Flourishing with Sensory Processing Sensitivity
How to Train Your Mind Away from Anxiety
By Dr. Jud Brewer, Director of Research at Brown University Mindfulness Center
Needless to say, anxiety is on the rise right now. The continuing pandemic and the prospect of a Delta Variant winter; climate change; political uncertainty — rates of anxiety have already been rising for decades, but in the last two years, they’ve skyrocketed.
As a behavioral neuroscientist who’s been studying anxiety and addiction for many years, I believe the key to unwinding this anxiety is understanding what it is and what it isn’t.
First, in contrast to fear, which is an instantaneous response that originates from very old parts of the brain (evolutionarily speaking), anxiety affects the prefrontal cortex, or PFC, a newer part of the brain that helps us to think and plan for the future. The PFC works well when there’s enough information to make a good prediction, but when information is lacking, our PFC can spin out endless versions of what might happen and what you should do. Eventually, the PFC might shut down entirely, creating the conditions for panic.
What this means is that you cannot suppress or think yourself out of anxiety. That’s calling on the PFC to fix the PFC, and it doesn’t work. It also doesn’t work to find some quick fix; anxiety is wired into your brain, and just reading some great tips doesn’t unwire it. Instead, in my book Unwinding Anxiety, I outline a three-step process, which I’ll summarize here. Not surprisingly, all of those steps are based on mindfulness.
1. Become Aware of Habit Loops
It can often be very difficult to be aware that we’re getting anxious, because anxiety creates what I call a habit loop. When uncertainty abounds, we often habitually engage in planning, fretting, checking the news feed, or distracting ourselves. Rarely do these habits provide valuable solutions, but they become so habitual that we may not even notice we’re doing them.
So the first step in unwinding anxiety is becoming aware of these habit loops even when you’re stuck in one. Everyone has their own loops; yours might be procrastination, or numbing out, or compulsive planning. See if you can explore what behaviors you engage in to dispel anxiety. Come to recognize them as coping mechanisms that may be covering up the real issue. And then, with your mindfulness practice as an aide, see if you can be aware of those behaviors when you’re doing them. And then…
2. Focus on the Negative
Whether you know it or not, your brain chooses which habits to adopt based on how rewarding the behavior is. The more rewarding a behavior is, the stronger the habit becomes.
That’s true even if the PFC knows the habit isn’t helpful. For example, most people prefer cake to broccoli. Sugar and fat have a lot of calories, so when we eat cake, part of our brain thinks, Calories— survival! And the habit of reaching for cake instead of broccoli when you’re feeling stressed out gets wired into the brain.
To unwire habits, you can again turn to mindfulness. Turn your mindful attention to what your coping mechanism really feels like, whether it’s doomscrolling or distraction, planning or emotional eating. Don’t investigate this intellectually; use your mindfulness to actually experience it firsthand. Pay attention to the body sensations, thoughts, and emotions that come as a result of the behavior. Gradually, though it may take a while, you will probably become disenchanted from the habit.
Becoming aware of what overthinking and over-scrolling feel like in the moment will teach your brain that they are not that rewarding. For example, planning is like cake— a little tastes good, but too much of it can be counterproductive, as it can induce anxiety about what can go wrong. Ask yourself, What do I get from this? See if you can identify exactly when the scale starts tipping from delicious to neutral to unpleasant.
3. Find a Bigger, Better Option
In place of that not-so-rewarding habit, you can give your brain a bigger, better reward. Mindful awareness can itself be that reward. If you’ve had a good meditation session, you know the feeling: open, expanded, aware. Get to know that experience. Teach your brain – through experience, not through persuasion or self-judgment – how much more pleasant it is than its anxiety habit.
Mindfulness also entails curiosity, which can calm the restless, driven quality of Do Something! that gets our anxiety habit-loops going. In an anxious moment, get curious about what’s happening in the body. Pick a single sensation – where is it? What is it? Is it changing? This curiosity can, itself, be a more fulfilling reward than trying to make your anxiety go away.
Or, get curious about the breath, which has the added benefit of helping you calm down. Slowly breathe in through your nose, right into wherever you feel anxiety in your body (don’t worry about being anatomically correct here, just go with it). Hold it there for a few seconds, and then, when you exhale, imagine some of that feeling flowing out with your breath. Give your brain something more rewarding and more pleasant to do than plan, worry, or speculate about the future.
Mindfulness is at the center of all three steps. It helps you notice when anxiety-driven behavior may be present, it helps you feel the effects of that behavior more clearly, and it provides you with a better option. Please, don’t try to think, judge, or persuade yourself out of anxiety. Over time, if you lean into the science and trust your own experience, you can train your mind away from anxiety, one moment at a time.
My Journey as a Sensitivity Researcher
By Prof. Michael Pluess
Let me start by admitting that I never planned to pursue an academic career in the first place. As a result, I don’t have a typical university professor background. Whilst growing up in Switzerland, music was my main passion. I played various instruments and dreamt of touring the world as a bass guitarist. And in order to fund my music studies after completing high school, I ended up training and working on the side as a lab technician in analytical chemistry. But after having toured for a few years as a professional musician, I realized that what brought me even more alive were deep conversations with others about things that really mattered—one of the hints I saw later of my own sensitivity. Consequently, this insight led me to study psychology with the aspiration of becoming a psychotherapist.
