Have you visited social media lately and noted the large number of people posting on HSP-related pages espousing all sorts of faulty connections between Sensory Processing Sensitivity and, well, everything under the sun? Curiously, many of those people freely admit they have never read any of the well-researched and well-written books exploring highly sensitive people. How can we reasonably expect to gain any significant growth or self-awareness if we do not ground ourselves in the scientific literature? It is very interesting to consider that highly sensitive people may well have a broader possible range of behaviors than in those without the trait, but possible does not mean probable or actual.
We HSPs are just as susceptible to poor thinking as anyone else. We are neither superior nor inferior to anyone else: just slightly different. It is imperative that, if we care about basing our thinking on reliable information, we seek out the best sources possible. Sensitive-The Untold Story is a documentary film created just for highly sensitive people, but everyone is welcome to watch, of course. In our fast-paced society I highly recommend taking the time out of your busy day and viewing this wonderfully well-done and entertaining film. There is no quicker way to gain a deep grounding in what it means to be a highly sensitive person than to simply view this film. Afterwards, you might wish to read some of the great books that researchers have written to further deepen your understanding and appreciation of this personality trait. I have written two books:
Coming to know Sensory Processing Sensitivity is no easy task. You will need to read, reflect, and think about how this trait has influenced your life and the lives of those in your social circle. Though you may initially latch onto some tidbit of illumination I urge you to resist the human tendency to homgenize an entire group of over a billion people into one narrow box. We HSPs and HSS/HSPs are a fantastically mixed segment of the human population. Those who say they know us are only fooling themselves because we are as varied as grains of sand on a beach. Come to a knowing of what it means to be a highly sensiitve person by association. Get to know yourself, or the HSPs in your life slowly, we are worth the time…
Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person is a book I wrote to fill a need for authoritative information explaining the intersection of the two personality traits Sensation Seeking and Sensory Processing Sensitivity. Feeling as if I have been simultaneously pulled toward novelty, new experiences, and a certain amount of thrill and adventure seeking, I was forced to reconcile my twin need for quiet, time to think and absorb, balance empathy, creativity, and my need to avoid certain unpleasantly stimulating situations with the realities of life. I also had to contend with a powerful sense of boredom that could set in so profoundly I could feel it in my bones.
Having no reference frame work to look to for guidance – other than scant coverage in some articles – I resolved to write Thrill as a go-to book that others may look to for the guidance and insights I could not find. We needed a book…
Sensation seeking has been an identified personality trait for decades with psychologist Marvin Zuckerman, conducting much of the research publishing books and articles throughout his career. Over the past four decades Zuckerman has looked at how sensation seeking is related to thrill seeking and risky behaviors, drug and alcohol addictions (indeed addictions of many kinds), smoking, drinking, sex, crime and antisocial behavior, and delinquency. Sensation seeking drives many people to do incredible things in life to satisfy the need for the “rush” of sensation that comes from the release of dopamine in the pleasure pathway in the brain. Zuckerman has also looked at the genetic basis for the trait and established that there are likely one or more genes that determine its expression, moderated by the environment. Sensation seeking, however, had not been looked at in the context of intersecting with a seemingly opposite trait (sensory processing sensitivity). For those of us who have felt the push-pull dynamic of sensation seeking combined with sensory processing sensitivity life can be confusing and contradictory to say the least. As I began to contemplate writing a book I knew that my experiences as a sensitive sensation seeker (my shortened phrase) would not be enough I would need to interview many people to determine what their experiences had been and consider the big picture.
I began the study by conducting interviews with 35 sensitive sensation seekers. I recruited study participants from several social media sources and through word of mouth. I asked all participants to take two self-assessments to ensure they were good candidates for the study. Typically, males scored higher in sensation seeking and somewhat lower in sensitivity (likely due to cultural bias) and females scored higher in sensitivity and lower in sensation seeking (cultural bias again). There were outliers: some males did score at the high end of sensitivity and some females did score at the high end of sensation seeking. I was continually fascinated by the descriptions people provided, during our interviews, of the kinds of things they had done throughout their lives from wild seat-of-the-pants thrill seeking to disinhibited sexual experiences. Surely sensitives wouldn’t do any of this right? Wrong! In fact, the more I learned about the experiences of other sensitive sensation seekers the more I came to appreciate the element of disinhibition, which can be thought of as throwing caution to the wind and doing it anyway. Disinhibition is not the same as impulsivity, rather it is a conscious choice to do something “naughty.” Again, sensation seeking is about the “rush” we derive from novelty and new experiences, we don’t get the same rush from constantly avoiding sensation or risk. The dichotomous part is the constant interplay between wanting to do something while feeling a strong cautionary urge to think it over first, or to feel an invisible leash holding us back.
Researchers decide how many people to interview by paying careful attention to when people begin to repeat themselves. When we no longer hear anything new we know we have reached a point of saturation. For me, that number was 35; the study could have certainly continued and I would have, no doubt, been fascinated by additional stories, but there was a book to write. At some point in every study, and that number could be 35, 75, or 105, one must move on to compiling data and analyzing what we’ve gathered. Choosing what needs to go into a book is always a lengthy process of reflecting on the data after we have sorted things into categories and arrived at themes. The themes help, such as self-care, childhood, career, or so on, but there are always smaller points that add to the inherent interest-level of a book. Readers want to read something interesting after all, not an esoteric book full of academic language. I wrote Thrill in a comparable way to how I wrote Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career: as a logical progression from childhood to career, relationships, and a broader societal picture.
Thrill begins with a primer of sorts because I felt we needed to provide some background information detailing what personality traits are, how they were developed, and their genetic basis in evolutionary history. I hoped the primer chapter would serve to orient readers toward an appreciation of sensation seeking and sensitivity as normal personality traits that have been with the human species for a very long time. Too often people seem to believe that traits just popped up recently or that they exist in a vacuum. In fact, personality traits have been around as long as we have been around and they persist simply because nothing better has come along to replace them. I hoped readers would understand this primer as a basis for reading the rest of the book and frame their reading in that context.
Each chapter of Thrill is thematic, meaning each one explores a category of related aspects.
