Highly sensitive children are often healthy. Unfortunately, in our modern world, their ability to notice subtle changes in the environment can trigger major sensory stress. As we saw in chapter 4, the world that we have created can provoke many negative reactions and affect their behaviors in profound ways. As many researchers have demonstrated in the last decade, the body is a sensory system, our eyes, ears, mouth, nose, and skin are sensors, which take inputs from our surroundings that the body processes and reacts to via chemical, physical and social behaviors. Food, chemicals and other sensory inputs affect our hormonal balances, our nervous and other systems much more than previously believed. In a world full of toxicity, these reactions are the healthy responses of a sensitive system.
The senses are the connection between the body and the mind but the notion of sensory processing that prevails in modern medicine is still based on a disembodied idea of medicine that split the body from the mind, attributing their treatment to distinct fields, medicine for the body and psychiatry for the mind (Goffman, 1961)[i]. This explains why OTs and other medical specialists continuously define sensory processing differences as disorders. Our lack of appreciation for the role the senses play in our health, has led to sensory difference been categorized as a disability. Sensory processing sensitivities cannot be acknowledged without some sort of medical diagnostic, three exist: gifted, adhd or autism. In the modern health system, an adhd diagnostic (and potentially soon autism) tend to lead to drug intake to reduce what are considered deficiencies, without an attempt at eliminating the cause.
Our Cartesian cultural understanding of the senses has created such a separation between the mind and body that we no longer understand that sensory processing differences exist and these gifts get misdiagnosed as disabilities. In my family’s experience, modern doctors rarely make the connection between sensory stress and a child’s digestive and behavioral problems. In the case of my children modern medicine’s approach to health has been a disaster and my children have often had to suffer the dire consequence of doctors’ ignorance about HSP health. My youngest son has been exposed to antibiotics for conditions that I now understand did not warrant it. In the process, his intensely sensitive digestive system has been greatly compromised which has in turn affected his mental health.
Part of the difficult is that we all exist on a unique sensory spectrum and the cause of reactions is going to vary for each individual. Some of us need higher level of stimulations in some senses and fuller disengagement in others. For instance, my family is a blend of introverts and extroverts. The introverts need mental, social and sensory rest to feel well. They hyper-focus and social life is a distraction that is often painful and silence is important to their wellbeing. They shut out input when it is too intense and eventually get angry when overwhelmed. They turn off the communication system to not feel what others feel. The extroverts on the other hand, are wanderers who require much more sensory stimuli, a lot of emotional and physical interactions with others and the world in order to feel complete. That being said, they also get over-stimulated by certain inputs and under stimulated in many situations and often need to control a situation to feel safe. When they get overwhelmed or underwhelmed, they act it out, letting out the energies they need to eliminate. They increase the volume of their communication system to demonstrate what they feel but they also run away from over-stimulation.
This sensorial specificity of each person makes it difficult to abide by any medical “norm” of what is healthy. As I found in our lives, it is empowering people to become self-aware of themselves, to understand how to take care of themselves and advocate for their own unique needs that is key. This has certainly been the case for my family. I had to do my own research and learn to listen to my children by observing them in order to be able to help them. Only understanding our family history and specificities make it possible to create a health system that works for each individual. This is important in today’s world, where many of us are hybrids, whose genetic make up is highly varied and incorporates the traits of many ethnicities. For some, this renders the use of mass produced medical treatments medical knowledge and some nutritional routes ineffective. For instance, my sons, like me, possess Chinese blood, yet physically we look like Northern and Southern white Europeans. This became important in our lives when dealing with my children food sensitivities. They seem to thrive on an Asian diet. My second child can not be given medications as his reactions end up being often more severe than the condition he is being treated for. His body just cannot cope and his immune system decreases to the point where he will become sick for a few months. In other words, modern medicine is toxic to him.
Thankfully, our understanding of health is changing and slowly a more holistic vision of what influences health is emerging. The social health model of the disability rights movement has influenced modern medicine. This model emerged as a reaction to the dominant medical model of disability that saw the body as a machine to be fixed in order to conform to normative values (Paley, 2002)[ii]. This modeled allowed to identify systemic barriers, negative attitudes and exclusion by society (purposely or inadvertently) and to acknowledge that society is the main contributory factor in “disabling” people. In parallel, the introduction of the biopsychosocial model has established a “mind–body connection” into modern medicine. Health is now best understood in terms of a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors rather than purely in biological terms (Santrock, 2007)[iii]. Folk health culture has also influenced our notion of health, and the idea that our environment influences our health is being accepted. For instance, the recovery approach to mental disorder has begun the deinstitutionalization of mental health and resulted in more individuals living in the community.
Gradually, modern medicine is acknowledging the idea that the environment is an important part of our health but until behaviors caused by high sensitivity are addressed as signals of a toxic environment, not a defective child or person, sensory processing sensitivities will continue to be stigmatized as a disability. This is an unfortunate reductionist approach to what we are, given the vast knowledge existing in other cultures regarding highly sensitive senses.
In my research, I have found that other cultures have embraced high sensitivities as gifts to be developed and include sensorial life in their health models. Until the Europeans and British colonization efforts, many systems created their health system around the senses. As a European who did not grow up with access to indigenous culture, I have been amazed to discover the wealth of knowledge and wisdom our ancestors had. The chasm between how modern and traditional (or ancient) medicine deal with the mind-body connection is astonishing. But a sad reality is that our modern paradigms have infiltrated many traditional cultures and unless we help those fighting to keep alive their cultural roots, we are at risk to lose many of the knowledge we need to thrive.
By exploring how other cultures look at health, I discovered that traditional medicine models are plurality by nature. Historically, both American and Asian aboriginal cultures emerged out of Siberia, which is the source of shamanistic knowledge. The various cultures that emerged out of this tradition are quite varied but they have in common to consider the environment as key to health. These oldest health systems were built on the notion of “difference” as being the norm and identity as being deeply rooted in our world and experiences. They address the idea that we are each unique individuals with unique health needs and the notion that people must take on a high level of responsibility for their health and wellbeing and that of their family.
[i] Goffman, Erving (1961). Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. Anchor Books.
[ii] Paley, John (1 October 2002). “The Cartesian melodrama in nursing”. Nursing Philosophy 3 (3): 189–192.
[iii] Santrock, J. W. (2007). A Topical Approach to Human Life-span Development (3rd ed.). St. Louis, MO: McGraw-Hill.