Wednesday 27 February 2019

Treating highly sensitive persons

I led a workshop the other day on self-criticism and got the intruiging questions whether I thought that highly-sensitive persons were more likely to be self-critical than others. I forced me to once more dive into the scientific evidence around highly sensitive persons or HSP.

HSP is a person who seem to experience sensations more intensely than others be it emotions, sounds, touch or light. Want to know if you are HSP? - take the test here. The traits, that is found in roughly 20% of the population, has been quite debated, especially due to lack of scientific evidence. Recently I heard that there is testing indicating if you have a more easily triggered nervous system which got me thinking about the phenomena that psychologist Elaine Aron has described as HSP. In my clinical practice I've also met people who seem to just experience things a bit more intensely than others.

So what do we know so far? Seems like there is actually scientific evidence that HSPs process and experience things a bit differently. A recent study shows that HSP brains responds to dopamine differently.

Dopamine is the brain's reward chemical. It's what makes you "want" to do certain things, and then feel a sense of victory or happiness when you do them.

Further more a 2014 study with functional brain imaging research found that HSPs had consistently higher levels of activity in key parts of the brain related to social and emotional processing. This higher level of activity kicked in even in tests involving strangers, showcasing HSPs' ability to extend compassion to people they don't personally know. (The effect was still highest with loved ones, however). The study also show that the attention and awareness when interacting with others is heightened for HSPs which could explain why HSPs sometimes find that kind of interaction overwhelming. Other brain studies show that HSPs emotional activation in the brain is higher than non-HSPs. A HSP’s brain is wired differently and the nervous system is highly sensitive with a lower threshold for action (2). This hyper-excitability contributes to increased emotional reactivity, a lower threshold for sensory information (e.g. bothered by noise, or too much light), and increased awareness of subtleties (e.g. quick to notice odors).'

When reading this I realised how well Compassion focused therapy responds to these difficulties as we practice how to downregulate the sympathetic nervous system and activating the calming parasympathetic nervous system. We also work with understanding and regulating emotions.
I hope there will be more studies in this area that can shed more light on the phenomena and hopefully also explore the link with self-criticism.

Read more

Aron, E.N., Aron, A., Jagiellowicz, J., 2012. Sensory processing sensitivity: a review in the light of the evolution of biological responsivity. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Rev.16 (3), 262–282.

Pluess, M., Boniwell, I., 2015. Sensory-processing sensitivity predicts treatment response to a school-Based depression prevention program evidence of vantage sensitivity. Pers. Ind. Differ. 82, 40–45.

Homberg, J.R., Schubert, D. Asan, E. & Aron, E.N. (2016). Sensory porcessing sensitivity and serotonin gene variance: Insights into mechanisms shaping environmental sensitivity. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. 71, 472-483.

Monday 25 February 2019

Responding to the self-critic

It is a common belief that working with your self-critic means that we are supposed to get rid of it. Some methods would actually promote this but it can be a tricky thing to do. One of the reasons is that we often find that the self-critical side of us has purpose and meaning and we harbour a fear of what will happen if we were to rid it completely. In Compassion focused therapy we work with trying to uncover what the function of the self-critic is to us. Understanding the purpose it has, and has had, in our lives is an important step in responding to it with Compassion.

So am I self-critical? Yes! Over the years I've gotten to know my self-criticism pretty well and it has changed tone and shape but it is still there. At times when I'm stressed or tired the little voice will appear in me and judge me and compare me to others, just as it does for everyone else.

What has changed?
I learned an alternative in Compassionate responding that work as a counterbalance to the criticism. I've also found acceptance for the role the critic has had in my life and I have a greater understanding of why it shows up at times. Its protective role in my life is clearer to me now and I have more Compassion to it as a life strategy. One  of the most helpful things was to learn to separate the critical voice from myself. That in turn helped me to distinguish between helpful self-correction and less helpful judgement and criticism. When I realised that we need self-correction and that it is "allowed" to make mistakes and then correct them something really clicked with me.

Compassionate self-correction means focusing on the future. "Given that this has happend what change do I want for the future to help me?" "Is there something I need to learn or develop?" I use this a lot in my every day life when things don't turn out the way I want them to. It helps me to move forward instead of getting caught in guilt and shame. Compassionate self-correction also means taking responsibilty for your mistakes or if you've hurt someone. By adopting a compassionate approach it is possible to hold both the other persons hurt and your own hurt withouth it causing a conflict. It allows for me to do so without comparing or judging my hurt as greater than the others.

My colleage helped me with that so beautifully one day when I was upset over an argument I had had with my husband. She asked what my hurt was; what my suffering was, and I told her. Then she asked what I thought my husbands hurt might be and what his suffering was. The questions forced me to move out of my comparing mind and into a more empathic mind and when doing so I lost the will to hold on to my anger. When I could see that he was hurting just as much as me then I was able to look at the conflict from the outside rather than from an angry place. I often come back to these questions now when I work and when I get stuck with different things. When I identify my own hurt and then turn my gaze towards the hurt of others with an self-correcting approach I find I am more likely to actually take ownership rather than get stuck in a shaming and blaming game that we so often get stuck in when we are absorbed by our own emotions.