Chapter 1 – Personality Traits
Chapter 2 – Childhood
Chapter 3 – Career
Chapter 4 – Relationships
Chapter 5 – Self-Care
Chapter 6 – Risky Behaviors and the Sensitive Sensation Seeker
Chapter 7 – The Creative Force Within
Chapter 8 – Living in Community
Chapter 9 – The Talking Stick
Each chapter is chock full of quotes from sensitive sensation seekers in the study, along with supporting information that helps provide insights into how we have lived our lives from various angles (childhood, career, relationships, etc.). With all of the descriptions of push-pull regarding sensitivity and sensation seeking I felt a need to form some sort of context for it all, some way to provide a pathway that values both traits. I chose a theory called the Theory of Positive Disintegration by Dr. Kazimierz Dabrowski, which is a theory of human motivation, to inform the complex journey we are on. Dabrowski is well-known in the gifted child community and his theory has been widely applied in that regard. I felt that Positive Disintegration held much value in explaining my life and the difficulties I have encountered and began to appreciate the power of Dabrowski’s theory the more I spoke with other sensitive sensation seekers.
Chapter 7 of Thrill is one I am especially proud of. I knew it would be mysterious material to many people, but if I cannot stimulate readers to think and discover new territory for themselves my work is of no use. I want readers to think and think well; that happens through pushing ourselves to grow and discover our potential. Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration may hold some fascinating answers and insights into the muddled, sometimes confusing, and/or maddening, sense of exasperated potential many of us experience in a world set up for the mundane exploitation of ordinary people. In no way am I implying that sensitive sensation seekers are gifted; in fact, to the contrary, most are creative, curious, driven individuals with a need to stay ahead of boredom in their lives. Positive Disintegration privileges the role that disintegrative experiences play in our overall development as human beings. We move from lower versions of ourselves to higher versions propelled by inner dynamisms which are likely present in many to most sensitive sensation seekers to one degree or another.
Thrill contains many great chapters that sensitives and sensitive sensation seekers will find informative. We are all sensation seekers to one degree or another and will find application for much of the material in Thrill. The high sensation seeker, however, goes beyond the ordinary and may seek out the unusual thrill. For them, I wrote chapter 6 on risky behaviors because the “push” I spoke of earlier is one half of the push-pull paradigm we sensitive sensation seekers experience in life. The push to seek out thrills, both socially approved of and otherwise, is part and parcel of being at the high end of sensation seeking. Zuckerman has said that a healthy expression of sensation seeking is at more of a moderate level where we don’t take undue risks or engage in activities that may be illegal, immoral, or hurtful to others. I include chapter 6 as a discussion meant for all of us for whom the notion of a “fragile” sensitivity simply does not describe us. I am deeply opposed to the ongoing homogenization of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and HSPs as crybabies, fragile wallflowers, or as profoundly introverted, unsuccessful individuals. Of all of the people I have interviewed for books, articles, and whom I have consulted with the notion of sensitivity as a mental illness has not factored prominently. Societal non-acceptance of difference has factored prominently, however, and I continually advocate for people to live out the fullest realization of who they are in the best way they can given their circumstances. You might be surprised to learn that many of the people I have interviewed are very successful people in the world holding leadership roles across the gamut of possibilities. There are challenges, of course, but the positives far outweigh the negatives.
Lastly, I provided a final chapter filled with stories from sensitive sensation seekers in the study because I love stories. We all love stories; they connect us to real human experiences we can identify with and learn from. Some are very poignant stories of struggle and heartbreak as the challenge of sensation seeking ground them to a halt in life and forced them to commit to a higher path of self-improvement and self-mastery. I am sure you will be impressed and interested to enter the lives of fellow sensitive sensation seekers for a few moments as they graciously share with us something of their experiences. I found the writing of Thrill to be cathartic in some ways, inspirational in other ways, and ultimately satisfying as I knew the book would help many other sensitive sensation seekers come to a deeper sense of who they are and who they might be. So many of us are too caught up in our lives to take a moment to reflect on the context we live in, but Thrill is that brief respite in which we can be among fellow sensitive sensation seekers and revel in the knowing that we are not alone. The journey continues…
Tracy Cooper, Ph.D. is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career and Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person. Dr. Cooper appeared in the documentary film Sensitive – The Untold Story and provides consulting services through his website at drtracycooper.com.
Healing from early childhood trauma may take a lifetime, but it doesn’t have to. In the following article, author Shanta Dube provides us with an overview of how we can begin healing from ACEs. Though everyone is an individual and reacts to ACEs in different ways it is incumbent on us to not be subject to the fear or anger of others, to not allow our precious lives to be tainted with the projectsions of others, and to not allow others to impose limitations on who we are or what we can become in our all too brief lives. However you choose to go about healing begin it today~ -Dr. Tracy Cooper
(originally published on theconversation.com, link: https://theconversation.com/the-steps-that-can-help-adults-heal-from-childhood-trauma-77152)
Prevention is the mantra of modern medicine and public health. Benjamin Franklin said it himself: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Unfortunately, childhood adversities such as abuse and neglect cannot be prevented by vaccinations. As we now know, a large proportion of adults go through adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and can exhibit symptoms such as substance abuse. The symptoms seen in adults can in turn expose the next generation to adverse outcomes – creating a cycle that’s hard to break.
However, we can limit the impact of ACEs on future generations by taking a close look at what we are doing today – not only for our children, but for ourselves, as adults. Therefore, to prevent adversities for children, we must address the healing and recovery of trauma in adults.
Shifting the paradigm
The ACE Study, launched in the 1990s, offered a groundbreaking look at how childhood trauma can impact health decades later.
More than two-thirds of the 17,000-plus adults in our study reported at least one ACE, such as divorce, neglect or domestic violence in the household. These adults were at a greater risk for numerous negative health and behavioral outcomes.
When I present this research, I often get questions about the adult survivors. What has helped these adults survive to tell their childhood histories?
The ACE Study was not conceptualized to examine resilience. But I had always been curious about what helped these trauma survivors thrive. I wanted to understand not only what led to their ill health later in life, but what led some of them to report positive health, despite their backgrounds.
