all again.