When everything is lost, and all seems darkness, then comes the new life and all that is needed. -Joseph Campbell
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.
Genes: Each body as a unique health system influenced by the environment
Recent research findings indicate that we are part of a diverse ethnic pool. This has significant implications for how we understand our bodies and minds. Our genetic make up and our environment all influence who we are and how we perceive and receive the world.
For instance, the New Scientist article “ D may increase IVF success – for some people”[iv] explained how looking to confirm that vitamin D plays a role in conceiving, Briana Rudick, at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, and colleagues compared vitamin D levels and IVF success rates in 188 white and Asian women. White women who had the recommended level of vitamin D were four times more likely to get pregnant than white women who were deficient in the vitamin. The reverse was true for Asian women – those with the lowest vitamin D levels were most likely to get pregnant (Rudick et al, 2012)[v].
In other words, the use of vitamin D by the body varies in accordance to our ethnicity. Each human species has its own particularities originally based on environmental needs. This kind of reversal of the roles of vitamins within different ethnics is very important to consider and can be very dangerous.
Turns out, our genetic history has a direct impact on our health. But it is also known that the environment affects our genetic body as well. Geneticists now know that RNA, the junk DNA, is not junk but the adaptable part of our genes. They react to environmental stimuli and signal the DNA to change the type of protein it produces, depending on what the environment requires. DNA is not all pre-programmed; RNA changes the programming to fit the environment (Heinrichs, 2012)[vi]. I would not be surprised if in the case of extremely highly multi-sensory gifted children the only way to survive over-stimulation is to shut down their communication and sensory systems in order not to go insane. Signaling the genes to shut off sensory inputs to save the person. These environmental genetic changes are not the only factor influencing how we are evolving. It has been know for along time that our environments influence our behavior and health.
Space: Environmental pollution as an assault on the senses
Researchers in the field of ecological psychology demonstrated that social settings influence behavior. Leanne Rivlin, for instance, theorized that the environmental cognition involved in human cognition plays a crucial role in environmental perception (Rivlin, 2002)[vii].
This means that if our environment, biological, emotional and/or social, is toxic our cognitive and behavioral abilities are compromised. And the common western way of life have become toxic. Documentaries like the “disappearing male”[viii] make that very clear. This film shows the impact of our toxic world on the male reproductive system. The last few decades have seen steady and dramatic increases in the incidence of boys and young men suffering from genital deformities, low sperm count, sperm abnormalities and testicular cancer. At the same time, boys are now far more at risk of suffering from ADHD, autism, Tourette’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, and dyslexia. The Disappearing Male takes a close and frightening look at, what an increasing number of doctors and researchers consider to be the cause, a class of common chemicals that are ubiquitous in our world. These chemicals are found in everyday items such as shampoo, sunglasses, meat and dairy products, carpet, cosmetics and baby bottles, they are called “hormone mimicking” or “endocrine disrupting” chemicals and they may be starting to damage the most basic building blocks of human development.
Without some drastic changes in what we value, healing ourselves and our children will remain a very difficult, if not impossible task. The body is so sensitive that all things have to be introduced with special care. Each body is a unique intricate chemical media and we must learn to respect it. While some of us know this instinctively, the scientific community is starting to demonstrate this.
According to MD Lawrence Wilson, many children are born sick.
“ Tissue mineral analysis indicates that many children are born today with excessive levels of toxic metals, and deficiencies of vital nutrients such as zinc and manganese. Toxicology books confirm that lead, cadmium, copper, and other toxic metals pass through the placenta from mother to child. Children are described as “sinks” for these metals.
Animal studies reveal that the results of poor diets or ingested toxins often don’t show up immediately. It may take several generations before problems start appearing. The situation in America today is that several generations have lived on devitalized food and been exposed to many chemicals and low-dose radiation. The effects are showing up in this generation of children. “(Wilson, 2009)[ix]
At a most fundamental level, our food is causing problems that are affecting our children deeply. Let’s take milk as an example. Many people are still convinced that it is the most important source of calcium. Withstanding that it is an accessible one, it is also a very dangerous source of toxins. Besides the antibiotics it contains, it’s fat has now been linked by researchers to gut disease.
Water is also a great potential source of poisoning. Some of the most recent research reveals that:
“low levels of antidepressants and other psychoactive drugs found in water supplies can trigger the expression of genes in fish that in humans are associated with autism. The levels of these drugs in drinking water are very low, but in theory a small dose could have an effect, says Michael Thomas of Idaho State University in Pocatello. His group exposed fathead minnows (Pimephales promelas) to the drugs at relatively high concentrations for 18 days. They saw changes to 324 genes linked to autism in humans ” (Reardon, 2012).[x]
I have seen the impact of dirty food and water on my children. They are so sensitive that non-organic food has profound effect on them. One of my children develops hives if the food he is eating has chemicals in it, while the other becomes aggressive. Processed foods and sugars completely alter my children’s mental abilities.