Promoting good health
Modern medicine and public health have traditionally focused on figuring out the origins of disease and how to prevent poor health.
In 1996, medical sociologist and anthropologist Aaron Antonovsky offered a different perspective. He suggested we look at health as a continuum and focus on what can promote good health. This approach, called salutogenesis, suggests that we as humans have the innate capacity to move toward health in the face of hardship.
Today, the World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” I wondered how this approach might reflect on the adult survivors. What promotes their good health and positive well-being, knowing they are at risk for negative health conditions?
In 2013, my colleagues and I published a study examining approximately 5,000 adults from the original ACE study who reported at least one childhood adversity. We focused on strategies that have been proven to promote good health – such as exercise, abstaining from smoking, access to emotional support and completing education at the high school level or higher.
Indeed, each of the factors listed was associated with reports of excellent, very good or good health among adult survivors. Depending on the factor, there was a 30 to 80 percent increased likelhood that the adult would report positive well-being. Survivors who had a college education were 2.1 times more likely to report positive well-being than those with no high school diploma. These findings were after considering their chronic conditions. We also found that the four factors were associated with a lower likelihood to report depressive feelings.
What’s more, the greater number of health-promoting activities a person participated in, the better their well-being seemed to be. Adult survivors with at least two factors were 1.5 times more likely to report good to excellent health. Those who reported all four factors were 4.3 times more likely to report good to excellent health, compared to those who engaged in none or one, even after considering their chronic conditions.
On average, trauma survivors who reported at least two of the health promoting factors had also experienced fewer mentally and physically unhealthy days in the past 30 days.
We have also learned that adult trauma survivors use complementary strategies such as yoga, massage, and dance therapy.
With that said, we need more rigorous studies to test these and other approaches that promote health and well-being. The studies presented examined only four factors and cannot be generalized to all adult survivors of ACEs.
How to start healing
From a survival perspective, the body can respond to perceived or actual threats with the “fight or flight” stress response. However, if this threat is constant, the endocrine and neuronal systems stay activated, which can overtax us and prevent the body from establishing homeostasis. Research has helped us to understand how disease can result from stress and trauma.
Just as we are biologically equipped with mechanisms to deal with threatening situations, our bodies are also equipped with neurochemicals like dopamine and GABA that provide feelings of security, happiness and motivation. We can ourselves activate these positive feelings through self-care. For example, in one study, massage was found to reduce cortisol and increase dopamine and serotonin.
There is no voodoo here. If we present our body and five senses with positive inputs – like calming music, unprocessed foods and walks through nature – we can stimulate our own system to regulate in a favorable way.
But these interventions may not be sufficient by themselves. Active counseling, the use of cognitive-behavioral therapy and in some cases medications or other health interventions may be needed.
We must recognize the strength and limitations of modern medicine and public health when it comes to addressing and preventing ACEs. Interrupting the cycle of abuse and neglect must first begin with adults. It will require an integrative and multigenerational approach that empowers individuals to heal their bodies, minds and spirits.
Editor’s note: This article is the third in a series exploring how research into adverse childhood experiences – or ACEs – is helping researchers, therapists, parents, educators and the medical community better understand the lasting effects of trauma on mental health.
After making it through the maelstrom of middle age, many adults find themselves approaching older age wondering “what will give purpose to my life?” now that the kids have flown the nest and retirement is in the cards.
How they answer the question can have significant implications for their health.
Over the past two decades, dozens of studies have shown that seniors with a sense of purpose in life are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment, disabilities, heart attacks or strokes, and more likely to live longer than people without this kind of underlying motivation.
Now, a new report in JAMA Psychiatry adds to this body of evidence by showing that older adults with a solid sense of purpose tend to retain strong hand grips and walking speeds — key indicators of how rapidly people are aging.
Why would a psychological construct (“I feel that I have goals and something to live for”) have this kind of impact? Seniors with a sense of purpose may be more physically active and take better care of their health, some research suggests. Also, they may be less susceptible to stress, which can fuel dangerous inflammation.
“Purposeful individuals tend to be less reactive to stressors and more engaged, generally, in their daily lives, which can promote cognitive and physical health,” said Patrick Hill, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis who wasn’t associated with the study.
But what is purpose, really? And how can it be cultivated?
Anne Newman, a 69-year-old who splits her time between Hartsdale, north of New York City, and Delray Beach, Fla., said she’s been asking herself this “on a minute-by-minute basis” since closing her psychotherapy practice late last year.
Building and maintaining a career became a primary driver in her life after Newman raised two daughters and went back to work at age 48. As a therapist, “I really loved helping people make changes in their lives that put them in a different, better position,” she said.
Things became difficult when Newman’s husband, Joseph, moved to Florida and she started commuting back and forth from New York. Over time, the travel took a toll, and Newman decided she didn’t want a long-distance marriage. So, she began winding down her practice and thinking about her next chapter.
Experts advise that people seeking a sense of purpose consider spending more time on activities they enjoy or using work skills in a new way. Newman loves drawing and photography. She has investigated work and volunteer opportunities in Florida, but nothing has grabbed her just yet.
“Not knowing what’s going to take the place of work in my life — it feels horrible, like I’m floundering,” she admitted, in a phone interview.
I didn’t ask myself did I have a larger purpose in life — I asked myself what gives meaning to my life.
Many people go through a period of trial and error after retirement and don’t find what they’re looking for right away, said Dr. Dilip Jeste, senior associate dean for healthy aging and senior care at the University of California-San Diego. “This doesn’t happen overnight.”
“People don’t like to talk about their discomfort because they think it’s unusual. And yet, everybody thinks about this existential question at this time of life: ‘What are we here for?’” he noted.
Newman’s focus has been on getting “involved in something other than personal satisfaction — something larger than myself.” But that may be overreaching.
“I think people can get a sense of purpose from very simple things: from taking care of a pet, working in the garden or being kind to a neighbor,” said Patricia Boyle, a leading researcher in this field and professor of behavioral sciences at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
“Even small goals can help motivate someone to keep going,” she continued. “Purpose can involve a larger goal, but it’s not a requirement.”
