The Ordinary Magic of Resilience and the Highly Sensitive Person
Tracy Cooper, Ph.D.
It’s been said that resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity, but do we actually appreciate the deeper implications of resilience beyond that superficial dimension? Is resilience that simple and how does it affect the lives of highly sensitive people?
In my book Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career I wrote about the necessity of cultivating a mindset and way of being that allows for us to develop and nourish the best, most creative parts of ourselves in service to our higher instincts. That mindset must be based on developing an attitude toward self-care that approaches a spiritual practice. We HSPs function in a slightly different way than those without the trait, sensory processing sensitivity, and that difference can be exhausting for us as we react to stimuli in our environments that may be positive, negative, or ambiguous. Regardless of the nature of the stimuli we are quick to react emotionally and quick to begin a deep process of feeling, thinking, and observing before we act.
In this brief article I would like to present a few nuggets regarding resilience that will expand our understanding of the concept and raise several important implications we may all reflect on as 2015 closes and a new year begins.
First, let’s establish an expanded definition of resilience to include thinking of resilience as more than a response to stressful events. Resilience, as described by Reich, Zautra, and Hall (2010), focuses on recovery, or the ability to rebound from stress, a capacity to “regain equilibrium quickly and return to an initial state of health.” Further, a second dimension, sustainability, implies the “continuation of the recovery trajectory, even growth and enhancement of function as a result of healthy reactions to the stressful experience.” In this conceptualization resilience is more of a process than simply an outcome. I suggest this is especially applicable for HSPs due to our greater sensitivities and continual nature of stresses in our lives.
It is important to note, even crucial, that not all HSPs are alike. In fact, what is problematic one HSP may not register with the next. Thus, our experiences with stress may vary widely as does our approach in managing the stressful event. Without this acknowledgement of deep diversity in our population, and we are discussing over one billion individuals worldwide, we allow ourselves to fall prey to the human tendency to seek commonality and familiarity, thereby diminishing the reality of each individual expressing the trait in a slightly different way. To establish this point even further let’s consider how we differ.
Each of us comes from a unique culture with various worldviews determining our perceptions about ourselves, other people, and the world we live in. Within that we each inhabit a place in the social structure determined by our socioeconomic status. Our education level further determines much with regard to how we view the world and its many inherent stresses. Even our familial groups and secondary groups, from birth on, contribute in significant ways in imparting reactions to stress and subsequent strategies for managing how we react. Some of us have very good outcomes in stressful circumstances, others do quite poorly and continue to react in ways that damage our emotional, physical, and social selves. Because most people alive today find themselves in an increasingly dynamic and challenging survival environment our cultivation of resilience as a process and an outcome seem extremely advisable. Is resilience difficult to cultivate and is it common in our species?
Resilience is actually a common experience among people of all ages, from children (Garmezy, 1991), to the rest of the lifespan (Bonanno, 2004; Greve & Staudinger, 2006). Though we may all react to initially stressful psychological experiences most of us recover, and even grow from the experience. Indeed, in the most trying of circumstances is when we discover our capacity to rebound psychologically, physiologically, and socially. This does not mean that we may not be the “worse for wear,” rather that our ability to recover from stress is a built-in mechanism that has allowed our species to thrive in any environment, across time with vastly differing challenges. Humans seem to be masters of resilience for the most part, but are there special challenges for the highly sensitive person?
The highly sensitive person reacts emotionally more so than those without the trait.
This means that we may experience an intense emotional reaction triggering internal mental chatter alerting us to dangers (useful in some contexts), imploring us to explore options, or experience anxiety as a result of fear of the event. Many HSPs have learned to tune out some of the mind chatter, or at least minimize its detrimental effects on their ability to recover through careful attunement to what is actually important and what is simply excess mind noise. Others may feel overwhelmed with anxiety, dread, and experience an activation of the fight or flight instinct raising adrenal levels as our bodies prepare to engage or flee. For some the feelings of anxiety and physiological excitement may be so strong they can do nothing but withdraw from the situation and regroup. This instinct to flee may run counter to our strong sense of conscientiousness, which may compel us to engage the experience as best as we can.
The strong emotionality in highly sensitive people makes us quick to react, perhaps overreact in some circumstances, to a potential danger or to an opportunity. The firing of strong emotion awakens the mind and focuses it to a laser like point drawing in all of our capacities in this one moment as we begin to experience an activation of our fight or flight instinct. Adrenaline surges when emotions flare as our bodies prepare themselves for immediate action. These processes are deeply embedded in our DNA as a self-preservation instinct alerting us to immediate danger from animals, natural hazards, or other people who may be aggressive and dangerous.
Let’s make no mistake about these evolved psychological mechanisms. Traits like sensory processing sensitivity likely served to keep us safe from danger, alert us to opportunities for food or mating, and enhanced our ability to function as members of social groups. It is in our modern world where we are far removed from immediate engagement of our capacities to live and survive in the outdoors that even developing an understanding and awareness of these instinctual mechanisms seems like studying an alien species with peculiar dispositions seemingly unsuited to the current sociological structure. Indeed, our strong emotionality still alerts us to immediate danger from aggressive and dangerous people and to potential opportunities for food and mating. The difference in a modern age is we trade currency for food meaning we have adapted our hunting instincts to the working world. In that sense we develop strategies to entice customers to trade their currency for the goods or services we choose to sell often using advertising and marketing with alluring “bait,” similar to a hunting snare. Other comparisons abound in the corporate world of utilizing our hunting instincts, but let’s suffice it to say that we evolved these instincts to aid in our survival.
In mating and relationships we are continually searching the signals others project for potential suitability as mates, even after we are in committed relationships. At times we project our own sexual energy to show interest. Some people do this quite subtlety, while others are more overt. The ability to quickly pick up on these mating cues is intriguing in the highly sensitive person because it eschews traditional notions of potential mates always choosing the strongest or fittest specimens. Sensitivity, in a very real sense, implies a subtle cleverness and creativity based on observation, patience, reflection, and strategy, rather than overwhelming with impulsivity, aggression, and superficiality. Emotionality, as evidenced in the highly sensitive person, may serve as a strong factor in our overall resilience as we quickly attune ourselves to a particular situation and make choices based on our past experiences in similar situations blended with our current observations and instincts. This does not mean that being a person of emotional depth is not challenging. Rather, I am suggesting that emotionality represents a survival advantage individually and collectively. However, emotionality on its own offers little in the way of a survival advantage without a concurrent depth of processing.
Highly sensitive people process all experience more deeply and thoroughly than those without the trait.
Physiological systems are built to bounce back. Only under extraordinary circumstances do the effects of adversity linger preventing sustainable resilience in any meaningful sense. There may be a number of reasons why an HSP may be unable to recover and grow from an adverse experience, but most prominent is childhood experiences of abuse, trauma, conflict, or neglect. An HSP who has experienced adverse childhood events, or ACEs, will likely function in a slightly different way to stresses and adversity than those with no ACEs. Changes in brain connectivity, a lower set point for arousal with a commiserate overreaction to stimuli, and chronic activation of primitive fight or flight instincts skew reactions to adversity in those with ACEs potentially leading to less resilient processes and outcomes.
In HSPs with fewer or no ACEs the depth to which we process all experience may lead us to deeper realizations regarding the adversity, its implications, and its overall contextual significance. As we experience adversity it is a natural reaction to grow and learn from the experience, if possible, and no more so than in HSPs who engage their deep reflective capacity, coupled with a significant drive for meaning, creativity, and innovative solutions. Resilience is “ordinary magic” and is wired into all of us as human beings (Masten, 2001), though there are important cultural differences that may determine how we approach lived experiences. For instance, in Western culture the emphasis is on choice and mastery over the environment, while in Eastern culture full awareness and acceptance of experience, even the most painful, is viewed as essential to gaining an enlightened and joyous worldview (Reich, Zautra, and Hall, 2010).
The world of meaning and choice is paramount for many HSPs as we feel innately compelled to live with meaning and purpose. I suggest that HSPs may be the bridge between Eastern and Western philosophies of consciousness due to our inherent complexity of mind and openness to new experience. As I articulated in Thrive HSPs seem to be people who inhabit a broader range of possible human expression than those without the trait. This inherent dispositional orientation is aided by our natural tendency to think very deeply about every experience we have. Though this predilection may be, at times, overwhelming in and of itself a capacity to examine and reflect on adversity is a greater tool in our thrive toolbox than simple survival of adversity by creating a more thoughtfully crafted future response to similar adversity. This careful weaving of thoughts, actions, and behaviors also ties in very deeply with how culture is created, revised, and passed down. Though we have discussed individual resilience to date there are implications for the role HSPs may play in developing and sustaining community resilience as outlined in the dispositional sketch above. Key to community resilience is HSPs strong empathy. Empathy is the ability to enter the experience of another person fully without judgement feeling what they feel, while offering the type of bonding that can only come from authentic human presence.
Empathy is the single biggest aspect HSPs expressed to me as representing a centrality of common experience in their lives. Surprisingly, empathy plays a decisive role in fostering resilient processes in adverse circumstances. Often we may think of resilience as comprising a tough, rugged, hearty approach to adversity, but actually resilient processes often begin with a willingness to pause for a moment of reflection welcoming a broader view, or other small expression of optimism, positive emotion, or interpersonal sensitivity. When we connect interpersonally we are stronger than when we struggle alone. As social creatures we have only survived through cooperative efforts rooted in empathy for others.
The social environment, because we all live within it to one degree or another, is a significant source of strength in overcoming adversity and growing from the experience, though we may experience growth from adversity without the presence of others. Social psychologist Charles Horton Cooley (1902) offers us an interesting way to view how we formulate perceptions of ourselves. Cooley created a concept called the “looking glass self,” to illustrate how we only come to a self-image through understanding how others perceive us. This process continues throughout the life course and is continually informed by social interactions with our in-groups and out-groups. Here too we see that human beings prefer to adopt collective social identities based on in-group loyalties. That is to say, we develop a sense of identity as a result of comparing ourselves to our in-groups, while contrasting them against out-groups. This is also true of our very own HSP community in which we see such strong trends toward seeking commonality at the cost of understanding true diversity.
Helgeson and Lopez (2010) offer us the following model to help us visualize several pathways to the resilience process.
In the above visual we can see that if we choose to sidestep disclosing our stressor to our social network we proceed directly to cognitive processing and potentially some growth, but we forgo any received support or growth support, plus we have fewer resources at our disposal to process or post-process the adversity. Sometimes it may be true that we are better off working through a problem on our own, due to lack of interest on the part of others, expressed disagreement, or apathy. In general, though, the support and potential relationship growth and closeness are worth any personal risk entailed with seeking support from our social networks.
I suggest for contemplation that too often we HSPs spend too much time ruminating on our stressors and fail to enlist the help of others. Some of us, no doubt, have experienced mishandling at the hands of others who neither understood why an adverse event affected us so deeply and why we can’t seem to just “get over it.” When one goes to the well for help, but finds the well tainted or dry it is less likely in the future that we will seek that help. I suggest we often choose the wrong well to go to for help. Knowing who is trustworthy and interested is often a minefield at a time when we may be least able to discern which step will blow up in our faces and which will lead us to real help.
The depth of processing we HSPs are known for, combined with careful observation and reflection make, what I feel, is a potent combination for true resilience as a process and an outcome. In my view highly sensitive people deal with more adversity than those without the trait due to our heightened sensitivities to many stimuli. Some of us are more able to grow from adversity than others, but all of us seem to be well-equipped to learn from each experience, strengthen our personal confidence, and contribute to greater resilience in our social groups.
As we boldly enter 2016 I offer that we may continue to face adversity, but by being aware that each experience holds within it the potential for new growth and development each new experience offers us the opportunity to cast greater meaning in our lives if we can see beyond adversity to the greater reality of our common struggle as human beings on a finite planet in the infinite ocean of space and time.
(In subsequent posts on this blog I will offer varying views of resilience and how they may apply to the lives of highly sensitive people. Stay tuned!)
Bonanno, G. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events? American Psychologist, 59, 20-28.
Cooley, C. (1902). Human Nature and the Social Order, New York: Scribner’s.
Garmezy, N. (1991). Resiliency and vulnerability to adverse developmental outcomes associated with poverty. American Behavioral Scientist, 34, 416-430.
Greve, W., & Staudinger, U. (2006). Resilience in later adulthood and old age: Resources and potentials for successful aging. In D. Ciccheti & D. Cohen (Eds), Developmental psychopathology: Risk, disorder, and adaptation (2nd ed., pp. 796-840). New York:Wiley.
Helgeson, V., & Lopez, L. (2010). Social support and growth following adversity. In Reich, J., Zautra, A., and Hall, J. (2010), Handbook of Adult Resilience. The Guilford Press, New York: NY.
Masten, A. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56,227-238.
Reich, J., Zautra, A., and Hall, J. (2010), Handbook of Adult Resilience. The Guilford Press, New York: NY.