But our mouth isn’t the only way for toxins to get in our bodies. The skin and our lungs are also organs that are exposed to invisible toxins. Creams, shampoos, perfumes, lotions all penetrate our skins and chemicals such as flame retardant and other similar chemicals are added to most products. Water, air, dust, soil, cleaning products, factory production substances released in the environment, plastics, treated cloth, etc, are all sources of contamination. Through our stomach, skin and nose we are exposed to countless numbers of chemicals.
Our environment is much more toxic than we think. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that combinations of environmental factors, including exposure to toxic chemicals, along with genetic susceptibility, cause or contribute to at least 25% of learning and developmental disabilities in American children (The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, 2012)[xi]. We have very little knowledge about neurologic impact of chemicals in children. According to the report “chemicals and our Health” published by The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, in the last few decades, extensive evidence has accumulated showing that neurotoxic chemicals can have a profound effect on the developing brain at levels that were once thought to be safe, and that may have little or no discernible impacts in adults.
More over, standards for medications and other health related safety standards have been designed on the basis of medium build men. Most safety guidelines have not and often still do not take into consideration age, gender when deciding what are safe and toxic levels.
To make matter more complicated, what affects our behaviors and health is not only rooted in the present. The lives of our ancestors influence who we are today.
Time: How our past ancestors influence our present lives.
Recently, researchers have begun to demonstrate that the exposure of past generations to toxins are affecting current generations. According to the article ” Today’s Environment Influences Behavior Generations Later: Chemical Exposure Raises Descendants’ Sensitivity to Stress” ScienceDaily (2012)[xii], researchers at The University of Texas at Austin and Washington State University have seen an increased reaction to stress in animals whose ancestors were exposed to an environmental compound generations earlier:
” The researchers — David Crews at Texas, Michael Skinner at Washington State and colleagues — exposed gestating female rats to vinclozolin, a popular fruit and vegetable fungicide known to disrupt hormones and have effects across generations of animals. The researchers then put the rats’ third generation of offspring through a variety of behavioral tests and found they were more anxious, more sensitive to stress, and had greater activity in stress-related regions of the brain than descendants of unexposed rats.
We are now in the third human generation since the start of the chemical revolution, since humans have been exposed to these kinds of toxins,” says Crews. “This is the animal model of that.”
“The ancestral exposure of your great grandmother alters your brain development to then respond to stress differently,” says Skinner. “We did not know a stress response could be programmed by your ancestors’ environmental exposures.” (…) “So how well you socialize or how your anxiety levels respond to stress may be as much your ancestral epigenetic inheritance as your individual early-life events.”[xiii]
These findings create a direct relationship between our molecular system and our mental states but also with our environment:
“There is no doubt that we have been seeing real increases in mental disorders like autism and bipolar disorder,” says Crews, who focused on the neuroscience, behavior and stress aspects of the paper. “It’s more than just a change in diagnostics. The question is why? Is it because we are living in a more frantic world, or because we are living in a more frantic world and are responding to that in a different way because we have been exposed? I favor the latter.”[xiv]
According to a recent study by Amy J. Houtrow, MD, PhD, MPH, chief of the Division of Pediatric Rehabilitation Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, more children today have a “disability” than a decade ago. While neurodevelopmental and mental health-related disabilities increased, those due to physical conditions decreased. This trend was most notable among children under 6 years of age whose rate of neurodevelopmental disabilities nearly doubled over the study period from 19 cases to 36 cases per 1,000 children. (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2013).[xv] This suggests to me that as time moves on and our bodies become more toxic, out children will continue to increasingly show signs of toxicity, unless we begin to consciously reverse this process. Besides these chemical and genetic influences, other elements in our environment affect our children. Space, technology and people can create overwhelming sensory experiences for HSPs.
Space, technology and people as sensory overload
In The Globe and Mail article ” Why is walking in the woods so good for you?”, Alex Hutchinson explores the results from a study, which will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Affective Disorders, that found that volunteers suffering from depression who took a 50-minute walk in a woodland park improved their cognition, as measured by the ability to remember a random string of digits and repeat them in reverse order, compared to those who took a walk through city streets. An earlier study found similar results in subjects who weren’t depressed:
“ The lead researcher Marc Berman, a research fellow at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest in Toronto, makes a distinction between two types of attention: “voluntary,” in which we consciously focus on something; and “involuntary,” in which something grabs our attention. The ability to direct voluntary attention is crucial in daily life (and for cognitive tasks like remembering random digits), but it’s easily fatigued. Dr. Berman and his colleagues believe that going for a walk in the park gives voluntary attention a break, since your mind has a chance to wander aimlessly and be engaged – involuntarily but gently – by your surroundings.
“In a lot of natural areas, you’re away from loud noises and distractions,” Dr. Berman explains. “It tends to be less crowded so you don’t have to worry about bumping into people, and it also has interesting stimulation to look at, which captures your attention automatically.”