Older adults often discover a sense of purpose from taking care of grandchildren, volunteering, becoming involved in community service work or religion, she said. “A purpose in life can arise from learning a new thing, accomplishing a new goal, working together with other people or making new social connections when others are lost,” she said.
Tara Gruenewald’s research highlights how important it is for older adults to feel they play a valuable role in the life of others.
“I think what we often lose as we age into older adulthood is not a desire to contribute meaningfully to others but the opportunity to do so,” said Gruenewald, chair of the department of psychology at California’s Crean College of Health and Behavioral Sciences at Chapman University. Her research has found that people who perceive themselves as being useful had a stronger feeling of well-being and were less likely to become disabled and die than those who didn’t see themselves this way.
“In midlife, we contribute to others partly because it’s demanded of us in work and in our social relationships,” Gruenewald said. “As we grow older, we have to seek out opportunities to contribute and give to others.”
Some researchers try to tease out distinctions between having a sense of purpose and finding meaning in life; others don’t. “Practically, I think there’s a lot of overlap,” Boyle said.
After Barry Dym, 75, retired a year ago from a long career as an organizational consultant and a marriage and family therapist, he said, “I didn’t ask myself did I have a larger purpose in life — I asked myself what gives meaning to my life.”
Answering that question wasn’t difficult; certain themes had defined choices he’d made throughout his life. “What gives meaning to me is helping people. Trying to have an impact. Working with people very closely and helping them become much better at what they do,” Dym said in a phone conversation from his home in Lexington, Mass.
In retirement, he’s carrying that forward by mentoring several people with whom he has a professional and personal relationship, bringing together groups of people to talk about aging, and starting a blog. Recently, he said, he wrote about discovering that he feels freer now to “explore who I am, where I came from and what meaning things have to me than at any other point of my life.”
And therein lies a dilemma. “I feel of two minds about purpose in older age,” Dym said. “In some ways, I’d like to just shuck off that sense of having to do something to be a good person, and just relax. And in other ways, I feel deeply fulfilled by the things I do.”
We’re eager to hear from readers about questions you’d like answered, problems you’ve been having with your care and advice you need in dealing with the health care system. Visit khn.org/columnists to submit your requests or tips.
KHN’s coverage related to aging & improving care of older adults is supported by The John A. Hartford Foundation.
The ability to think critically and creatively are more in demand than ever before as our world becomes increasingly complex and as thinking skills continue to decline. The MLA program that I oversee at Baker University seeks to engage students in a lifelong practice of critical, creative thinking that can immediately find application in their careers, communities and personal lives. I can’t think of a better way to simultaneously spend several years exploring fascinating topics taught by passionate teachers AND gain the type of critical, creative thinking skills so desperately in need by industry, organizations, and our society. As highly sensitive people it is incumbent on us to push our limitations, develop our capacities and engage our creativity in ways that allow for a fuller blossoming of potentialities in service to our often deep need for meaning in life.
I am very proud and humbled to lead this program as the chairman and I challenge any HSP considering a masters degree to consider this wonderful program. We highly sensitive peoplee must move beyond the simplistic wrangling we so often see with simple descriptions of what it means to be an HSP and on to what it means to apply and embody it in a complex world. In hindsight, the MLA at Baker University is the degree I WISH I had sought when I was in graduate school!
On a personal note the MLA program is one of the endeavors I engage with on a daily basis. I teach in the program as well as lead and though it took many years to find a place in life where the challenges were sufficient and recuring (due my being a sensitive, sensation seeker) I feel a sense of placeness with this program that makes me think my contributions are meaningful, necessary, and generative beyond myself. My path to teaching and administration (like the paths of many sensitive, sensation seekers) was unlikely and fraught with obstacles and setbacks but through resilience, perservance, and a belief that my capacities mattered I completed what became quite an organic journey. The journey would have been much richer and fuller in the MLA program. -Tracy Cooper
The avoidance of pain and discomfort seem as natural a pursuit as may be imagined but in doing so we may deprive ourselves (and others) of the opportunity for real personality growth. Kazimierz Dabrowski proposed that disintegration can be a positive event when the individual uses the experience to advance to a better version of self. In that sense, disintegrative experiences, though painful and chaotic at times, may be thought of as positive. Positive disintegration is the process by which we learn from the negative events that take place in all of our lives. Though few wish to suffer on purpose when we face times of disintegration we can use them to our advantage as we work to reach our fullest potential.
In the following article, by Michael Aaron, we learn more about positive disintegration. My book, Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person, also contains an entire chapter on how Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration applies to highly sensitive people and high sensation seeking highly sensitive people.
In many ways, our current society is set up to avoid as much pain as possible. Whether it is new technology, new medical or pharmaceutical advancements, or the self-help industry, everything is set up to make our lives easier, simpler, and more uniquely tailored to our every individual need. Even the names of products such as the iPhone and iPad nod to the symbiotic merger of products and people.
But the question remains, does all of this avoidance of pain and seeking of pleasure really make us any happier or more resilient? Obviously, new technological and medical advancements have helped millions of people rise out of poverty or overcome disease, but overall our social levels of happiness haven’t risen. Indeed, studies have shown that use of social media such as Facebook is correlated with depression and unhappiness. Other studies have shown that there is some increase in levels of happiness when individuals rise out of poverty, but material possessions beyond that don’t make much of a difference.
Anyway, this avoidance of pain isn’t just relegated to technology and consumerism but has also seeped into other areas of society such as education, team sports, and parenting. Such media outlets as the New York Times have bemoaned the rise of participation trophies for all kids, arguing that kids lose out on meaningful life lessons such as the value of competition and working hard for achievement, and are instead saddled with a growing sense of entitlement. The Atlantic has published such articles as “The Coddling of the American Mind,” “The Overprotected Kid,” and “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” criticizing the safety bubble that our society has created around young people to seemingly protect them from even the slightest threat of pain. Indeed, in “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” the author, Lori Gottlieb, a psychotherapist herself, states that many of her millennial clients “just generally felt a sense of emptiness or lack of purpose” and “their biggest complaint was they had nothing to complain about!” These were all folks with doting parents, no trauma whatsoever in their past, but still unable to create an adult life for themselves.
I would argue that many, if not most of the preventative measures, used to protect our young people from pain are actually counterproductive and go against sound psychological principles. Adversity is often the catalyst for growth and personal change. Just as evolutionary forces operate on the macro level, adversity forces individuals to adapt to challenging circumstances, furthering their own evolution. Now, when I speak about adversity, I don’t mean extensive trauma, as is assessed by such instruments as the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) survey, which has demonstrated negative life outcomes correlated to the number of adverse childhood experiences. Rather, I’m talking about painful and challenging life experiences that don’t necessarily qualify as trauma (although as I’ve written about before, trauma is not a fait accompli and everyone responds to trauma differently, sometimes without any symptoms at all).
Indeed, one prominent psychological thinker believed that adversity was the instrument of growth and centered his entire career around this central idea. Let me introduce you to the work of Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski, and his theory of positive disintegration. Dabrowski theorized that individuals that were born “gifted” needed to go through several existential trials in order to reach their potential and free themselves from social indoctrination. This process, which takes five distinct levels, can only be catalyzed by adversity and challenging life events that force the individual to re-examine his or her every belief and will, in conclusion, lead to the kind of self-actualization written about by other humanistic thinkers such as Abraham Maslow.
Let’s take a brief look at all five levels to give you a better idea of the core concept. The first level is called Primary Integration. People at this level are often influenced primarily by either prominent “first factors,” such as heredity or “second factors,” such as the social environment. Dabrowski believed this level was marked by selfishness and egocentrism, justifying all pursuits through a kind of “all about me” thinking.
According to Dabrowski, the shift to level two, Unilevel Disintegration, occurs as an initial, brief and often intense crisis or series of crises. Unilevel Disintegration may often occur as a result of developmental crises such as puberty or menopause, in periods of acute stress from external events, or under “psychological and psychopathological conditions such as nervousness and psychoneurosis.” Ultimately, the person is thrust into an existential crisis, in which one’s pre-determined beliefs no longer make any sense. During this phase, existential despair is the predominant emotion.
Level III, Spontaneous Multilevel Disintegration, describes a subsequent process of coming into awareness of multiple levels of understanding. In simple terms, it’s a dawning realization of what “ought to be” versus “what is.” The individual begins to contrast their behavior with higher, imagined ideals and alternative idealized choices. Dąbrowski believed that the authentic individual would choose the higher path and if their behavior fell short of the ideal, then internal disharmony would drive the individual to review and reconstruct one’s life. In this way, the individual is propelled by existential angst from Level II to come into contact in Level III with higher ideals to which he or she then aspires to.
In Level IV, Organized Multilevel Disintegration, the person takes full control of his or her development. The spontaneous dawning of Level III is replaced by a deliberate, conscious and self-directed review of life from a multilevel perspective. The person consciously reviews his or her existing belief system and tries to replace lower, automatic views and reactions with carefully thought out, examined and chosen ideals, which increasingly become more reflected in the person’s behavior. In this way, behavior becomes less reactive, less automatic and more deliberate as behavioral choices fall under the influence of the person’s higher, chosen ideals.
And finally, the fifth level, Secondary Disintegration, involves an integration of the lessons learned in the previous levels into a cohesive, stronger, and more authentic character. At this highest level, one’s behavior is guided by conscious, deliberately weighed decisions based on an individualized and carefully chosen hierarchy of personal values. In this stage, the individual reaches higher levels of authenticity and congruence.
I find this theory to be a very elegant explanation of human potential and the process of growth and change. Fundamental to this framework is that no change can occur without some sort of conflict or distress that interferes with the homeostasis of the system. Adversity is an essential ingredient that throws the individual into an existential crisis, forcing him or her to go through an awareness of operating in low consciousness and a subsequent process of self-examination leading to further growth.
Dabrowski’s work can be dismissed as highly theoretical, but extensive evidence suggests that protecting individuals from pain or adversity only serves to hamper their development. Instead, I propose that we must continuously strive to find new ways to expose ourselves to hardship that places us outside of our comfort zones. Indeed, as I’ve written about in my book Modern Sexuality, the edges right outside of the comfort zone are where most learning and growth occurs. Instead of seeking safety in comfort, we need to seek out opportunities to expose ourselves to the possibility of falling apart and remaking everything we once thought we knew. In short, we need to expose ourselves to positive disintegration.
About the Author
Remember the old 1980s commercial “This is your brain on drugs?” Here we have your brain on trauma. For many highly sensitive people (HSPs) early childhood trauma creates real differences in the way our brains function as compared to those who suffered no trauma. The following short article by Jennifer Sweeton offers us a quick view of the three main areas of the brain that may suffer as a result of trauma.
Highly sensitive people, or those who have the innate personality trait Sensory Processing Sensitivity, process all stimulation in a more elaborate fashion in the brain. Negative events, in short, affect us more deeply and for a longer period of time than they might for those without the trait. Early experiences with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can impart lifelong issues with anxiety, depression, shyness, antisocial behaviors, and self-destructive tendencies. Perhaps half (or more) of HSPs suffer from mutliple ACEs and may benefit from mindfulness training or other brain retraining practices that serve to strengthen the thinking and emotion regulating centers of the brain while quieting the fear center. My advice to HSPs suffering from ACEs is to work on learning to quiet the brain before seeking psychotherapy. Psychologists can only be of real value if one is calm enough to engage the thinking center of the brain and not be overly dominated by fear and anxiety. This is not an easy task and you should not feel like there is a pill to cure your problems. It will require that you do real work on yourself to quiet the “monkey chatter” in your brain. Humans are primates and subject to the same tendencies for anxiety and fear as any other member of the great ape family. The difference is that humans have a greater capacity to reason and think through why we are feeling fear or anxiety and take action to improve our lives.
