Highly sensitive children have highly sensitive senses that make them highly aware of their environments. But this gift can become a nightmare in today’s polluted world. Sensing intensely means getting affected more greatly by toxicity. These days, toxicity levels have reached incredibly frightening proportions. But the issues are difficult to understand as multiple problems overlap in what affect the senses.
Stress the Invisible Toxin
Both holistic and modern medicine now agrees, stress is damaging us in incredible ways. Stress, real or imagined, can cause a host of other symptoms including chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and panic disorder. Stress can be caused by personal, physical or environmental factors. Some of us may be more sensitive to the foods and water we ingest, personal hygiene products, toxins, chemicals, medications, or our environments (electromagnetic energy fields, molds, pollens, cleaning products, and synthetic materials). For others, deep emotions that can’t be faced or felt may surface as physical symptoms as an expression of our hidden emotions, or show up as food sensitivities and other immune system decreased abilities, which can last for months.
One thing that people dealing with sensory sensitivities must remember is that the psychological make up of the individual and their ability to filter the various inputs that they must encounter in social interactions are important to how these children formulate their identity. They process more input than most because, to them, it is a vital form of communication.
Imagine what it is like to have to go to school and everyday being blinded by a very bright, extremely hot light pointed directly into your eyes. Now imagine that touching or being touched hurts no matter how gentle the touch. Think of the many times in learning situations when your skin is stimulated. Now imaging your hearing is super sensitive, imagine what the noise of 30 students in classroom is like when you can clearly hear whispers. Imagine that you absorb the energy of all the people around you as your own, their stress, their joys, their sorrows but without being able to make them out as someone else’s. Now imagine food sensitivities are making you feel disoriented or in a fog, or pain is jabbing you… How well would you be able to focus in any of these situations? Or when being so anxious that your mind feels blurry.
According to researcher Michael Gershon, a lot of information about our environment comes from our gut. “Remember the inside of your gut is really the outside of your body,” he says. So we can see danger with our eyes, hear it with our ears and detect it in our gut. (new scientist, 2010)[i].
Stressors release cortisol in the gut and I have noticed that my sons’ behavior change drastically. My more extroverted child behaves more like an ADHD child, with loss of memory, absent-mindedness, decreased immune system function, whereas my more introverted child withdraws and becomes angry when they have been stressed out (by school or by people). Brain physiology affects our temperaments in drastic ways and influences how we absorb hormones. Researchers know that elevated levels of cortisol have an impact on our brains. On the young, these effects can lead to major neurological changes that create in the long term new brains that shut out the over chemical stimuli. Some research now suggests that long exposer to cortisol can lead to behavioral changes. In 2014, Medical researchers, studying the effects of permanent stress on the immune system, demonstrated that permanent stress affects immune cells that will in term have a damaging effect on and cause changes to the brain that may result in mental disorders (Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum, 2014)[ii].
If the stimulation is too intense, could that lead to a complete withdrawal for an introvert and a body overreaction for an introvert? I know for myself that when I suffer traumatic levels of stress, I need to fall asleep, while one of my children needs to move. Clearly the reactions of our brains are different, yet all of us are swollen after a period of stressed. This will lead to a three months weight gain in my case, and loss of attention in my son’s case. As we saw in chapter 3, introverts process cortisol very differently than extroverts. What brings pleasure to extroverts via release of cortisol is traumatic for introverts. Could the epidemic of obesity we are witnessing be linked to stress?
The link between cortisol and weight gain is being demonstrated. A research study done at Penn State and Johns Hopkins University, suggests that children who have poor responses to stressors are at risk of becoming overweight or obese:
“We found that older kids, ages 8 to 11, who exhibited greater cortisol release over the course of the procedure had significantly higher body-mass indices [BMI] and consumed significantly more calories in the absence of hunger than kids whose cortisol levels rose only slightly in response to the stressor,” Francis said. “We also found that kids whose cortisol levels stayed high — in other words, they had low recovery — had the highest BMIs and consumed the greatest number of calories in the absence of hunger.”(Penn State, 2013)[iii]
Why is this affecting some more than others? To understand some of the underlying issues, we must continue to look at how our genes function.
[i] Hadhazy, Adam (2010). “Think Twice: How the Gut’s “Second Brain” Influences Mood and Well-Being”. Scientific American. Scientific American. Feb 12, 2010
[ii] Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum. “Mental disorders due to permanent stress?.” ScienceDaily. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/11/141121082907.htm (accessed November 28, 2014).
[iii] Penn State (2013). “Poor Stress Response may lead to obesity in children”. Penn State News. Feb 14, 2013. http://news.psu.edu/story/264003/2013/02/14/research/poor-stress-responses-may-lead-obesity-children.