A colleague and I were talking this morning about our unease with the ‘We’re All in It Together’ slogans that are coming out to keep us on track with lockdown. We wondered about what ‘This’ was, and how importantly difference was being overlooked in that message.
The first kind of difference we noticed was situational. What ‘This’ might be is very different depending on where you are, and who you’re with. Some of us feel trapped, overcrowded or pigeonholed into mutual responsibility, others feel they are truly socially isolated,or forgotten.
The situation of our friends and families also affects our individual ‘This’. Some of us are already grieving or anticipating doing so. Others are trying to help our children adjust to enforced isolation and inactivity, or recover a sense of progress towards a future that is no longer clear. Others are missing chat or essential contact. And many are finding echos of our own loss, fear and experiences in wider and broader contexts.
Economically we may feel precarious , responsible, or overcommitted (if we are an essential worker).
Some of us are sleeping deeply , others not at all.
We may yearn for peace, or internet connection or, a certainty to grasp.
With those differences come another layer – how is ‘This’ affecting me now as an individual? Am I scared, distracted, bored, lonely, anxious, awakened, even elated by the community spiritedness I might see?
Am I focused on the past – the things I miss, or have lost, or remember? Or the present – what do I or we need? what should I do? Or the future – how will this end up and when will we reach that? What will I do then?
And there are the questions: what is the way you want to deal with ‘This’, the unique ‘This’ that you are facing, and your individual response to it? Some of the social pressure on following the rules to help others, can push us away from our need to find our own paths through the strange, new world in which we find ourselves. We may need a place of trust and security to be open and honest about that.
There will not be only one answer to that question for any of us, and different parts of the ‘This’ will be more important to the answer at particular times.
What makes up my particular ‘This’?
How is it affecting me at the moment?
What is the way I want to deal with it for the next little while?
I hear the news of mass extinction, of the insects, the oceans, of those displaced, of what we are loosing; at first numbly, then it trickles into what I feel when I notice the delicate arrival of a blue tit… and I feel..
..waves of despair.
I watch myself holding tightly to the glimmers of beauty which appear unannounced; and realise I will (if I am still around) see the gaps, gaps where something beautiful once was. Grief pounds at me.
I believe they are all parts of my (and our) collective grief. Mourning for the only home any of us has ever known. I am trying to learn to grieve better. I’m not sure I know exactly how, but I do know it is the only way of honouring all I/we have loved and will continue to love. It is the only way, I think, to learn to be with what is, hopefully, together; and do what we can while we can. And to appreciate the now in a deepening way.
nothing I can write can seem to capture the enormity of the rage and
grief of this.
But still I decided to write this on my blog. I want to say to you if this is overwhelming you, then, me too, maybe differently, and still. I don’t think it shouldn’t either. It is so beyond me to hold this, all I can is be part of this wave of grief. I want to say, if this speaks to you, I respect your (individual and collective) pain and all that you are uniquely holding.
sometimes I feel overwhelming gratitude for being able to experience
For some this festive period may have been fun, relaxing, and for others, something to be survived, and full of dread. And now it’s over (although of course the emotional impact may not be).
At this time of year I often reflect on the year which has passed with its ups and lows, the learnings and the losses… and think about some gentle movements I may like to make in the year ahead. They are definitely not resolutions, more ideas and thoughts which if important may stick around and grow to be helpful to me.
There’s no reason why reflection has to happen now (or at all), but it seems as good a place as any for me, so if it feels it might be helpful to you (sometimes it might not be the right time if festivities have taken their toll on you) here are some questions I asked myself (inspired by this article here):
What was a moment I was most proud of in 2017? What does that tell me about what I want to spend my energy/time/money on this year?
Did someone enrich my life somehow in 2017? If yes, in what way? Is there someone I am wanting to get to know better in the year ahead?
What did I resist most effectively? What did I surrender to?
