Being a Highly Sensitive Person

I think this topic might need its own blog all together, but it also belongs here because being a highly sensitive person (HSP) impacts your mental health in positive and negative ways depending on how you nurture the trait. And this is, after all, a mental health blog about how I was forged in the heat of chaos and came out a ball of jittery nerves.

A few sessions ago, my therapist recommended a book titled, The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D. Before I even bought it, I could tell from my therapist’s description that it was for me. My loved ones and I always knew me to be highly sensitive. It is a self-help book about how to work with your high sensitivity as apposed to working against it.

What does it mean to be highly sensitive?

According to Aron,  the term is used to describe people who have extra sensitive nervous systems. After being out and about among sights and sounds for a day, HSPs feel overwhelmed. Aron calls this “over arousal.” But being highly sensitive also means you are more aware of subtleties in your surroundings.

Aron says HSPs take in all the subtleties others miss. What seems ordinary to others, such as loud music or crowds, can be highly stimulating and stressful for HSPs. For example, most people ignore loud music, blaring sirens, glaring lights, clutter and chaos. HSPs are disturbed by them.

When most people walk into a room, they notice the people and the furniture, and that’s about it.  HSPs can be instantly aware of the mood, the freshness or staleness of the air, odors and even the personality of the person who arranged the flowers.

On the note of  odors, I always feel ill or put off by the invasion of an offensive odors in my environment. When we’re driving behind a stinky diesel truck, I gag and my hurts until it goes away.  I like burning candles, incense and oils, especially if they have a therapeutic qualities. I like seasonal scents like apple pie and pumpkin latte candles in the fall and winter. I burn Japanese lavender incense and drink lavender tulsi tea to destress.

If I enter a room, I become immediately aware of people looking at me. I reassure myself that it’s a natural reaction to look at someone who enters a room. But I might actually feel negativity in someone’s look. and tell myself not to think anything of it.  But if I do something that “earns” a nasty look from someone, then I feel like leaving.For example, when I went to a party among a group of fellow journalism students, the girl who lived in the house wanted to turn off the lights and turn on a white, flashing strobe light. When the strobe light came on, I started getting a headache and had to close my eyes. My friend asked the girl if she could turn the light off because I was getting a headache, and that won me a dirty look.

Despite my sensitivities that make me seem like a party pooper to society, I don’t forget that I belong to a group that often demonstrates great creativity, insight, passion and caring–all traits valued by society.

What have I learned so far? 

I want to point out two major facts Aron established in the first chapter.

“Fact 1: Everyone, HSP, or not, feels best when neither too bored nor too aroused.” 

What does she mean by this? An individual will perform best on any task when his/her nervous system is moderately alert and aroused. Too much boredom makes one dull.   You remedy boredom and fatigue by drinking coffee, starting a conversation or listening to music.  Personally, I try to snap myself out of afternoon sleepiness by napping or riding my bike. Coffee in the afternoon makes me nervous.

Too much arousal, and we become stressed, chaotic and frantic. One way I have experienced this mental chaos is by not knowing which priority is the most important even though it would be clear if I were calmer. I could sit around for an hour trying to figure out what task to complete first amounf a lot of different tasks. On better days, I have my priorities and mind more centered. There are also several ways to remedy this. Some may choose meditation, deep breathing, alcohol or drugs.

Either way, humans need to maintain an optimal level of arousal– somewhere in the middle.

“Fact 2: People differ considerably in how much their nervous system is aroused in the same situation,  under the same stimulation.” 

This fact made me think of the times when I was with family or friends, and how I am the first to want to go home. When I have company over, my boyfriend (Will) and our friends will stay up chatting late into the night. After three hours of hanging out, I want to go to bed. If Will and I are at our friends’ home for the Sunday dinners, I am the first the want to go home after two to three hours while everyone else is super talkative.

Another example is if I am out running errands all day, by the time I get home at 4 or 5 p.m., I don’t want to leave the house for the rest of the night. Not even for fun.

Being an HSP makes me and you special. For example, I have  learned that, given the right environment, I am capable of vigilance, accuracy, speed and I can detect minor differences. I am highly conscientious, so I am better at spotting errors and avoiding making errors than non-HSPs.

Each of these traits contributes to my career as a writer.  When I was a copy editor for my college paper, I noticed spelling errors that no one noticed even after three or five editors proofread the draft before me. I am frugal about getting the facts and sources right in my articles.

