Existentialism has always been the underlying epistemological, ontological, and teleological underpinning for my life. Not fitting in with the herd has never been easy but it has been quite necessary in my case, how about you?
Dodson presents the following list of ways to live more existentially which I feel are very much in line with how we HSPs experience life:
10) question what you’ve been told
9) start relating to the big picture
8) honor life’s difficult experiences
7) lay claim to your power in life
6) see how free you can be
5) learn to live with passion
4) inhabit the present moment
3) recover the ability to play
2) build responsible community
1) remember that you’re born to a bold, brilliant, terrifying universe
You might also wish to check out the full video on Existentialism below (it’s fascinating I promise) as a way of being that embraces complexity, compassion, humility, and a ludic viewpoint as a counterpoint to the oh-so-serious world and its concerns. Many more fascinating short videos by Dodson on the same site.
Do you experience strong, quick emotions that override your rational thought processes? Of course you do if you are a highly sensitive person; that’s how Sensory Processing Sensitvity works! What can we do to develop greater awareness and control of our emotions and their effects on our critical thinking abilities? In the following article by Benard Golden, PhD, learn more about how we resort to using “child logic” when we allow our emotions to dominate our thinking.
The Power of Emotions to Override Rational Thought
How is it that you fully know not everyone drives with caution and consideration, but you still expect them to do so? How come you still expect your spouse to be frugal when shopping, even though ten years of history together tells you otherwise? And, what causes you to rigidly expect perfection from yourself, when being human means we make mistakes, have weaknesses and suffer.
The answer to each of these questions lies in “child logic”–a term that I have coined to describe logic that is hijacked by emotion. I use this term without any attempt at disparagement. Rather, it emphasizes that regardless of age or intelligence, we at times engage in magical thinking associated with earlier development. Such logic fuels unrealistic expectations and heightens the potential for destructive anger. It’s as if the emotional brain and the rational brain are not effectively communicating with each other. Whether emotions override logic or the rational brain is ill prepared to correct the surge of emotion. The result is impaired judgment.
As someone who has spent years studying anger and helping people constructively manage it, I’ve seen the destructive impact of expectations sustained by such reasoning. All of us are guilty of this mental distortion, some more than others.
Anger stems from feeling threat and some form of inner pain, such as fear, anxiety, shame, hopelessness and powerlessness. It’s understandable that we might have some degree of irritation aroused by that driver who abruptly cuts us off. Similarly, we may feel our financial security threatened by our partner’s lack of frugality. And certainly, we may be disappointed with ourselves when we fail to achieve our goals. But the inability to be realistic in our expectations makes all the difference between having feelings such as disappointment and sadness, and experiencing intense anger.
All too often, child-logic infuses our expectations with emotions rooted in our wishes and hopes, insufficiently tamed by the facts of reality. It is child logic that supports beliefs such as: “Life should be fair”–when “Life just is”; that good efforts should always yield rewards–when they sometimes don’t; and that we should be able to control all aspects of our lives. In effect, it is child logic that may at times convince us we should always get what we want, that others should act as we believe they should, and that we should not have to suffer–even though all of us suffer.
Source: Bernard Golden
The impact of child logic is similarly prevalent in the current electoral cycle. Individuals in each party exhibit intense anger and resentment toward opposing candidates. Additionally, others experience anger toward the candidate selected by their own party. There are certainly valid reasons for the electorate to experience anger with regard to income inequality, racial injustice, threats of terrorism and deficiencies in government. Understandably these events create a sense of threat and other forms of inner anguish that might include fear, anxiety, powerlessness and hopelessness. However, rigidly maintaining unrealistic expectations only intensifies the potential for destructive anger–when they are not satisfied.
Unwittingly, like partners in a marriage that has soured, many people are challenged to look beyond their own immediate interests. The intensity of anger and how it is expressed rests, in part, on the fact that some of the electorate know compromise is essential for a democracy–yet feel it shouldn’t be the case. And yet, maintaining this expectation is inconsistent with a functioning democratic government.
