by Roger Easterbrooks
Do you experience a heightened sensitivity to certain noises, light, foods, groups of people, other peoples edges or emotions, or does everyday life feel like just too much stimulus? Do you have frequent feelings of overwhelm and panic? If you experience any one (or more) of the preceding or following indicators, then you are likely an ultra-sensitive person (USP).
labeled as too "sensitive," "thin-skinned," or "emotional"
overwhelmed by being "out in the world"
overly attentive to what is going on all around you
urge to hide in a quiet, sometimes dark, room when things are too much
cancel or dont make plans with others
affected by other peoples moods
highly allergic to foods and environmental conditions
exceptionally intuitive and artistic
Being ultra-sensitive means that you pick up on most of the subtleties around you, no matter what they are. This is because you are deeply tuned in. When the stimuli from these many levels begins to feel too much, a state of overwhelm can happen. You start to operate from a "survival" mode. For example, to cope with the situation you may retreat to be alone in a quiet and darkened room. This is a place where you can regroup and calm down an over-activated nervous system.
Ultra-sensitive people are neither better nor more conscious than anyone else is. They do experience things more intensely and are aware of more of the subtleties in the environment than non-USPs. Some people are ultra-sensitive in only a few areas of their lives, like flying in an airplane or being in a small, cramped space. Others are ultra-sensitive in most or all areas of their lives. This is, I believe, based on your birth (karmic as well as physical), developmental growth, and life experiences.
Being ultra-sensitive is actually a gift, although it does not always feel that way. You have probably been criticized and shamed for the way you have lived or not lived your life. You may have been called too sensitive, emotional, thin-skinned, a complainer, or one who is never satisfied. The story of The Princess and the Pea mirrors an ultra-sensitives character (most often related to women). For men, especially, the title may be "crybaby." These shame-laden labels can tarnish ones life, yet the biggest tragedy comes when you hide or suppress your awareness of the information that this gift reveals to you.
Lets spend some rich and bountiful time inside such a person; remember that one need not have all these indicators present to be ultra-sensitive. There is a heightened sensitivity to the environment. It is challenging to be in the outside world where your input sensors can be easily over-stimulated. You are very intuitive, even prophetic. You know what other people are feeling; your interpretations of such messages are not always accurate, but you know when something is up.
Others moods affect you. You love very deeply and fully. You can be overly conscientious. When you reach the "overwhelm" stage, you usually retreat into a dark room or anyplace away from the situation that has pushed you over the line. You can be sensitive to light, noise, and foods. If you go to the mall on a busy shopping day, you feel it as a massive input of stimuli, where others may only be mildly distracted.
When you get overwhelmed, you respond as if your survival is at stake. In fact, panic/anxiety attacks are a common response to the overwhelm situation. Then it is "run for cover," or for some of us it may even be "go, go, go, do, do, do" even more in an attempt to kill the sensations in that manner. Addictions are born from not being able to tolerate these overwhelmed feelings.
How does one get to be this sensitive? Some of us are born this way; we come in with a different neurological perspective. Some of us are traumatized in the early stages of development and become sensitive, for example, through sexual abuse, or later in life, such as by fighting in a war (post-traumatic stress).
Others get these sensitivities from a skip in their central nervous system, such as a physical abnormality (like mitral valve prolaspe) or chemical and food allergies. Whether you are ultra-sensitive in certain areas of your life or in all areas isnt the only point, for the area in which you are ultra-sensitive is the place where overwhelm is possible, unless you learn to put a "dimmer switch" on your central nervous system and sensory awareness.
How is it for an ultra-sensitive on the job? It is best to find a work environment where you can have your own space to operate. You will not be the most social one at the company water cooler, and will tend to shy away from a lot of contact in large groups. You are very good at what you do the more you are left alone, but this also can bring in the feeling of loneliness. Do you make contact, jump into the game and risk having to cut out early or have a panic attack? It is hard to make good decisions if you are busy dealing with staying alive from having too much input.