I usually get tasks done on deadline when I have a deadline. I make fewer mistakes in my writing when I turn a draft into an editor because I proofread a few times. I’m not perfect. I do miss things, but editors in the past have commented on how clean my drafts usually are in terms of grammar.

I’ve honed my skills as a reporter to know what information is needed to make an article less cryptic. I ask better questions and think of more sources.

I am also sensitive to other people’s moods.  I  become frantic  when others around me are angry or annoyed. This dates back to when I lived with my mom who has a terrible temper. I always felt like a hunch-backed lab assistant scurrying for the missing item the mad scientist misplaced.  As a result, when Will or anyone around me gets angry, I feel nervous and awkward. Even if the anger isn’t directed at me,  I somehow feel the need to retreat into the shadows of the mad scientist’s dungeon and wait for the storm to die.

While I am trying to overcome all the negative events in my life that made my highly sensitive nervous system so anxious, I am learning how to strengthen my positive traits to put myself out in the world as a writer. Whether you know it or not, the world needs you.







Catalina Ferro performs “Anxiety Group”

It is amazing that you find things on the Internet that you weren’t looking for to begin with. Take this spoken word poem called “Anxiety Group.” While browsing the web for feminist spoken word poets, I found this in “related videos” (or something like that).  The title clicked with me, so I clicked the link. Here it is.

Why it’s important to keep an anxiety journal

Every time I go to a therapist, I draw a blank on specific topics to talk about. I always have broad topics such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks and so on. But there is always something bugging me that I forget about once I start talking to a therapist. That’s why I just started keeping a journal to record my panic attacks, anxiety, depression and when I have to take klonopin.

The process of keeping a journal challenges me to have a dialogue with myself. I pose these basic questions: What’s causing my intense fear/depression? Is it worth worrying about? If not, let’s acknowledge the anxiety and let it go. What’s bringing me down? What can I do to overcome depression on a daily basis?

But it’s not that easy to “let it go.” Often, the anxiety builds up no matter how much I assure myself that there is nothing to be anxious about. Even if there is nothing to be anxious about,that doesn’t stop my mind from worrying. 

The more stressors in my life, the harder it is for me to function. I just become an emotional rollercoaster going from one extreme emotion to another. It’s important to understand the cause of those emotions in order to come closer to healing.

These are all things to write in a therapy journal because these feelings, thoughts, and episodes are all pieces of the puzzle of your mind. Piecing these fragments together will give you and your therapist a better idea about what coping strategies will or will not work.

That’s another thing to record: coping strategies. Whether they work or not, write them in your journal. Record whether they work or not they work. That will help the puzzle come together easier.

Tragic death of cousin gets me thinking

It has been a long time since a family member died. I was 10 when my great-grandpa passed away. I clearly remember the veteran funeral as though it were yesterday. I also remember crying a bit. At the same time, I’ve come to realize he lived a good, long life.  Death is sad, yet expected when the person is 83 years old.

Last night, I received a somber phone call from my brother telling me our 19-year-old cousin died in a head-on collision in Michigan. I was shocked and sad. First, I felt numb. It was like my brain froze and could only focus on the thought of our cousin dying violently in a car accident.

All I could say over and over was, “This is so sad.” It is sad. Most of all, it is shocking. This wasn’t an 83-year-old relative dying in the hospital from a stroke. A 19-year-old boy died due to the carelessness of another driver.

The only way I’ve been coping with my cousin’s death so far is reading the news report of the accident over and over again. The report stated that only one driver died after being trapped in his car.

My cousin was working his way through college with grand plans ahead of him, and someone put an end to that.

His mother posted the tragic news on Facebook this morning. Reading it was like hearing it all over again for the first time. People sent their prayers for comfort. I thought to myself, “Let them have their prayers if it consoles them.”

I don’t seek comfort in religion.  I can’t buy that he’s in Heaven with God, and that his death was planned by God. None of that makes sense to me. What makes sense is he’s dead because a careless driver wasn’t looking where he was going. Even when I did believe in God, I never found comfort in thinking my loved ones were with him.

We don’t pick when our time comes, and  that has always bugged me. Death is one of those things out of our control, and it drives me nuts.