Concurrent with learning to recognize and control our emotions and moods is the desperate need to control our thinking (fair-minded crititcal thought). Most people operate on an unconscious or automatic thinking level where they fail to apply effective thinking strategies to the demands of modern life. The more we are able to apply critical thinking to our lives the more we are able to understand why we may be feeling fear or anxiety. Once we know why feel a certain emotion we can choose to let it pass or focus on resolving it. Emotions are there to serve as activators of survival behaviors. Fear and anxiety are there to alert us to a threat or danger to which we may need to take possible action (run away, defend ourselves, etc..). When we experience ACEs in childhood (and beyond) our fear center is overactivated and alerts us to threats that may not be real or as severe as we are feeling. Combine that with lessened connectivity between the thinking and emotion regulation centers of the brain and you have a recipe for reacting to normal stimuli with unwarranted fear and anxiety.
Let’s be clear: anxiety and fear are no fun! They can be paralyzing and defeating to those who are experiencing them. For people with an overactivated fear center life is full of threats and anxieties that serve to very effectively limit their ability to realize their potential; even hold a job and support themselves. This isn’t always true and many people with ACEs are able to function well in life and in their careers but not without work on their parts to mitigate the overactivated fear response and emotion regulation. Indeed, research has shown that having even ONE caring, safe relationship can lead to better outcomes in life. Would you believe that some people do not have that ONE safe relationship? It’s true and they struggle mightily if they do not give up altogether.
I implore you to carefully examine how you respond to life’s demands. Do you overreact with fear, seeing threats and danger at every turn while others seem to register nothing unusual? Do you feel extremes of mood and emotion in normal circumstances where others seem to be more balanced? Do you act out of fear or anxiety without thinking any of it through? If your answer is yes you may be able to help yourself through beginning to work on your inner life through exercise, meditation (in whatever way works for you), and seeking the skilled help of a therapist who specializes in trauma and PTSD. Understand and be prepared for the reality that the single best indicator of improvement will be your willingness and desire to get better. There is no magic pill nor can a therapist heal you. It is on you to do the work and take the journey to greater well-being and well-functioning. Take heart though in the fact that you are probably more resilient than you think, more aware of your issues than you give yourself credit for, and desirous of improving the quaility of your life for yourself and your family.
Tracy Cooper, PhD
This Is Your Brain on Trauma
Approximately 50 percent of the population will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives. While reactions to trauma can vary widely, and not everyone will develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), trauma can change the brain in some predictable ways that everyone should be aware of, especially if you or someone close to you is struggling to cope after trauma. With increased awareness, you can seek treatment to address your symptoms and learn skills that could actually rewire your brain for recovery. Additionally, knowing what’s going on can be immensely helpful because it may help you realize that you’re not crazy, irreversibly damaged, or a bad person. Instead, you can think of a traumatized brain as one that functions differently as a result of traumatic events. And just as your brain changed in response to your past experiences with the world, it can also change in response to your future experiences. In other words, the brain is “plastic,” and you can change it.
3 Areas to Know
Trauma can alter brain functioning in many ways, but three of the most important changes appear to occur in the following areas:
1. The prefrontal cortex (PFC), known as the “Thinking Center”
2. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), known as the “Emotion Regulation Center”
3. The amygdala, known as the “Fear Center”
The PFC, or thinking center, is located near the top of your head, behind your forehead. It’s responsible for abilities including rational thought, problem-solving, personality, planning, empathy, and awareness of ourselves and others. When this area of the brain is strong, we are able to think clearly, make good decisions, and be aware of ourselves and others.
The ACC, or emotion regulation center, is located next to the prefrontal cortex, but is deeper inside the brain. This area is responsible (in part) for regulating emotion, and (ideally) has a close working relationship with the thinking center. When this region is strong, we are able to manage difficult thoughts and emotions without being totally overwhelmed by them. While we might want to send a snarky email to a coworker, the emotion regulation center reminds us that this is not a good idea, and helps us manage our emotions so that we don’t do things we regret.
Finally, the amygdala, a tiny structure deep inside our brain, serves as its fear center. This subcortical area is outside of our conscious awareness or control, and its primary job is to receive all incoming information – everything you see, hear, touch, smell, and taste – and answer one question: “Is this a threat?” If it detects that a dangerous threat is present, it produces fear in us. When this area is activated, we feel afraid, reactive, and vigilant.
What’s Going on in a Traumatized Brain
Traumatized brains look different from non-traumatized brains in three predictable ways:
1. The Thinking Center is underactivated,
2. The Emotion Regulation Center is underactivated
3. The Fear Center is overactivated.
What these activations indicate is that, often, a traumatized brain is “bottom-heavy,” meaning that activations of lower, more primitive areas, including the fear center, are high, while higher areas of the brain (also known as cortical areas) are underactivated. In other words, if you are traumatized, you may experience chronic stress, vigilance, fear, and irritation. You may also have a hard time feeling safe, calming down, or sleeping. These symptoms are all the result of a hyperactive amygdala.
At the same time, individuals who are traumatized may notice difficulties with concentration and attention, and often report they can’t think clearly. This, not surprisingly, is due to the thinking center being underactivated.
Finally, survivors of trauma will sometimes complain that they feel incapable of managing their emotions. For example, if someone spooks them, they may experience a rapid heart rate long after the joke is up, or may have a hard time “just letting go” of minor annoyances. Even when they want to calm down and feel better, they just can’t. This is in large part due to a weakened emotion regulation center.
What You Can Do Now
Changing the brain takes effort, repetition, and time. The best gift you can give yourself toward this goal is psychotherapy. If you’re ready to start that journey, look for a psychologist who specializes in trauma and PTSD, and who uses evidence-based methods that change the brain by working with both the body and the mind.
Also, consider adding a body-based or mindfulness-based technique to your daily routine, to help begin deactivating the fear center. This is a vital first step to healing, as when we are able to quiet the fear center, we are better able to work on strengthening and activating the thinking center and emotion regulation center. Two such exercises include diaphragmatic breathing and autogenic training. (Access free, guided practices of these techniques HERE.) The recommendation is to practice these techniques, or similar ones, for short periods of time multiple times per day. Remember, practice makes progress.
