It should be no surprise with the rapid advances in genetics these days that they have identified a gene that may help to explain what a lot of folks call the Highly Sensitive Person. A researcher at the University of California Berkeley, Dr. Levenson, postulates that a variation of the serotonin transporter gene on chromosome 17 may may account for people who feel their emotions very acutely. This serotonin transport gene can have two common variations-- the "short allele" or the "long allele" version. It's the short allele version that seems to be responsible for some people feeling things more intensely. This gene variation also seems to be correlated to higher rates of depression, anxiety and ADHD. Which bolsters what clinicians who work with those populations have noticed for decades-- that if you have anxiety, depression or ADHD, you are likely to have not just one of those but two or even all 3. And that if you have some of those difficulties you are also likely to see those same problems in blood relatives, hinting that there is a genetic linkage.
Dr. Levenson posted a fantastic youtube video that explains his research in a very understandable and fun format (he even uses emojis!). If you resonate with the idea that you tend to feel things more deeply than others you may want to look at other sources of information about this trait such as the wonderful website The Highly Sensitive Person which has books, videos, research links, self-tests and more.
So if you are a highly sensitive person what can be done about it? Well, years ago I encountered a theory in psychology that seemed so completely WRONG to my therapist's ear-- that the goal of therapy should not be to change people but teach people who they already are and how to live the in the world given who they are.
Anyone who reads my blog or does therapy with me knows that I am a huge fan of splitting the difference, finding the middle path or blending opposing ideas. So while at first I balked at what sounded like a completely hopeless perspective-- that we should not try to help people even try to change-- I came to realize that there is room for some of this perspective in my view of personal growth. Whether you are a Highly Sensitive Person, someone with ADHD (you can be both of course), an extrovert or on the spectrum, all of which are known to be highly genetically determined, or have some other genetically linked trait, you CAN make some changes to how you operate in the world. And, at the same time, there WILL be things you cannot change and, as the old 12-step saying goes, it's learning "the wisdom to tell the difference" that is the key to really thriving. So if the idea of a highly sensitive person resonates with you I encourage you to learn more about it and educate those that are close to you so that your behaviors do not get misinterpreted. Then set about learning how you can navigate the world with a little more comfort.
A few examples of HSP that I have known or worked with-- one woman notices that too much noise is very overwhelming for her, so she has skin-colored ear plugs that she wears if she is going out in public (like the mall, a noisy restaurant, etc). They dampen the ambient sound but she can still hear the people she is talking to just fine. If this idea appeals to you I suggest trying the off-the-rack cheap kind first and if you really love them you can order ones that are more high-end or even have them custom made by shops that cater to musicians.
Another HSP I know gets a lot of anxiety when entering into social situations because of the increased complexity of interactions. The combination of more voices, conversations bouncing around, more eye contact, etc. just jangles her nerves and she used to find herself making excuses and not joining into groups. Once she learned that she was an HSP she experimented with different methods of entering into groups that reduced her feeling of exposure to the increased input. She found that when she enters a room, house, venue, etc. if she can wait a minute (she can pretend to check her cell phone, go find a restroom, etc.) her nervous system has time to acclimate to the new environment. Once she has done that if she is still feeling a bit overwhelmed she can stand sideways to the group (this does not have to be too noticeable, the main thing is the have your torso perpendicular to the group but your head can be facing them). This has an interesting impact on the mammalian nervous system. Mammals are most physically vulnerable when their guts are literally exposed. So when one mammal faces another mammal if their torso is exposed the mammalian brain notices this and there is a deep evolutionary alarm that can sound and may feel like anxiety. This is especially likely if the group includes people you don't know or if you are in an environment you have never been in before (a new restaurant, a new friends house, etc). But by simply turning your torso 90 degrees, like you would if you were fencing, your mammalian brain is more likely to ratchet down the threat level and you will relax more.
For this particular person she even had a third level of "defense" for her nervous system if the first two things did not help enough-- she to develop particular imagery that was settling to her nervous system (if you are not familiar with the amazing power of guided imagery I recommend taking a look into it!). For this person imagining standing behind a huge one-way mirror when she was entering a new group was helpful. In the mental image she could see others but they could not see her. This deactivated her fight-flight response that was predicated on the idea of being seen. Again --to go back to how we are just large bipedal animals dressed in clothing-- being seen is the first step to being eaten. So for some HSP just being looked at can trigger a lot of anxiety. Because the brain, while in some ways is extremely sophisticated, in other ways it is very dumb. Sometimes the brain does not always know the difference between a very well rehearsed imagery and reality (just try thinking about biting into a lemon and see what your salivary glands do). So once this person had locked-in to that image as one that reduced her anxiety and she had rehearsed it numerous times she could call it up when under stress in social situations and it would reduce her feelings of being overwhelmed.
Again I am not suggesting that a HSP can turn themselves into a non-HSP. On some level we are who we are. But learning strategies to help modulate one's innate responses can give us more flexibility in our lives and lead to less stress and anxiety.
If you feel you are an HSP therapy can be a wonderful way to learn about yourself and get some help managing your beautiful but slightly tricky nervous system. Our office offers FREE 30-minute consultations so you can see if any of our therapists would be a good "fit" for you. And if you are an HSP in a relationship couples therapy can be a wonderful way not only to learn about yourself but to have your partner also learn about you in ways that can deepen the intimacy and de-personalize some of the problematic things that can crop up with a HSP in partnerships.
As always I wish you well in all of your endeavors and explorations in life, whether you are an HSP or not. The world has room for all of us and we all contribute in meaningful ways to create the rich diversity of the human condition.
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Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.