I also want to offer consoling words to his brothers who aren’t doing as well as he was with his education.  I will not send prayers, but I will tell them this: “Please learn from his death, and spend as much time with your parents as possible. Seek out grief counseling if you need to. Don’t succumb to alcohol, drugs or reckless behavior, because your parents don’t want to bury any more of their children.” 

I never thought our next family reunion would be a funeral, but I will be there.  I hope my aunt, uncle and their sons can find a way to make their family whole again, as broken as they are now.


A letter to my 10-year-old self

Dear 10-year-old self,

If I could go back in time and defend you against the adults pressuring you to be more feminine, I would. It’s a shame that they couldn’t see and appreciate that you were happy the way you were, even if it was just a phase. Even though you dressed like a boy, acted like a boy and wanted to be called “Mike” for a few years, you still stuck to what you believed despite the pressure from family to be more feminine. Family feared you were going to be gay, but you stuck to your guns.  You knew who you were and what you wanted even if you were 10. That’s great. Most 10-year-old girls are worrying about going on diets and losing weight to fit into dresses. You never gave that a second thought.

If I could say anything to those adults, here is what i would say:

“Shame on you for taking your insecurities out on a child. All you could see was a girl trying to be a boy, thus tipping your value system on its head. In your system, girls need to stick to their roles and boys stick to their roles. This child comprehends the danger of gender roles and sees a harmful patriarchy that she fiercely resists. Love this about her. Nurture this attitude. No matter what you were raised to believe, no matter how old you are, you can always learn moral lessons from your children. This 10-year-old me is trying to teach you that gender does not define who we are. We can break societal barriers erected to keep us ‘in our places.’ ”

Little Me,  I want you to go and tell that victim-blaming guidance counselor to go fuck himself. I want you to ignore the bullies and continue to be yourself. If you could talk to me now, I want you to know that there will be challenges in overcoming more bias along the way, but you learn to face it head on and write about it in a blog. You will have anxiety disorders and depression and write about it in a blog, too.

Every day, the system will try to keep us down, but you and I will fight it all the way.

I hope this reassures you rather than discourages you. I want this letter to give you strength to continue the fight against the patriarchy. You may not be this articulate at 10, but I hope my brainwaves reach you across time and give you strength.



ABC show raises controversy among viewers

It’s nice to see viewers discussing shows they love, because part of loving a work of art is being able to discuss question its values. ABC’s Black Box has viewers questioning the sincerity of the creator’s portrayal of bipolar disorder in the main character, Dr. Catherine Black.

In the pilot, Dr. Black’s manic episode raised questions among critics who don’t buy the show’s portrayal.  NAMI’s interview with creator Amy Holden Jones reveals her responses to the criticism. Jones explains  that her inspiration for the character came from her father who experienced his first manic episode in his 40’s while Jones was 9. The stigma forced her family to never openly discuss his illness.

The reporter asked Jones how she handles any perceptions that the show is “glamorizing” going off medication. Jones responds,

Dr. Black’s reaction wasn’t exaggerated, but that doesn’t happen to everybody. . . With Black Box, we try to show experiences from the inside—not just the outside. For example, Catherine tells her therapist she thought she was flying, but in reality she was standing on a balcony and almost fell to her death. She experienced a form of ecstasy, but the reality is her delusion nearly killed her. To me this shows why she is tempted to go off the meds, but also how dangerous and destructive it is.

Jones poses the questions, “How can you see the journey as glamorized by the show when she ends up screaming in an ambulance, having alienated and shocked her fiancé , finishing finally on the beach contemplating suicide?” 

Jones explains that networks and the public want to see a challenge in a character, and lots of lead characters are addicts. We see a lot of alcoholics and addicts in television. For instance, Sherlock Holmes is an addict, but that’s only one part of who he is. Similarly with Catherine, she’s an otherwise complete human being who happens to suffer form bipolar disorder. 

It’s understandable that viewers who regularly take their medications are upset about Catherine skipping her doses.  This is what they see as “glamorizing” going off medication. However, this portrayal is based on Jones’ experience living with a bipolar dad. Her dad went through stages of skipping medication, so it’s only expected that what we see in Black Box based on what Jones witnessed throughout her childhood.

On top of that, Jones never had a conversation with her father about his condition before he died.  So, let’s try to see this from her perspective. The lesson we can take away here is that everyone’s experience with illness, whether mental or physical, is different. While her portrayal of mental illness seems inaccurate to viewers, it’s still based on her unique experience as a witness to a loved one with bipolar disorder.