Sunday, June 26, 2011

Are You Too Sensitive?

     "You're just too sensitive!"
     "Can't you just ignore it?"
     "It's not bothering anyone else. Why is it bothering you?
     Do any of these comments sound familiar to you?
     If so, you may be among the 20% of the population that author and psychologist Elaine Aron calls Highly Sensitive Persons, or HSPs.
     Here are some of the identifying traits for HSPs:
  • being easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input
  • being aware of subtleties in your environment that most people appear not to notice
  • having a low pain threshold
  • having a rich, complex inner life
  • being deeply moved by the arts or music
  • being sensitive to and influenced by the moods of others
     In her book The Highly Sensitive Person Aron offers a comforting starting point for those who score as highly sensitive. She is quick to point out, however, that being highly sensitive is not pathological, and it is not a disorder. Rather, Aron believes it is the framework within which you view and experience the world, much like your personality and temperament.
     Aron makes distinctions between being shy and being introverted, for example. She also offers self-help guidelines. Her great gift is to help individuals learn to accept that being sensitive is a positive way of being in the world.
     I agree with much of what Aron writes, which is well-correlated to the foundational research done by Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski, whose work describing what he called overexcitabilities helped define the field of education for gifted individuals, who, as a group, tend to score high on Aron's HSP scale.
     I do believe, however, there is room for further research on one point: I would distinguish the 20% of the population Aron calls HSPs as that group of people whose sensitivities to environmental and internal stimuli are highly tuned. I would submit, however, that the remaining 80% suffers not from a lack of this sensitivity, but rather from a learned suppression of the stimuli that is so obvious to HSPs.
     Our culture primarily rewards those who succeed at all costs; who climb over obstacles without letting anything get them down; who are able to make the so-called hard decisions in life.
     Those are the very individuals whose anxiety and depression can grow and burgeon beneath the surface, putting them at risk for blowing up at any moment when the strain of suppressing further input becomes too great.
     It is to our artists and our poets, our musicians and other masters of  nonverbal communication with traits of hypersensitivity, that we look when our pain becomes so great that words fail us. Talented psychotherapists can also help an HSP navigate the world in a way that encourages and supports their management of emotional and other sensitivities.
     Both artists and therapists can also help those in the Sea of 80% get in touch with what stirs beneath the surface of their lives.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Your Brain in the City

     There's new research to support your hunch that living in the city is driving you nuts. In fact, this study suggests that if you're born in an urban environment, the manner in which you deal with stress is forever influenced by it, even if you move to the country. To quote from the article posted in DiscoveryNews.com:
     A part of the brain called the amygdala, which is involved in anxiety, depression and the fight-or-flight response, was extra active in people who were from cities, the researchers report today in the journal Nature. What's more, that level of activity went up with the size of the city they were from.
     Regardless of where people lived now, results also showed that people who were brought up in cities had higher levels of activity in a region of the brain called the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex (pACC), which regulates the amygdala. And the more years they lived in urban areas as kids, the more active that region was. 
     In people and animals, hyperactivity in the amygdala has been linked to anxiety problems and other mental health disorders. What we show is that if you live in a city, those brain areas that are linked to mental illness are hyperactive, said lead researcher Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, a psychiatrist at the University of Heidelberg's Central Institute of mental health in Mannheim, Germany.
     This study does not deny that there are also benefits to living in a city, such as cultural and business opportunities. It does suggest these benefits might be overshadowed by the price we pay for them with our mental health.
     We're not like Jane Austen, saying that cities are bad and countries are great, said Meyer-Lindenberg. It's not black and white. The thing is that it was known before that cities are a risk factor for mental health, he added. What we show is how and what underlies that in the brain.
     The authors are speaking of anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders, but also of psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia. An argument could be made that these so-called illnesses are a normal reaction to an abnormal environment (densely populated cities), but that's fodder for another post.
     If, as the authors suggest, 70% of the world's population lives in cities by 2050, and if urban dwelling is highly correlated to mental illness, is there no greater mandate for city planners than to build living environments which are health enhancing, and (dare I say it?) health inducing? 
     There is a correlation between intelligence and sensitivity to environmental cues, which I will discuss in another post. Guard yourself to the extent that you can from the stressors of urban dwelling, and remain mindful of the impact urban noise, crowding, frustration, air and light pollution, as well as all that pavement, may have on your mental health.