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.