In contrast, honking horns and traffic lights and crowded sidewalks – and pretty much every other ingredient of modern life in a big city – constantly force you to exert your voluntary attention to react or block them out, leaving you more cognitively depleted.” (Hutchinson, 2012)[xvi]
Scientists are also beginning to demonstrate that urban settings force us to focus on our narrow attention (voluntary attention in the above quote), which in the long term can create tremendous stress. Humans, just like other animals, need to use their broad attention (involuntary attention) as well. Children are born today in very demanding sensory, emotional and social environment. Differently then previous generations, the stimuli they are exposed to is often artificial. Given how much less able to filter input than adults they are, their brain functions must have to adapt to these bombardment of toxins. Adding to these attention seeking environment poor air quality, and as Hutchinson points out:
” A single exposure to polluted air can trigger lung and heart problems, and chronic exposure has been linked to cognitive decline. Even downtown parks and riverside bike paths are likely to have significantly better air quality than busy city streets, and trees offer an additional protective effect. The level of vehicle emissions just 200 meters away from a road is already four times lower than it is on the sidewalk next to the road.”
No wonder a walk in nature or relationships with animals can help. In nature all senses can relax while being highly stimulated. Smell, hearing, empathy, skin, energy sensors are less exposed to toxins and recharging on natural sounds, smells, air, magnetic energy etc. I think that part of the answer is that we can easily sync with natural waves and fields and that in such settings we no longer sense the technological and pollution layers that are so intensely packed in cities.
I have experienced the difference for myself when in Nicaragua. Air, water, wind, soil and sand create an environment that allows my body and mind to relax and become at one with the environment. We are animals, we need to be in sync with what surrounds us. This is particularly important to highly and sensory sensitive children.
Social Life: empathy is a double edge sword
According to psychologist Susan Meindl, empathy is the earliest form of communication:
“Human beings communicate through empathic connection from birth. Mothers and infants accurately read each other’s emotional communications. This skill is never lost and we all use empathic understanding of other people’s feelings to round out and nuance what they say to us. We all know that the same words offered in a tender or a sarcastic tone can have vastly different implications and emotional effects.
We rarely, however, think about this subliminal communication and we are usually not aware of how we do it.”[xvii]
But empathy is a double edge sword. In a peaceful space, it is humbling, but in a stressful environment, it can become torture. It can drive me to deep levels of depression if I do not stop the input. This is what M Dionne refers to as emotional personal stress:
“Emotional personal stress is most often self-imposed by negative thought patterns and discontent. Negative relationships, loud neighbors, hyperactive children (and adults), argumentative personalities, and negative attitudes in general can also quickly exhaust your energy reserves.”(Dionne, 2013)[xviii]
Children naturally pick up everything we believe we are good at hiding, and they react particularly strongly to our negativity. Let it be criticism, anger, frustration, anxiety or worry, highly sensitive children pick up on these negative thoughts and internalize them as their own. A parent once said to me, I know how we are feeling by looking at the kids. Indeed, the children mirror what we are releasing unconsciously via our body, chemical languages and energy. This has been a very hard lesson and one that has made me learn to change my mental ways.
Susan Meindl makes it clear that Anxiety and anger are the most “catching” of out emotions:
“While all emotions can be empathically transmitted between people, the most problematic feelings are those of anxiety and anger.
There are good evolutionary reasons for this.
All higher animals are sensitive to signals of environmental danger from others around them. An alarm signal prepares the individual for self-protective action, be it fight or flight. Preparedness for action includes vascular, muscular respiratory and endocrinal responses which we then experience as the physical feelings of anxiety and tension.
Interpersonal signal reading – Visual and vocal changes communicate anxiety.
As early as 1949, psychological researchers such as Jurgen Reusch observed that in human beings, transmission of danger signals can be visible: sweating, strained postures, shallow breathing, blushing, general restlessness.
There are also audible cues: voices may become loud or shrill, the pitch of the voice may rise or alternate arrythmically between high and low, there may be spurts or rushes of talk, lack of pauses, interruption of others, variations in speed of talk, or inappropriate laughter. The reverse picture is also indicative of anxiety: faltering speech, long pauses, and the introduction non-words such as “ah” or “uh”.”[xix]
It is as if sensory processing sensitivities have stronger mirror neurons than most. While most people are completely unaware of how their energies affect others, the sensory gifted feel others as if they are part of their body. For instance, I can sense the energy of my family. I can distinguish each signature, as we all seem to have a unique pattern. When my children are having negative feelings, I feel the difference in their energy enter my body. It hurts. I have the same sensations at work. I can “sense” the positive or negative mood of my colleagues by their energy signature.
If you recall the discussion on quantum physics in chapter 2, this makes a lot of sense. When the energy fields of two bodies met, they affect each other. Sensory processing sensitive people actually sense the affect. To me, the stress or negative energy of someone else feels like a jolt of acid entering the body. Whereas when the energy is positive it blends with mine harmoniously. Thus, toxic people, stress and internalized negative emotions drain me like a magnet. It actually feels like a magnet is rearranging my particles. Imagine what these kinds of sensations can do to children who do not understand where these things are coming from.