The Path to Differential Susceptibility
Fast forward a few years and with an BSc and MSc under my belt from the University of Basel (Switzerland), I moved to London (United Kingdom), to work towards a PhD under the guidance of Prof Jay Belsky, a renowned developmental psychologist. In our first meeting, Jay introduced me to his intriguing idea of differential susceptibility. This theory suggests that children differ in how strongly their development is shaped by their environment, with more “susceptible” children being more influenced by both negative and positive environmental exposures. Although a fairly simple idea, this made a lot more intuitive sense to me than the traditional perspective taught in my psychology courses which focused exclusively on the negative impact of early adversity.
Unsurprisingly, differential susceptibility became the focus of my doctoral work. In my early work with Jay, we explored infant temperament and genes as indicators of heightened susceptibility to parenting and childcare. As the theory predicted, we found that certain temperament traits or genes were associated with an increased vulnerability to the negative effects of harsh or neglectful care but also a heightened responsiveness to warm and supportive parenting and childcare.
Along Came Sensory Processing Sensitivity
In early 2008, I reached out to Dr. Elaine Aron, with a hunch that her work on sensory processing sensitivity may have much in common with the theory of differential susceptibility. In fact, in my first email to Elaine (I just checked my archive) I wondered whether people characterized by high sensory processing sensitivity might be those who are particularly susceptible to both negative and positive environmental influences. After this initial exchange we stayed in touch, updating each other on our respective research and thoughts on sensitivity and susceptibility.
After I completed my PhD, I ran a study in a secondary school in East London evaluating an intervention aimed at promoting psychological resilience in children. I was particularly interested in finding out whether highly sensitive students would benefit more from the programme. At that time, we didn’t have a sensitivity questionnaire tailored specifically for children. So, together with Elaine and others, we developed and tested what would be known as the Highly Sensitive Child scale. And indeed, we found that sensitive children did benefit more from the intervention than less sensitive children.
This study of high sensitivity was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration with the Arons and branched out into other joint research projects, especially regarding the measurement of sensitivity in children and adults. One important finding was that people tend to fall into one of three sensitivity groups: about 30% of the population are highly sensitive, another 30% are relatively low in sensitivity, and the remaining 40% are somewhere in between. These groups are sometimes referred to as orchids, dandelions, and tulips.
The Value of an Umbrella—the Concept of Environmental Sensitivity
As my research into sensitivity advanced, it became clear to me that what the three leading theories on sensitivity (sensory processing sensitivity by Elaine and Art Aron, differential susceptibility by Jay Belsky, and biological sensitivity to context by Tom Boyce and Bruce Ellis) have in common is that all three suggest that some people are especially strongly affected by environmental influences. In order to facilitate research across these related yet different concepts, I integrated the three theories into the framework of environmental sensitivity. Importantly, environmental sensitivity doesn’t replace the three long-standing theories of sensitivity, but instead seeks to combine different aspects of the theories to provide a broader and more comprehensive perspective.
Research on sensitivity has come a long way since my early days as a PhD student, with a growing number of researchers exploring the different aspects of sensitivity today. As a result, we have much more evidence-based knowledge and this continues to grow year-on-year. In order to make this valuable body of research more easily accessible to the general public, we launched a researcher-led website in 2020: www.sensitivityresearch.com. Through this website, we provide reliable information and resources on sensitivity, share recent research findings, and offer the same self-tests online that we also use for our academic research (all for free). It is a really exciting time for all who are interested in sensitivity and there is a lot more we can learn about this important trait.
What About Me? Yes, Also Highly Sensitive
I realize that sensitivity probably always played an important role in my life even though I didn’t have the right language to describe it until I began to research it myself. Early on in the research, I thought I was probably in the middle group, a tulip, because like many men, especially those with supportive childhoods, I was not really having problems with my sensitivity. Sure I could get stressed and overstimulated, but I figured everyone did.
I see now, however, that I am more likely a healthy and fortunate orchid. As a child, my sensitivity certainly contributed to the intense connection I experienced with music. At the same time, I also deeply enjoyed analysing and thinking through complex issues. Indeed, sensitivity may account for my unusual path that includes analytical chemistry, music, psychology, and finally an academic career. It could be the secret thread that weaves all of these rather different experiences together. Looking back through the eyes of a developmental psychologist, I’m particularly grateful that my parents provided an environment that allowed me to embrace my high sensitivity and run with it wherever it would take me. According to the theory of differential susceptibility, it may be exactly my heightened sensitivity that enabled me to benefit so much from the positive aspects of my childhood environment and to acquire the creativity, confidence, and resilience that are required for the often challenging life as a university professor.
An Amazing Future for Research on HSPs
As I write, we have various projects on sensitivity under way, including one on sensitive children in primary school and a new project on HSPs and their experience of psychotherapy. There are still so many more avenues to be explored in detail, such as the genetic and neurological bases of sensitivity or the development of sensitivity across the life course. Recently, we started a monthly webinar for doctoral students from all over the world working on the topic of sensitivity, with the aim of exchanging ideas and promoting collaboration cross-culturally. Let’s see what comes next as this exciting journey continues!
Movie I’ve seen twice in 2 weeks and will see again. Do not miss this film and if possible see (and hear) on a large screen.
Think every hs person should read this. I have felt understood and loved reading this translation of Rilke.
“Gripped with fear, he went out into the dark forest, opening himself to all the light and to all the fragrances and to the many pious sounds of the forest that sang louder than the confused stammering of his thoughts.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke