Highly sensitive people have a very delicate nervous system, which makes them extremely receptive to the environment they found themselves in. An event that could seem mundane for most people has the power to throw them off balance and truly upset them. Their reactions can sometimes seem excessive or exaggerated. Some might find them overdramatic.
However, their nervous system does process information differently, it strongly reacts to external stimuli and sometimes offers excessive responses to sensory stimulation. Sounds, light, taste, temperature, colours are absorbed and felt very intensely, as if their experience of the outside world was amplified to such a degree that it triggered various reactions inside the body: increased heart rate, rapid breathing, higher blood pressure, sweating, blushing, stuttering, heat waves, breathlessness and a feeling of suffocation or feeling paralyzed… This hyper receptivity can lead to a great nervous fatigue and exhaustion but also create a lot of anxiety and sometimes even trigger panic attacks. The hyperexcitability of their nervous system makes them more prone to social anxiety. In case of intense stimulation or multiplied social interactions, when the amount of data coming in reaches a certain level, the nervous system gets overwhelmed and overloaded until it shutdowns and they switch into survival mode.
The Autonomic Nervous System is a component of the peripheral nervous system that regulates unvoluntary physiologic processes such as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, digestion…It is formed by the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which, by opposite actions, both enable the body to adapt to the environment and therefore survive.
The different responses start in the amygdala, which deals with how we perceive fears and emotions. The amygdala then stimulates the hypothalamus, which in turn activates the nervous system. The body then reacts by releasing hormones that cause various physiological changes.
The Sympathetic Nervous System prepares us for action. It reacts to stress by releasing hormones such as ACTH, adrenalin, dopamine, cortisol and vasopressin that among other things provokes:
– An increased heart rate, a rapid breathing, higher blood pressure that send oxygen to the muscles and prepare the body for action.
– An increased peripheral vision and pupil dilation that allow more light in and create a better vision to make sure we notice all potential signs of danger.
– Hearing is heightened making it possible to notice all potential signs of danger.
On the other hand, the Parasympathetic Nervous System is responsible for the body’s rest and digestion response when the body is relaxed, resting or feeding. When activated, it releases acetylcholine that decreases heartbeat and blood pressure and therefore creates a sense calm and peace. It also accelerates the digestion process. The Parasympathetic Nervous System is activated by deep relaxation.
In his Polyvagal theory, Dr. Stephen Porges invented the term “Neurosception” that describes how our nervous system is constantly looking for signs and clues about our immediate environment to help us assess if we are safe or not. Throughout our life we compile information, such as facial expressions, tone of voice, body gestures and movements that enables us to determine if a situation is safe or dangerous and if we can trust a person or not. It is a subconscious process that happens automatically in our autonomic nervous system in order to keep us alive. It is a survival mechanism. Our body is therefore designed to observe, process the information and respond accordingly.
According to his Polyvagal theory, Dr. Stephen Porges identified a hierarchy of integrated responses, that have been imprinted in our genes since the beginning of humanity when our ancestors’ survival was a daily preoccupation. They are primitive reflexes anchored in our genetic legacy, which get activated when we perceive a sign of danger.
– The Freeze response is the most elementary. It is triggered when the Parasympathetic Nervous System is activated and involves the dorsal nucleus of the vagus nerve that responds to signs of extreme danger. The physical response is to freeze, to shutdown completely, and be paralyzed. This response enabled our ancestors to play dead when confronted with a predator. Our heartbeat and breathing slows down, enabling us to stay still and go unnoticed. In some extreme situations it can really save our life, however, social anxiety can also trigger this kind of response. Public speaking for example, or social situations and group settings can trigger this response among highly sensitive, shy and introverted people who sometimes find themselves paralyzed, completely mute, avoiding eye contact in a subconscious attempt to go unnoticed and therefore avoid a risk of public humiliation.
– On the other hand, the Sympathetic Nervous System activates The Flight or Fight response. When a danger is real and an aggressor stands in front of us, it makes sense to either flight or fight. However, sometimes this type of response is triggered when there’s no death threat, but a person or a situation makes us feel so anxious that we just run away, escape, disappear, or we just snap at them and start yelling at them.
People who went through traumatic events have a tendency to see danger when there isn’t any. Trauma completely deregulates the nervous system and sometimes for people who experienced sexual abuse the most mundane gesture like touching somebody’s shoulder can trigger an immense fear and a violent response. It may cause a person to shut down, or run away, or scream.
Highly sensitive people can also have very intense reactions when they are overstimulated by their surroundings. Being surrounded by a lot people, in a loud environment can make them feel really anxious. Their ability to detect really subtle variations in facial expressions or in the tone of voice greatly increases the risk for them to not feel safe around someone. That’s why highly sensitive souls need to surround themselves with real, genuine, authentic, compassionate and kind people for them to feel good, safe, comfortable, at ease and therefore thrive.
Highly sensitive souls are easily overwhelmed by emotions. Whether it is triggered by a specific event or just the idea of it, the emotion is real. Highly sensitive people are known for their great imagination and have a tendency to not always feel the difference between reality and what they’re imagining. They easily get carried away. Sometimes, they get “high” just by imagining something amazing. Their feelings and emotions hit them so deeply that their nervous system releases hormones and they reach a trance-like state, as if they were under the effect of a powerful drug. But they can also get very low, just by imagining the worst-case scenario. And when this happens, they can interpret every single detail as a sign of an impending catastrophe and go through great anxiety and sometimes even panic attacks.
A panic attack happens when the nervous system switches into survival mode and activates the freeze/flight/fight responses. Some of the symptoms are: a racing heart, rapid breathing, sweating, hot flashes, dizziness, numb hands, chest pain, difficulty breathing, the feeling of suffocation, feeling like you have a lump in your throat, muscle tension, trembling, feeling weak like you’re going to faint, fear of dying… This can be triggered by a situation which is associated to a negative experience or a traumatic past event, by intense fears and phobias, anxious disorders, a nervous fatigue. However, it can also be related to a high emotional, physical and social sensitivity or a high sensory processing sensitivity. It is essential to identify the subconscious fear triggering the panic attack to avoid the repressed emotion to build up and create even more anxiety.
Therefore, it appears vital for highly sensitive people to regulate their nervous system. Meditation, yoga, massage, breathwork, somatic and body mind therapy, sophrology, walking in nature, creating art are all practices that can activate the parasympathetic nervous system and induce a deep relaxation, a sense of peace, calm and quietness. These practices enable highly sensitive people to live in the world, explore, feel and experiment, while having a safety valve to unload the pressure, release emotional and sensory overload, ground, anchor themselves, recenter and find a balance.
Regulating the nervous system is the most empowering thing highly sensitive souls can do, as it enables them to really tap into their magic and thrive.