This “sensed” empathy explains why highly sensitive people may seem strange to others, as it often leads to great anxieties in social situations. What adults often perceive as misbehaviors in children, frequently is their empathic sense being exposed to high levels of stress and responding physically to overwhelming invisible sensations such as someone else’s emotions. It is also a draining force that can make a person ill.
One thing that really astonishes me to this day is how much I and my kids can mirror and mimic how others perceive us. When someone believes I am stupid, I become that stupid individual, when I am surrounded by angry people I enact “angry-ness”, even if I am not angry. When my kids are around someone who thinks they are weird, they immediately become agitated, use incoherent speech. If I am stressed, the kids immediately show it.
Our inability to recognize how we impact highly sensitive children can create important stress in these children’s lives.
As Susan Meindl explains:
“Because high sensitivity (HS) is present from birth, it exists before the individual has the ability to control the environment themselves. As a result HS infants and young children are often overstimulated and neither the parent nor the infant may recognize this. The infant may on the one hand be treated as difficult or demanding, or alternatively treated as fragile and overprotected. These responses play themselves out in families during childhood and may create an internal belief in the HS child that they are “naturally difficult” or “delicate”.
In those instances when sensitive parents recognize the needs of their infant or child and help them to develop the skills they need to avoid overstimulation, sensitive children can thrive and learn to use their sensitivity productively at a very early age.
As sensitive children acquire more self-management skills and are permitted to influence their personal environment, they will try to choose ways to avoid overstimulation. Often they are more solitary, choosing quiet pursuits such as reading or art.
Children are rarely able to identify their problem as “high sensitivity” and experience instead a feeling of being different and out of step with those around them. These feelings are painful and may lead them to feel sad or angry.”(Meindl, 2010)[xx]
Sensory gifted or highly sensitive children learn to compensate for these emotions but also for this absorption of energy. Sometimes they do so with technology, I always have a laptop in front of me when in a meeting in order to create an energy and visual barrier between me and another. But often, they do so in negative ways, through addiction to drugs, alcohol, food or other emotional coping mechanisms to distract their senses.
As parents and adults it is crucial to realize when we are being toxic to our children. According to Judith Orloff MD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, the quality of our relationships affects our health. Our relationships are governed by a give and take of energy. Some make us more electric or at ease. Yet others suck the life right out of us (2010)[xxi]. Any negative relationships, let it be at work or at home drains your energy – mentally, emotionally and physically.
When parents are not getting along, children sense it. When parents dislike their children, children sense it. When negative people dominate children’s lives, it hurts them mentally, emotionally, chemically and physically and they do get overwhelmed. While we do not mean for our negativity to hurt our children, it does, and in the case of sensory gifted, it traumatizes them. This invisible stress is as toxic as chemical stress. When home is a toxic emotional environment, the results can be a shutting down or acting out and if not reduced can potentially lead to mental disorders. These levels of toxicity cannot be sustained on a long-term basis without damaging a sensitive child physically, chemically, mentally and emotionally.
Boredom as Stress
Besides the toxic elements I have mentioned above, there are a few others that any parents must be on the look out for when dealing with sensory processing sensitivities. Under-arousal can lead to stress as well. Continually being bored and without appropriate stimulation can be very stressful. Boredom ends in drudgery and drudgery will make you lose contact with your values and who you are, which will only cause you to become bored, which causes more drudgery. It is a vicious circle leading to burn out and a sense of uselessness, a feeling of lack of purpose, and hopelessness. Boredom and drudgery, when ongoing, causes depression and physical disease (Dionne, 2013)
An extroverted sensory gifted child feels stifled in most of our urban environments. The need to be expose to new things constantly is not met. This poverty of stimuli is difficult for such children to live with and without proper level of excitement in their lives they seek sensory and mental input by moving their bodies in ways that seem inappropriate. But this sensory seeking behavior does not equate with the need for being in groups activities, which makes it difficult in a city to find appropriate activities. Without spatial activities they become very stressed and sick.
Ruth Goldeen, an Occupation therapist, explains how in her 24 years professional career, she has seen the patient population shift from most patients having motor-related issues like cerebral palsy to more psychological diagnoses, anxiety disorders, obesity, autism disorders and sensory processing disorders.
“Seeing how it’s changed, I have to think something’s different.” Goldeen contrasts her childhood experiences of riding her bike outdoors all day unsupervised to the ultra-structured, oversanitized, indoor, supervised activities that make up most kids’ experiences today.
“In the old days, you’d catch grasshoppers, get gooey stuff on your hands. You didn’t have cell phones, there was no checking in. Kids today have less spontaneous exposure to sensory input.”
The problem? “All children are kinesthetic learners. They learn through their bodies; first they touch it, then they label it.”
And without the chance to get their hands dirty and engage in free play, young nervous systems don’t develop a tolerance. Some call it nature deprivation syndrome. “[xxii]
While the causes of sensory processing disorder remain unknown (possibilities include the usual suspects of genetics and environmental influence), without access to sensory experiences that satisfy and inform a child’s nervous system, we have to supply them, if we don’t these children become sensory bored and eventually stressed.
Unfortunately, at this stage of our civilization, our cultural occupation of space stresses these individual to the point of seeming “mad”. It is astonishing that stress in children is now the #1 health concern for which a doctor is consulted. In these super sensitive children, it can lead to drastic physiological changes
The Culture of Stress
Another hidden cause of stress for highly sensitive children is our western culture. Many children attend desensitized school worlds. Most schools are loud, bright and chaotic environments that tend to provoke sensory overflow. In Toronto, public schools were designed by the same architect who designed our jails, they are visually unappealing, their corridors echoes, many of their features can turn them into sensory torture chambers for the sensory gifted.
Not only do our homes, schools and other institutions overflow with sensorial toxins but also in terms of emotional toxins. The competitive values that they reproduce can make social life be very stressful as interpersonal communication can be painfully transparent to these children. A normal day at school is exhausting for empathic children and bullying is draining them. Large classes can be draining for these children as well as they will absorb the emotions of others.
Where do we learn to let stress dominate our lives and how do we learn that stress is a normal expectation of modern life?
Cultural learning seems to be one of the roots. As we saw previously, isn’t dren often learn the tacit rules of cultural behaviors by imitating the adults in their lives. Stress is a dominant part of adults lives and no one tells children that the current high stress aren’t normal. Without articulating values that explicitly state stress is not normal and the levels we are experiencing are harmful, children learn tacitly that stress is the norm. Albert Mehrabian, cited by Nowicki and Duke, demonstrated that in face-to-face interactions, 55% of the emotional meaning of a message is expressed through facial, postural, and gestural means, and 38% of emotional meaning is transmitted through the tone of voice. (Nowicki and Duke, 1992)[xxiii]. Yet, we tend to teach children to only comprehend the left hemisphere reality instead of the right hemisphere holistic subtext. These hidden forms of language are established by our culture.
In North America, this cultural language is in direct conflict with unfiltered sensory processing which perceives reality outside the boundaries of societal myths. Our North American culture is based on the British colonialist culture of suppression and oppression. As the anthropologist Joseph Campbell reminded us, British culture is an anti nature culture (Campbell, 1991)[xxiv]. It has established rigid conventions that deny our nature and remap human natural sensorial languages with man made ones such as drinking, a means to dull the senses. This culture values cultural imperialism that works by suppressing other cultures and any forms of dissent. We only need to look at the attempts at suppressing arboriginal culture in Canada to see how this works. We also have been taught to suppress our sensory nature to the benefit of social class ascension. The higher the imperialist social class, the less embodied knowledge seems important to a person.
This form of cultural oppression is embedded in the socialization and acculturation processes by which children tend to learn about the rules and regulation of their social life. Cultural oppression works over time and eventually leads to cultural suppression. This form of psychological suppression has succeeded when the new values have been internalized and children repressed themselves without being told to do so: “Having learned to suppress their own thoughts and ideas, or natural forms of languages, individuals can repel their own desires and impulses to ensure that what is unacceptable to the conscious mind, and would if recalled arouse anxiety, is prevented from entering into it‘”(Gregory, 1987)[xxv] To that end, pleasurable instincts are excluded from their consciousness and holding or subduing it in the unconscious. In that process the sensorial self is imprisoned in a castle of chasms, the truth that the senses perceives are in direct conflict with cultural norms. Could this repression lead to mental illnesses in sensitive people?
If we consider that highly sensitive children possess a different type of insight, this could indeed be the case. These children are affected by the dominant culture in very different ways. Research in sensory processing sensitivity is starting to show that people with high-sensory processing sensitivity are less influenced by cultural context than others:
“ One of the study conducted by Dr. Arthur Aron’s analyzed how a basic temperament/personality trait, called sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), interacts with culture and neural responses.
The major finding of that study was that the frontal-parietal brain region (see Figure in original news release) known to be engaged during attention-demanding tasks was more activated for East Asians when making judgments ignoring context, not their specialty, but was more activated for Americans when making judgments when they had to take context into account, not their specialty.
They found SPS as a trait yielded a very clear pattern of results:
Culture did not influence the degree of activation of highly sensitive individuals’ brains when doing the two kinds of perceptual tasks used in the previous study. “It was as if, for them, culture was not an influence on their perception.”(Suny Brook, 2010)[xxvi]
Given that sensory gifted people are highly empathic, this is not surprising. They perceive what is embodied instead of what is being said. As such their high empathy seems to by-pass cultural bias. No wonder we pathologize these forms of perceptions. We can’t mold sensory processing sensitive individuals via social acculturation. Empathy if understood as a ”sense” becomes the only one that cannot be molded by culture. But when we deny these children access to their natural forms of communication, their broad attention, we are traumatizing them by asking them to suppress and deny the only forms of language that can help them making sense of the world and themselves.
Jasunhorusly has an interesting hypothesis as to why that is for members of the autistic community:
“If there is a link between the autistic perceptual mode and high affective empathy (and relatively low cognitive empathy), this might help to explain why autistics do not respond well to cultural indoctrination or conditioning: because, being highly empathic, they don’t subscribe to an “us and them” view of the world. To perceive autistically means to have highly amorphous boundaries between the self and the environment. One response to this amorphousness is to try and shut out the environment any way possible and withdraw into the “self”(i.e., the inner world). This is a common “symptom” of autism, and even the source of the term itself. It may even be that a less defined sense of self, or at least a less rigid identification with the self, is the primary component of the autistic perceptual mode.”[xxvii]
The separation between the natural and social self that characterize our western North American Culture is traumatic for our sensory gifted children. We choose as a society to value our visual senses to the detriment of the others, in the process, we have isolated and ostracized many of our most talented, creative and gifted who possess skills and abilities we do not understand, value or perceive.
For these children space has been emptied of its natural aesthetic and sensorial meaning and as a consequence they are living a lie. What they sense, is not what is admitted to exist. Autistic or introvert children might withdraw into their own world. ADHD and extrovert children, being so much more in their bodies than their introverted counterparts, will become under-aroused and agitated, and as Sir Ken Robinson tells us:
“ These kids are being given sometimes quite dangerous drugs to get them to focus and to calm them down. The arts, not exclusively the arts, I think it is also true of science and of math, are victims of this mentality. The arts especially address the idea of aesthetic experience. An aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak. When you are present in the current moment, when you are resonating with this thing you are currently experiencing, when you are fully alive. An Anesthetic is when you shut your senses off and deaden yourself to what is happening. And a lot of these drugs are that, we are getting our children through education by anaesthetizing them.
I think we should be doing the exact opposite. We should not be putting them to sleep. We should be waking them up to what they have inside of themselves.”(Robinson, 2010)[xxviii].
No role models for sensorial growth
All this toxicity and our disembodied cultural values, suggest that space has been devoided of its sensorial essence, in the process, leaving highly sensitive children with no sense of embodied self. Our mythology has taken children away from practices that could help them connect and learn to hone their senses in meaningful ways. And mainstream media, our contemporary myths, present disembodied role models and lives. As Mcluhan explained, media affect the senses and simulate the senses at the same time (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967)[xxix]. McLuhan used the term “massage” to denote the effect each medium has on the human sensorium, implying numerous media “massage” the senses. But unlike nature and spatial embodied knowledge, mass media messages tend to hypnotize, simulating sensations while dulling the senses.
This dulling of the senses in media is being challenged by some 21st century technologies, sensor based gaming technologies are now allowing to move the body as much as stimulate the mind as we will see in chapter 9. But the nature of most games being sold however promote violence mental and physical without guidance on how to incorporate these attributes of ourselves in our lives in a healthy way.
As Campbell points out, myths have as part of their function the role of guiding different generation on how to deal with killing and violence that is inherent to our nature. As we saw in chapter 1, myths not only serve a social and cultural role, as he explained they have a psychological function as well. Myths he described serve to guide and help a person understand how to be within a given cultural context. So what do current media promote?
Mass media, more often than not promote fear instead of curiosity, a disembodied sensorium, voyeurism instead of developing self-awareness, negative news instead of a search for enquiry. Feeding negative emotions such as anger, instead of soothing, addictions instead of learning to self regulate. The dissemination of these values is a choice, and just like cultural learning, designers of media can choose to promote different values and notions of what it is to be human. Media makers shape what our children view by the choices they make. Social media has opened the door for changes in values in media as we saw in chapter 1. Luckily, we live at a time where media can be re-harnessed to retrain the mind and body instead of numbing them, as we will see in chapter 9.
Conclusion: From Trauma to Health
Highly sensitive people are our future healers, “king counselors”, explorers, teachers and artists (Aron, 2002). Highly sensitive children represent our future in that their abilities are necessary for creativity and innovation to continue and for exploration of the unknown. But they can only fulfill these roles if their sensory abilities are preserved, not poisoned.
This is possible if mainstream society culture begins to accept multiple forms of intelligence as gifts not pathologies. This would make the connection between genius and extra sensory abilities much more noticeable. As Nicholas Humphrey explained, quoted by Horsley:
‘We believe that artistic savants have direct access to “lower” levels of neural information prior to it being integrated into the holistic picture, the ultimate label. All of us possess this same lower-level information, but we cannot normally access it’ (Snyder 1999,588). ”[i].
“Also this from “The shaman’s initiation,” by Joan Halifax. The subject is schizophrenia, but autism was a subset of the diagnosis of schizophrenia until 1971, and there remains a significant overlap between the perceptual modes: “[Silverman] characterized schizophrenia as a disorder where the individual withdraws from society and the outer world and becomes preoccupied by internal processes with a resulting disintegration of the personality.”[xxx]
This phenomenon echoes Dabrowski’s notion of positive disintegration as a normal part of an individual’s journey towards self-realization. This notion of the need to delve deep into the self is present in other cultures as well. Dabrowski saw positive disintegration as part of a larger process of positive integration to explain some of the psychological differences he observed in gifted individuals that lead towards achieving self-actualized integration, a way of being in the world that is characterized by psychological integration, harmony, and little inner conflict.
This seems also true of children with sensory processing sensitivities. Obviously they are different and as a consequence experience life differently. But their gifts make them perceive themselves within the world differently. What if there also exist a sensory positive disintegration. Where the senses lead to a redefinition of the self. The more in-tuned a person becomes, the stronger the levels of sensory disintegration become. Possibly in this process, individuals are overwhelmed by their sensory to the point of having to change their reactions. As Siverman quoted by Jasun Horsley explains as being part of the disintegration:
“ This is followed by a narrowing of attention, a withdrawal from the external world, and an increasing absorption in internal experiences, accompanied by an increasing difficulty in differentiating between reality and fantasy. (…). Silverman (ibid.) noted that those who have made it through the experience can manifest great mental acuity in which sensitivity, awareness, and creativity are definitely increased. He noted that when a crisis occurs in the life of a person from certain tribal cultures, it is socially as well as psychologically appropriate that the vocation of shamanism is considered as modus operandi for the resolution of the problem.”[xxxi]
In these traditional cultures, these activities are not understood as pathologies:
“Western society views such psychological experiences from a pathological perspective, whereas primal peoples often find them acceptable within the context of the shamanic world view. Both schizophrenics in Western society and neophyte shamans can learn to use their altered perception to a good advantage in the process of cognitive reorganization. It is what anthropologist Victor Turner (1967) has called ‘transforming the obligatory into the desirable.’”[xxxii]
This cognitive reorganization seems to often be triggered by trauma. In the article “Navigating Trauma in the Face of Contemporary Culture, Displacement, and Ecological Destruction”, Bonnie Bright argues that modern humans live in an era of trauma:
“Robert Stolorow, in “Empathic Civilization in an Age of Trauma” goes as far as to designate the contemporary era an “Age of Trauma” because, according to him, the “tranquilizing illusions of our everyday world seem in our time to be severely threatened from all sides” (para. 2). He refers to ongoing and increasing global issues like global warming, terrorism, and economic collapse, all of which raise issues of existential vulnerability and threaten to annihilate the core framework by which we make sense of our existence.” (Bright, 2011)[xxxiii]
There is such a parallel between how diversity as exemplified by women, aboriginal cultures and people with multi-sensory intelligence has been displaced in western societies. Our civilization will be remembered as one of the darkest, so many display of force, anger, violence and oppression recorded all over the world. Raping of women and children, cultures, the earth and its treasures. A civilization marked by groups imposing themselves on others and usually traumatizing the other groups.
According to Bonnie Bright:
“ In his book The Inner World of Trauma, Donald Kalsched uses the word trauma to mean any experience that causes unbearable psychic pain or anxiety. For an experience to be “unbearable” means that it overwhelms the usual defensive measures which protect us from perceiving horror and pain. The distinguishing feature of trauma of this magnitude is what Heinz Kohut called disintegration anxiety, an “unnameable dread associated with the threatened dissolution of a coherent self” (as cited in Kalsched, 1996, p. 1). This kind of anxiety portends the complete annihilation of the human personality”[xxxiv]
This loss of identity does not limit itself to cultural groups but can, and often does, happen to gifted and/or sensitive individuals who experience normal life experiences as trauma, as is explained in the book “The drama of the gifted child”, by Alice Miller[xxxv]. There tends to be a loss of identity experienced by gifted or highly sensitive children who try to become what their parents project upon them and in the process loose their own sense of self. Miller explains how depression is often the result of suppressing emotions and how as adults we must learn to see through our own mechanisms of self-deception. Only then can we become self-aware, once the unconscious and conscious mind coexist and inform each other, the alternative for the gifted child is the lived drama of never really being, knowing, loving and caring for oneself.
Trauma in itself is an important part of life as it can leads to a phase of disintegration that is essential for us to evolve. According to Bonnie Bright, it is often the trigger for a phase of positive disintegration that can lead to a new phase of psychological integration:
“ Ultimately, trauma is a transition that moves us to a threshold, what Casey (Getting Back into Place) refers to as spatial areas of transition. This threshold places us at the portal to a new way of being, a new home, even if for the time being. It locates us in a place of potentiality. In some indigenous rites of passage, as the initiate goes by, the villagers open their doors to witness the initiate and to symbolize the opening of the way. We are all in this together. We all belong to the earth. Whether it be the U’wa who locate their authentic selves and the very soul of their tribe in the face of the ultimate impossible choice to enter a great wide chasm that hosts death, or the Borderlanders who hold space with their pain while the rest of the world begins to wake up, memory–and narrative of that memory– can create a sense of sacred space, a place where everything belongs and has meaning. The memory, the narrative, the witnessing all carry us to the open door, the edge of the very precipice where something new awaits, a homecoming to the place where the new skin made tender by trauma can be touched by the first rays of gentle sun that rise beyond the horizon of pure potentiality.”[xxxvi]
Solving these issues cannot be addressed without an intense redefining of our values as people and as a society. Can we decolonize space, time, our culture and our notions of selves to rebuild an environment where our children can thrive? This seems key to finding solutions to help highly sensitive children heal and learn to be healthy. Our children need their broad attention to be acknowledged, accepted as valid forms of understanding and accommodated. This has led me to search for a health model that values sensory life, topic of the next chapter.
 Aron, Elaine, N. (2002). The highly sensitive child. Harmony.
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[xii] David Crews, Ross Gillette, Samuel V. Scarpino, Mohan Manikkam, Marina I. Savenkova, and Michael K. Skinner. Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of altered stress responses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, May 21, 2012
[xiii] Washington State University. “Today’s environment influences behavior generations later: Chemical exposure raises descendants’ sensitivity to stress.” ScienceDaily. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120521163853.htm (accessed November 28, 2014).
[xiv] Washington State University. “Today’s environment influences behavior generations later: Chemical exposure raises descendants’ sensitivity to stress.” ScienceDaily. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120521163853.htm (accessed November 28, 2014).
[xv] American Academy of Pediatrics. “Childhood Disability Rate Jumps 16% Over Past Decade”. American Academy of Pediatrics. May 5, 2013. http://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/Childhood-Disability-Rate-Jumps.aspx#sthash.BE4Xk7OX.dpuf
[xvi] Hutchinson, Alex. “Why is walking in the woods so good for you?”. The Globe and Mail. May. 27 2012. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/fitness/why-is-walking-in-the-woods-so-good-for-you/article4209703/
[xxi] Orloff, Judith. Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life. Harmony; Reprint edition (December 28, 2010)
[xxii] University of Virginia Health System. “Sensory Processing Disorder: Ambiguous But Real”. UVA Hea;th System Blog. Dec 11, 2012. http://uvahealth.com/blog/2012/12/11/sensory-processing-disorder-ambiguous-but-real/
[xxiii] Nowicki, Stephen and Duke, Marshall. 1992. Helping the Child Who Doesn’t Fit In. Peachtree Publishers.
[xxiv] Campbell, Joseph (1991). The Power Of Myth. Anchor Books.
[xxv] Gregory, Richard L. (1987).The Oxford Companion of the Mind. Oxford University Press. p. 681
[xxvi] Stony Brook. “SBU Brain Study: Sensitive Persons’ Perception Moderates Responses Based On Culture”. Stony Brook News. May 3, 2010. http://commcgi.cc.stonybrook.edu/am2/publish/General_University_News_2/SBU_Brain_Study_Sensitive_Persons_Perception_Moderates_Responses_Based_On_Culture.shtml#sthash.XUMXu3ID.dpuf
[xxvii] Horsley, Jason. Transforming the Obligatory into the Desirable: Autism & Shamanism (Perceptual Warfare 18). Auticulture. Jan 2013. https://auticulture.wordpress.com/2013/01/15/transforming-the-obligatory-into-the-desirable-autism-shamanism-perceptual-warfare-18/
[xxviii] Robinson, Ken (2011). Changing Education Paradigms. RSA Animate. Oct 14, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U&feature=youtu.be
[xxix] Mcluhan, Marshall and Fiore, Quentin (1967). The Medium is The Massage. Gingko Pr Inc; New edition edition (Aug. 1 2001)
[xxx] Horsley, Jason. Transforming the Obligatory into the Desirable: Autism & Shamanism (Perceptual Warfare 18). Auticulture. Jan 2013. https://auticulture.wordpress.com/2013/01/15/transforming-the-obligatory-into-the-desirable-autism-shamanism-perceptual-warfare-18/
[xxxi] Horsley, Jason. Transforming the Obligatory into the Desirable: Autism & Shamanism (Perceptual Warfare 18). Auticulture. Jan 2013. https://auticulture.wordpress.com/2013/01/15/transforming-the-obligatory-into-the-desirable-autism-shamanism-perceptual-warfare-18/
[xxxii] Horsley, Jason. Transforming the Obligatory into the Desirable: Autism & Shamanism (Perceptual Warfare 18). Auticulture. Jan 2013. https://auticulture.wordpress.com/2013/01/15/transforming-the-obligatory-into-the-desirable-autism-shamanism-perceptual-warfare-18/
[xxxiii] Bright, Bonnie (2011). “Navigating Trauma in The Face of Comtemporary Culture, displacement, and ecological Destruction”. depthinsights.com. Feb 27, 2011. http://www.depthinsights.com/pages/blogs/blog-Navigating_Trauma_Eco.html
[xxxiv] Bright, Bonnie (2011). “Navigating Trauma in The Face of Comtemporary Culture, displacement, and ecological Destruction”. depthinsights.com. Feb 27, 2011. http://www.depthinsights.com/pages/blogs/blog-Navigating_Trauma_Eco.html
[xxxv] Miller, Alice (1995). The Drama of The Gifted Child. Basic Books.
[xxxvi] Bright, Bonnie (2011). “Navigating Trauma in The Face of Contemporary Culture, displacement, and ecological Destruction”. depthinsights.com. Feb 27, 2011. http://www.depthinsights.com/pages/blogs/blog-Navigating_Trauma_Eco.html