Because you tend to be very good at what you do, people will come to you for assistance; in that case, you will receive the acknowledgment you want, but at the possible high cost of having too much contact. Any job where your coworkers can have free access to you will be very challenging. You may not feel like you can escape if the need arises. Here again is the basic challenge for the ultra-sensitive person: when things get to be too much and you need to withdraw, will you have the okay-ness within yourself to do what you need?
Of course, your responsibility is to develop skills that will help you tolerate the sensations of overwhelm. It is also helpful to learn how much and what types of information you can take in before overwhelm happens. In that way, you will be able to take a break, thereby reducing the possibility of over-stimulation.
Your social and intimate relationships provide you with a great opportunity to enjoy the richness of your sensitivities. They also provide you with situations where you can become even more easily over-stimulated. Your ability to tune in to what others are feeling and what they need can be a great asset in any relationship, but this gift must be used wisely. The downside is that you can give yourself away or be intrusive on anothers space.
Clear communication as to what is happening for us is most helpful, for when you go into overwhelm others may see you as being narcissistic. What is actually happening is that you have gone into survival mode, and that, by its very nature, means that you can only pay attention to yourself. At these times, it may be necessary to take time alone away from as many external stimuli as possible. This needs to be presented as a way of taking care of yourself, so that you can come to terms with exactly want your overwhelm is about. Once you are out of overwhelm, then you can return to your regular mode of making contact and interacting.
Boundaries are also very different for USPs. Even when you are clear as to where the other person is and you know what your stand is, you can usually still feel the other almost like it is yourself anyway. That means you have a very unique opportunity to learn about how to stay with yourself as well as to be deeply connected with another. This line between you and another is a thin one, and it is easy to cross over and believe that you have lost yourself. Sometimes it is true: you do lose yourself; other times, it is not. You are totally with yourself, but still acutely aware of the other as well. I feel that this may be a slightly different perspective on boundaries that many psychological therapies dont acknowledge.
On to a few helpful remedies or some answers to the question, "How can I turn down my overly sensitive nature?" There are several basic approaches I suggest. First, find yourself a naturopath or M.D. that has an awareness of this kind of situation or at least will listen openly to you. There are some very important physical aspects of ultra-sensitivity to have checked. You may be having physical symptoms anyway, so this will help you get to the bottom of them. If you adhere to the allopathic system, see if you can find a doctor that leans toward holistic medicine.
Homeopathy and acupuncture are great ways to get support with what is going as well. It really depends on what system will best support you at each stage of your healing. Your adrenals and digestive and elimination systems will all likely need attention after years of dealing with the stress that a state of overwhelm can create.
Paying attention to your past and current emotional states is also crucial, not only from the point of healing old wounds but to learn the skills that allow you to embrace your gift. Ultra-sensitivity is not something to get rid of, but to learn how to use more wisely. Make sure your therapist has this foundation.
A counselor with psychosomatic (body therapy) experience can be very helpful. Remember that there is a slightly different perspective to keep in mind when working with this gift, as I mentioned previously when discussing the issue of boundaries. The reason for the importance of the body therapy (I do not mean hands-on body work at this time) as a part to include in your healing is to learn how to tolerate the sensations, feelings, and emotions that get activated when overwhelm creeps up. Talk therapy is important, but without the body component, you will not be able to learn how to stay centered in the middle of overwhelm.
Added into this "outside" support mix is the way you treat yourself. If you dont already see your heightened sensitivities as a gift, it is harder to be gentle with yourself as you explore the challenges of this kind of life. You were given this capability for a reason, not to cause you harm, even though at times you feel hurt and uncomfortable. Remember: we are all in this together; it is okay to feel a lot, even when you dont know what to do with all of it.
Roger Easterbrooks, M.B.A., an ultra-sensitive and creator of the Heart of Intimacy Relationship Intensive, is trained in intuitive and traditional healing methods. Reach him at (206) 346-2268 or <