Letting go of unrealistic expectations doesn’t mean the passive acceptance of what is. It may involve recognizing that certain expectations are aspirational rather than attainable. Or, letting go can free us to consider alternative strategies for increasing the likelihood of their satisfaction.
Developing more realistic expectations in our daily lives calls for pausing for reflection. It necessitates being aware of when we are too rigidly holding on to them in spite of a reality that reminds us they cannot be satisfied. It requires that we distinguish between what we really need and what we desire. And, all too often, it demands awareness of how anger can interfere with the willingness to engage in such reflection.
The capacity to recognize when child logic influences our expectations is essential for developing resilience, a key component of well-being. Resilience is a strength that allows us to bounce back from adverse consequences. It consists of recognizing when our expectations are overly influenced by hopes and wishes. Resilience very much depends on the flexibility of thought to let go of certain expectations, when we recognize we have no control over satisfying them. Certainly, this is not always an easy task. It involves grieving and mourning, dealing with a sense of loss that often moves us to sadness and disappointment instead of anger.
Some suggest that not having expectations is the only way to avoid disappointment. However, this attitude seems to be both pessimistic and a denial of a very human tendency. Rather, the real threat posed by maintaining expectations is when we cling to them and when they are overly influenced by child logic. The challenge for each of us is to be mindful when this occurs, as these two conditions form the bedrock of destructive anger.
About the Author
Bernard Golden, Ph.D., is the founder of Anger Management Education and author of Overcoming Destructive Anger: Strategies That Work.
Open office plans are a nightmare for highly sensitive people. If it’s not the constant chatter of co-workers, it’s the lack of private personal space where one can think. Too often in such circumstances, we lose focus and concentration and end up struggling to stay awake and simply get through one more day. Have you worked in such situations? I have and found them to be draining and irritating. That being said, most HSPs seem to prefer a balance of office time versus working from home (or other space) time. For me, the ideal arrangement might be 2-3 days in the office (not an open office plan) and 2-3 days of working from home (or other space). How about you? What’s the most sustainable office arrangement for you?
The following article certainly speaks to a timely subject:
If you hate your job, the layout of your office may be to blame.
New research has found that, far from creating an cooperative environment, open plan offices can make employees miserable.
The study found that staff that work in an open environment are distracted, irritated and find it difficult to have a good conversation with colleagues.
Previous research has also claimed that office workers are more easily distracted when they share space with others.
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Open plan offices designed to foster cooperation between colleagues may be bad for business and could soon become a thing of the past. Rather than boosting productivity, the range of distractions they provide means employees are interrupted every three minutes
The study was carried out by researchers from the CTF, Service Research Centre at Karlstad University in Sweden.
They looked at the link between the type of office and the satisfaction levels of staff.
Dr Tobias Otterbring, lead author of the study, said: ‘The results show a negative relationship between the number of co-workers sharing an office and employees’ job satisfaction.
The researchers looked at two factors in office workers – ease of interaction with their peers and general well-being.
The study found that employees working in small (3-9 people) and medium-sized (10-20 people) open plan offices reported lower levels of both of these aspects than individuals who work in a different type of office.
‘The open plan offices may have short-term financial benefits, but these benefits may be substantially lower than the costs associated with decreased job satisfaction and well-being.
‘Therefore, decision-makers should consider the impact of a given office type on employees rather than focusing solely on cost-effective office layout, flexibility, and productivity,’ Dr Otterbring added.
Dr Nicole Millard believes socialising and teamwork will still be a necessary part of work in the future. But we may have to reconsider what we view as an office space, with coffee shops and hotel lobbies all potential meeting places for small teams to get work done
As well as lower levels of job satisfaction, open plan office workers are interrupted every three minutes, a futurologist has claimed.
This is according to Dr Nicole Millard, who specialises in data, analytics and emerging technology at BT.
She believes large offices are inefficient and predicts they will die out, according to reports in The Telegraph.
They are particularly damaging for introverted employees, who prefer to work uninterrupted and who may clam up in crowds.
For the ethos behind open plan offices to work, boosting morale and encouraging teamwork, staff need to be sat close to the people they regularly collaborate with.
WHAT IS A ‘COFFICE’?
Dr Nicole Millard believes inundation with emails, meetings and other interactions with colleagues are among the chief causes of distraction in large offices.
This can lead to ‘task-switching’, which often results in work being overlooked or forgotten.
One sign of this is when you shut down your computer at the end of the day and find unclosed windows or unsent emails you didn’t get around to, because you were interrupted.
So does this spell the end for all office based jobs?
Dr Millard believes not, as socialising and teamwork will still be a necessary part of work in the future.
However, we may have to reconsider what we view as an office space.
The offices, or ‘coffices’ of the future could be a coffee shop or a hotel lobby, where small teams of workers can meet up to get work done.
But the futurologists says research has shown that social awkwardness can kick in if people are crammed too close together.
Dr Millard said: ‘The trouble with open plan offices is they are a one-size-fits-all model which actually fits nobody.
‘We’re interrupted every three minutes. It takes us between eight and 20 minutes to get back into that thought process.
‘So we will become shoulder bag workers. Our technology has shrunk so we can literally get our office in a small bag.
‘We are untethered, we don’t have to have a desk anymore.’
Dr Millard believes inundation with emails, meetings and other interactions with colleagues are among the chief causes of distraction.
This can lead to ‘task-switching’, which often results in work being overlooked or forgotten.
One sign of this is when you shut down your computer at the end of the day and find unclosed windows or unsent emails you didn’t get around to, because you were interrupted.
So does this spell the end for all office based jobs?
Dr Millard believes not, as socialising and teamwork will still be a necessary part of work in the future.
However, we may have to reconsider what we view as an office space.
She added: ‘We need a balance between we and me.
‘We need to give people options of how they can work, such as home working.
‘But I do go a tiny bit nuts if I am just at home, so I think we will start to embrace ‘the coffice’.
‘I need good coffee, connectivity, cake, my WiFi wings to fly me into the cloud.
‘I like company. The ‘coffice’ could be a coffee shop or a hotel lobby.’
Do you find yourself bored in situations most people find tolerable? Is your sense of boredom so profound as to be physically painful? Does your boredom propel you forward just to stay ahead of it? It is well known that boredom susceptibility is a key aspect of sensation seeking, but what is less well-known is how boredom plays out in the lives of highly sensiitve people, or people with the personality trait Sensory Processing Sensitivity.
Highly sensitive people may find themselves in a state of boredom but be able to retreat into their own deep minds and so tolerate what to others might seem intolerable. Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, described how the people who were most able to withstand deprivation in the Nazi concentration camps in WW2 where he was imprisoned, were the people who had the ability to reteat into their own minds. Solitude may be the least preferable thing to many people who lack the ability to “entertain themselves,” but for many HSPs solitude may be a welcome respite from an overstimulating world full of irritating noises, irritating people, or other stimulation that surely wears down one’s daily energy. Solitude (and quiet) may seem incredibly boring to many people but we need to look at how our society has changed in recent decades to deemphasize having and cultivating an inner life in favor of external stimulation all of the time. From smart phones to tablets to streaming movies and television everywhere all the time, there seems to be little reason to even think we humans have an inner life. Yet, having an inner life where one is able to freely reflect on one’s life, brainstorm new ideas, and simply rest the mind are even more essential today than in the past (for the above reasons).
For the high sensation seeking highly sensitive person there is a dual dichotomy here: we simultaneously embody deep-mindedness where retreat into an inner world is possible (sometimes preferable), yet we desperately seek to avoid boredom! Boredom has been described as one of the most significant issues for HSS/HSPs in all of my research. And whereas the HSP may be content enough to withdraw into their thoughts in a boring situation the HSS/HSP might find it physically painful if the boredom is especially prevalent. Physically painful you might ask? How can boredom be experienced in one’s body? Boredom may represent a feeling of being restrained or confined with a commiserate need to “escape” or mitigate the buildup of these energetic feelings in the body. In the article below, sensation seekers are described as more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors or potentially harmful experiences like drug taking or alcohol use to sort of fill in the blank times. This is certainly a possibility but for the HSS/HSP the sensitive part is likely to object to non-conscientious behavior or unethical indulgences that may negatively stimulate the person.
The contradictions inherent in the high sensation seeking highly sensiitve person are many and we often experience competing “pulls” from both sides of ourselves. One side may well wish to seek out new experiences just for the sake of doing it, while the rother would be happier to read a book quietly. Too often, the sensation seeking wins out and overhwelms the sensitive part resulting in emotional burnout. The risk of burnout is high for HSS/HSPs and represents an aspect of embodying both traits that goes underserved by many. Just as we need to experience novelty, new experiences, even thrills at times, we also need quiet, time to think and recharge, and time to reflect, listen, and absorb. In order to realize our potential in both traits we need to honor and respect both traits and the needs of both in ways that prevent one from becoming overwhelmed or ignored.
It is also up to each of us to find appropriate ways to develop deep self-awareness of both traits and how they impact our lives and the lives of those around us. It certainly can be confusing for those in our lives who are not highly sensitive to understand or appreciate why we need to withdraw from an energetic situation, why we prefer the quiet corner in the restaurant, or why we feel irritated at certain smells, noises or textures. Noticing things more has its downside! Understanding how to explain that to someone without the trait can be difficult and I suggest you don’t need to. You have certain needs and preferences and the people in your life will either accept that you pay attention to those needs or they won’t. It is also likely that you spend more time trying to understand other people’s behaviors than they ever spent on yours. Factor in sensation seeking and it is quite a different picture.
People are far more likley to understand and accept sensation seeking as “normal” because our culture seems to be built on it! They’ll have no problem at all if you want to thrill-seek or go to a party. They will also not raise an eyebrow if you indulge your disinhibition and do something you’ve never done before; it’s in the culture and is almost an expectation (especially if you are a male). How sensation plays out for us may be somewhat different because we also embody sensitivity, which may hold us back from taking too much risk or engaging in clearly dangerous or illegal activities. In that sense, we have a secret “advisor” always counseling us to “think it over first.” Whether we listen to our inner advisor is variable. Perhaps some people simply have not had their actions result in sufficient consequences to learn to value its advice. In time you will…
Boredom represents an extremely powerful force in the lives of HSS/HSPs that constantly threatens us with feeling tension in our bodies. It’s an unpleasant feeling and though at times we may be perfectly comfortable with our sensitive side’s ability to live inside our own minds, at other times it impels us to leave a job, leave a relationship, or swap up our environments. Boredom susceptibility, according to Dr. Marvin Zuckerman (originator of the sensation seeking trait) is the aspect of the trait that remains with us into old age. That may not be what we wish to hear but it is imperative that we develop a familiarity and willingess to have an inner world we can retreat to at times because there will be circumstances and situations where we must overrule our sensation seeking to achieve a goal, to manage people, or to complete a task. In that regard, the need to institute a self-care practice as a lifelong endeavor is crucial to our success, happiness, and well-being. Being able to be present with a feeling without necessarily taking action on it requires that we practice, practice, practice. Fortunately (or unfortunately) boredom is ever-present so our chances to practice may be many.
In a world that has devalued the inner life we have an opportunity to demonstrate intentional consciousness in the way we deal with our boredom. If we escape to the world of external stimulation solely we downplay the worth and value of a whole other half of ourselves. Mastering the challenge of boredom is not easy, nor will we always react in the same way, indeed, we should acknowledge that we will likely react differently in varying situations. Overall, on average, we should seek to master our own impulses and drives so we can realize our full potential and value in the world.
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…
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
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.
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.
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.
Fall is in the air here in Southern Missouri. Leaves are starting to have that dry, faded look that tells us they are preparing to drop from the trees. Likewise, the beginning of fall whispers to us that another year is passing by quite quickly and we might take a moment to reflect on what gives our lives meaning. Most people do better when their lives have a sense of meaning, that much is a given. For highly sensitive people the need is even more profound because our need for meaning is more deeply felt within us and reflected on as an internal need. For high sensation seeking highly sensitive people the need for meaning in life changes from moment to moment as we seek novelty, new experiences, and/or thrills. We also collectively (HSPs and HSS/HSPs) feel a strong need to stay ahead of boredom and will make changes in our lives to place us in situations and circumstances where we may experience new stimulation. Everyone is different, of course, and some may seek less stimulation (or different stimulation) than others but it is the experience of the moment, whether that has meaning for us, that determines how we feel about it.