The singer from the rock group Soundgarden, Chris Cornell, passed away this past week due to a postulated suicide. High profile performers pass away every year and we take little notice but Cornell’s suicide has hit many of us deeply because he was not an angry young man with a death wish nor was he apparently exhibiting signs of being depressed or suicidal. When I heard of his passing early in the morning I was dumbstruck because of his status as a statesman of rock who had already passed through the gauntlet so many young men face just starting out in life where intense pressures to perform, achieve, and “be a man” become real and ever-present. I considered Chris Cornell to be well-adjusted for a rock star. He had a great marriage, two beautiful children (a preteen and a teen), plus an older daughter from his previous marriage. By all accounts, he was devoted to his family first and career second, which makes suicide nearly inconceivable (at least that is how I felt and still feel).
My family has also been touched by the suicide of a male member when I was a young teen when my uncle decided to end his life after learning he had cancer. That was my first experience with death and I was terribly confused about why he would choose to end his own life and leave behind so many hurt and wounded family members (a feeling that persists to this day). My father also attempted (or at least dramatically stated that was his intention) suicide when he yelled at everyone to “get out” because he was going to shoot himself. We waited outside in complete horror for the gunshot that thankfully never occurred. Ironically, he was to pass away just a few short years later in 1982 (his outburst had been several years earlier in the late-1970s when men bottled it all up until they exploded and seeking mental health care was considered a sign of weakness for a man, in fact, it still is).
While I was serving in the US Army in 1984-85 in Germany there was a time when overwork and stress were contributing factors to a period of intense feelings of hopelessness, despair, and anger. I was likely in an episode of what could have been diagnosed as major clinical depression but, again, mental health is and was a taboo subject for men and I never sought treatment (I did get better as it was mostly situational). Depression, anxiety, and battles with self-esteem, self-worth, and low self-efficacy have been near-constant companions throughout my life, much as for Chris Cornell, and at the age of 50 I very oddly feel myself entering an age of statesmanship similar to Cornell where others look to me as a realized human being with valuable experience and insights.
The reasons why a man might decide to commit suicide are many and vary from man to man but some of the underlying motivators are similar as pointed out in the article below by Jed Diamond. For highly sensitive men (and, yes, it is okay to be a man and highly sensitive) the challenges are many with regard to feelings of aloneness, being a burden and not feeling afraid to die. HSPs, as we know, are prone to depressive and anxious thinking due to more elaborate processing of experiences on many levels. Over the course of years/decades, the wearing effect may take a tremendous toll on our bodies, minds, and spirits. Sometimes it may seem impossible (or implausible) that we serve as vessels capable of containing so much emotion, feeling, and thoughts. Some of us do so only with the aid of alcohol, drugs, or other crutches or coping mechanisms, while others develop a deep spirituality or self-care practices that sustain and calm us in a sea of swirling forces threatening to pull us apart at the seams.
However we face life, the awful challenges of developing real friendships that can sustain us, feeling as if we are productive and pulling our own weight, and not subscribing to an overly hegemonic ideal of manhood as not fearing death or pain weighs on every man, indeed every person alive.
As highly sensitive men perhaps one of the purposes we may serve to the world is to embody and exemplify deeper understandings of life and what it means to be truly alive in a world that seems hell-bent on the mindless pursuit of efficiency and productivity at the cost of our humanity.
I don’t believe we can arrive at the answers through the loss of one person but we can and should begin the dialog around what it means to be deep feeling, deep thinking, and creative in mind and soul in ways that empower populations, sustain and nurture our families, and enhances our communities. We, as highly sensitive men, are imbued with a gift that may be difficult to navigate in our dualistic world but that offers the potential of a broader definition of real humanness than would otherwise be possible without us.
Stand up and be counted sensitive men! Stand up and be who and what you are with no apologies to anyone. Embrace and embody your true strengths of character for a world desperately in need of compassionate leadership. Your strengths of empathy, creativity, and sensitivity far outweigh their weaknesses of single-mindedness, superficiality, and lack of emotional depth. Your strength is your heart, your creative soul, and your fortitude in the face of untold days that could have claimed you anywhere along the way.
This world needs men who will stay around and teach the children, support and grow others to their full potential, and pass on what we have learned about getting through life as complex beings riding the knife-edge of sanity/insanity, riding the emotional waves rather than being swallowed in the undertow, and leading societies that have long ago lost their way in favor of crass, materialistic idols of gold and silver. Sensitive men, the challenge for you (and me) is to lead through a quiet strength of character that others feel no fear of because it is open, inviting, warm and human. That, my friends, is worth staying alive for…
~Tracy Cooper, PhD
Jed Diamond, P.h.D, looks at suicide in men from both an individual and societal vantage point and gives ways to prevent it from happening.
Recently I received a review copy of the book, Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men’s Success by Thomas Joiner, Ph.D. I was happy to offer a review. Dr. Joiner is one of the world’s leading experts on suicide and has published two previous books, Myths about Suicide (Harvard University Press 2010) and Why People Die by Suicide (Harvard University Press 2005).
Dr. Joiner and I share a professional interest in suicide prevention. Suicide is a major world-wide epidemic taking the lives of over 1,000,000 people a year, according to the World Health Organization. Estimates suggest that 10 to 20 times more individuals attempt suicide.
Self-harm now takes more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined.
Our personal lives have also been touched by suicide. My mid-life father tried to commit suicide when I was 5 years old. Although he lived, our lives were never the same. I grew up wondering what happened to my father and was terrified that the same thing would happen to me. My life-long interest in men’s health grew from my desire to help men, and the women and children who love them, to understand what causes men to give up on life and what we can do to keep them engaged.
Dr. Joiner’s father, also named Thomas, killed himself when Dr. Joiner was in his third year of graduate school. Although the senior Thomas was depressed, he didn’t seem like a suicide risk. As reported by Tony Dokoupil in a recent article, The Suicide Epidemic, “the 56-year old Joiner was gregarious, the kind of guy who was forever talking and laughing and bending people his way. He wasn’t a brittle person with bad genes and big problems. Thomas Joiner Sr. was a successful businessman, a former Marine, tough even by Southern standards.” As it turned out, these “manly” traits may have contributed to his demise.
Joiner remembers the day his father disappeared. “Dad had left an unmade bed in a spare room, and an empty spot where his van usually went. By nightfall he hadn’t been heard from, and the following morning my mother called me at school. The police had found the van. It was parked in an office lot about a mile from the house, the engine cold. Inside, in the back, the police found my father dead, covered in blood. He had been stabbed through the heart.”
The investigators found slash marks on his father’s wrists and a note on a yellow sticky pad by the driver’s seat. “Is this the answer?” it read, in his father’s shaky scrawl. They ruled it a suicide, death by “puncture wound,” an impossibly grisly way to go, which made it all the more difficult for Joiner to understand.
Suicide is a Primarily Male Problem
In his latest book, Lonely at the Top, Joiner asks, “which cause of death stands out as affecting men far more than women? Given their privileged financial and society status, perhaps it has something to do with the dark side of wealth and power such as the cardiac or stroke-related consequences of influential but stressful jobs, or a taste for expensive but unhealthy foods?”
“No,” he says, “It’s suicide.” Approximately 30,000 people commit suicide each year in the U.S. and 80% were men. Overall, males kill themselves at rates that are 4 times higher than females. But in certain age groups men are even more vulnerable. The suicide rate for those ages 20-24 is 5.4 times higher for males than for females of the same age.
In the older age groups suicide is even more a “male problem.” After retirement, the suicide rate skyrockets for men, but not for women. Between the ages of 65-74 the rate is 6.3 times higher for males. Between the ages of 75-84, the suicide rate is 7 times higher. And for those over 85, it is nearly 18 times higher for men than it is for women.
A New Understanding of Why People Die by Suicide
Joiner is 47 now, and a chaired professor at Florida State University, in Tallahassee. He’s made it his life’s work to understand why people kill themselves and what we can do to prevent them from taking their lives. He hopes to honor his father, by combating what killed him and by making his death a stepping stone to better treatment. “Because,” as he says, “no one should have to die alone in a mess in a hotel bathroom, in the back of a van, or on a park bench, thinking incorrectly that the world will be better off without them.”
Dr. Joiner has proposed a new theory of why people commit suicide which he believes is more accurate than previous formulations offered by writers like Edwin Schneidman, Ph.D. and Aaron Beck, MD. According to Schneidman’s model, the key motivator which drives people to suicide is psychological pain. In Beck’s understanding, the key motivator is the development of a pervasive sense of hopelessness. Dr. Joiner suggests that these are correct understandings but are also too vague to be useful for predictive purposes and not capable of offering a complete motivational picture.
Joiner proposes that there are three key motivational aspects which contribute to suicide. These are: 1) a sense of not belonging, of being alone, 2) a sense of not contributing, of being a burden 3) a capability for suicide, not being afraid to die. All three of these motivations or preconditions must be in place before someone will attempt suicide.
Although women, too, can take their own lives when they suffer at the intersection of “feeling alone, feeling a burden, and not being afraid to die,” this is clearly a more male phenomenon. Throughout our lives males take more risks and invite injury more often. We are taught that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” and “no pain, no gain.”
We often invest so much of our lives in our work, when we lose our jobs or retire we feel worthless, unable to contribute. It’s a short step to feeling we are a burden on those we love. We also put less effort into developing and maintaining friendships so we can come to feel more and more alone.
Preventing Suicide In Men
I’ve found that Joiner’s model, what he calls the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide, can be very helpful in understanding suicide risk in men. The three overlapping circles help alert us to the kinds of questions we might ask ourselves if we want to prevent suicide. Joiner and his colleagues have developed a questionnaire that addresses these issues. Here are a few of the items they assess:
These days, I feel disconnected from other people.
These days, I rarely interact with people who care about me.
These days, I don’t feel I belong.
These days, I often feel like an outsider in social gatherings.
These days the people in my life would be better off if I were gone.
These days the people in my life would be happier without me.
These days I think I have failed the people in my life.
These days I feel like a burden on the people in my life.
Capacity for Suicide:
Things that scare most people do not scare me.
The sight of my own blood does not bother me.
I can tolerate a lot more pain than most people.
I am not at all afraid to die.
Like most people, I’ve had thoughts of suicide at numerous times in my life, but the one time I felt at high risk of actually killing myself was when all three sectors overlapped. I was lucky that my wife was smart enough to remove the guy from the house until I saw a therapist and got into treatment for my depression and my suicide risk subsided.
Some people believe that if a person is going to kill themselves, there’s nothing one can do. If you try to stop them, they’ll just bide their time and do it later. However, we now know that suicidal intention is transient. If we can get support to get through those times when we feel disconnected, a burden to others, and having the means and mind-set to actually kill ourselves, we can begin to develop the social supports to turn things around.
I suspect the difference between James Joiner’s dad and my dad wasn’t their level of “thwarted belongingness” or “perceived burdensomeness” but my father’s lower capacity for suicide. Disrupt one of the risk circles and we buy ourselves more time to heal. Making a connection can be as simple as a smile. I read the report of a man who left a note as he walked across the Golden Gate Bridge. It said, “If one person smiles at me, I won’t kill myself.” The note was found after he had plunged to his death. We can all reach out, in our own way, and touch someone who may feel disconnected, disrespected, and useless.
We can also let in the love when we are feeling down. I remind myself, and my clients, to take heed of the lines from the Eagles song Desperado. “You better let somebody love you, you better let somebody love you, you better let somebody love you…before it’s too late.”
If you’re dealing with feelings of hopelessness or thoughts of suicide, help is available. 800-273-TALK (8255) is on-call 24/7 if you need to talk, or reach out to a friend or health professional in your life.
Tracy Cooper, PhD is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career, and Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person. Dr. Cooper provides consulting services on a one on one basis to HSPs in career crisis or transition and to high sensation seeking highly sensitive people on general topics. He also appeared in the documentary Sensitive-The Untold Story. His website may be found at drtracycooper.com.