Many of our day to day routines are mundane and simplistic and we generally will do them, as a matter of necessity, but we derive little meaning from them other than meeting a need. The deeper need is to feel a sense of alignment with our intrinsic interests leading to potential growth and development. Those activities can be deeply meaningful to us and may even feel quite profound as we feel them more deeply and spend more time processing them in our minds. There are health benefits to such an orientation as well with improved outcomes across the health spectrum. As a middle-aged soon to be 51 year old with my last child graduating high school and off to college the prospect of shifting my sense of purpose to focus less on parental duties to what intrinsically motivates me is quite real. Fortunately, the existential issue of meaning and purpose in life has always been an object of reflection throughout my life and I have strived to arrange my life in such a way as to allow my daily energy budget to be expended on those issues I am most interested in.
I also take the long perspective and have the additional example of observing how my mother seems to be aging at 73. She’s now living in a seniors-only apartment complex but is still independent. As time has worn on I have weighed whether her situation will become my situation. I have also considered how very different our paths in life have been and how my proactive actions to afford myself certain opportunities has resulted in what will, in all likelihood, be continued opportunities for engagement with issues I feel a personal connection with. So many of the seniors I see fall into oine of the two camps: either they seem to exhibit a sense of purpose and focus on things that keep them mentally active, socially engaged, and experiencing life in a sense beyond themselves or they seem to exhibit an intense inner focus where their purpose appears to be much more narrow and anxiety-filled with greater attention to every ache, pain, and shortcoming (real and imagined).
Barry’s story below of feeling a desire to “just relax” countered by a need to “be a good person” through doing things (feeling productive) is probably typical of most people. For the sensitive person the need to care for ourselves increases as we age, not just the need for self-management but the way we live our lives overall. As the demands of parenthood decrease for most of us (though more seniors are now raising grandkids) our focus can shift to the incedible sense of freedom and opportunity we should feel to realign our lives to become more satisfying in a personal sense. Too many of us simply continue on as we always have without taking advantage of the opportunity to really “shake things up.” Obviously, some HSPs will cringe at the notion of “shaking things up” but many would benefit from a complete change of scenery and routine. High sensation seeking highly sensitive people live in a state of continual “shakeup” so our focus is usually on what comes next. In both cases, we should focus on what gives our lives meaning. It is a fallacy to focus on what makes us happy, as happiness is, at best, a fleeting state. The more we engage in activities that give our lives a sense of meaning so why focus on an illusion (happiness)? The more your daily life aligns with your intrinsic interests the greater the likelihood you will feel “happy.”
Lastly, we might ask our selves how do I know what gives my life a sense of meaning? What if you have simply spent your life in pursuit of your daily bread? When daily existence has prodeominantly occupied your time you will likely need to pull back and do some explorations to find things that give your life purpose. I’m not suggesting hobbies here, as that implies superficiality. Rather, focus on where your deep down interests lie and seek ways to explore those more fully. This may involve moving beyond your comfort zone… To contextualize this let’s consider that life is always uncertain and unpredictable, if you don’t believe this simply wait until the next hurricane hits, the next car repair is a priority, or someting simply happens you could have never imagined. The nature of life is flux, to believe otherwise is an illusion. What we can predict is that we will age and that our time is finite. Far from being depressing this reality should envigorate us to explore ourselves, to do things we have never done, or to experience a sense of meaning through a hundred small acts we can do where we live.
This approach to living actually applies across the lifespan. Finding meaning in life through choosing how we spend our time is the great opportunity we have, the responsibility is to honor the gift of life by continuing to grow and develop in every way. As fall begins I invite you to consider what gives your life meaning and how you might rearrange it to be more fullfilling, satisfying, and purposeful.
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.
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