Who did I feel most jealous of (or inspired by) last year? What is that person up to that I want to bring more of into my own life?
When was I most physically joyful in 2017? How can I get there more in 2018?
What is one question that I found myself asking over and over again last year? What version of an answer am I living my way into?
I hope the year ahead is a time that gives you the space to find what you want and need….
Have you ever felt sad in the summer? Seen your deep-down grief juxtaposed against a sunny sky and wondered What’s wrong with me?
When the weather is lovely and everyone’s off on holiday, it can be hard to process and honour our painful feelings. Sometimes, it’s even difficult to get beyond the idea that we “should” be feeling fabulous, on the beach, in the middle of August. For some of us, though, our emotional range and intensity (our ability to experience intense joy and sorrow, and a million other things) are some of our greatest assets. And they don’t always take the summer off.
Giving ourselves permission to feel whatever we’re feeling is a gift. Human bodies, minds, and lives don’t often follow the exact same rhythms. We are all so different from one another! Yet, because of the way our society and economy are set up, summer sadness seems to trigger a special kind of loneliness. It can feel like being set apart from everyone—like being lost at sea while everyone else relaxes on the shore. If we can stop feeling bad about feeling bad, perhaps it would be easier to see what our emotional turbulence can teach us about ourselves and the world.
Get cozy with your strong emotions
A while ago, I shared Elizabeth’s wonderful post Grieving Every Day. As someone for whom sadness is a recurring presence in her life, Elizabeth tries to incorporate honoring these feelings into each day. I admire how she’s sought to build up her relationship with these feelings, learning to coexist with them and understand their value:
Some pain is personal and individual and recognising individual pain and its cause can be very important. But some pain might be universal and this kind of pain may need a different approach. Overall I believe we need to rethink our relationship with pain and sadness and not see them as villains to be conquered or avoided.
If we intimately know our grief, it’s less likely to throw us off, even if it shows up unexpectedly.
Sadness is not necessarily random
For some of us, summer is an especially difficult time. If you have experienced a trauma in your past, strong emotions may be triggered by certain holidays, kinds of weather, or seasonal activities. These can be really subtle, and we may not even see the connections between our surroundings and our emotions at first.
Physiological responses to light and temperature can also affect our moods, especially if we’re highly sensitive to environmental stimuli to begin with. You might be familiar with Seasonal Affective Disorder. It is commonly thought of as a kind of “winter blues,” but about a tenth of people with SAD actually experience it in the summer. Having a hard time with the warm summer months is pretty normal. It doesn’t make you no fun, and it doesn’t mean you’re broken.
How are you feeling today?
How has summer been for you this year? Are you sad to see it go, or relieved that autumn will soon be here? What patterns can you see in the way your heart moves through the year?
This is Rilke’s description of the movement of sadness, in Letters to A Young Poet. I like this definition of being touched: being a conduit for feelings rather than a reservoir for them or a victim of them. It makes me think about whether perhaps we are built to process emotions. It is possible for feelings to pass through the centre of us without damaging us, just as it is possible for emotional experiences to hurt us in deep and lasting ways.
Understanding the architecture of your centre allows you to know what your capacities are.
Knowing ourselves, we know how much we can take. This is particularly important for HSP, as our sensitivity can make our capacities and strengths different from other people’s. When it feels safe, allowing ourselves to be deeply touched by emotion can be a way to move toward growth and change.
Our sadnesses [ . . . ] are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
Whilst sadness can spark a change in us, so too can change make us feel sad.
This is part of the reason transitions can be so difficult, even if we’re leaving behind something that no longer serves us or moving on to something exciting. Whether we are intentional and resolute or we feel that we’re being torn from our comfort zone, we are often thrown off kilter when things shift.
All change is a kind of loss, isn’t it? And this loss is not only external. Change can make us feel as if we’re losing a part of ourselves or turning away from a path we expected to travel in our lives.
Moments of loss and sorrow create important spaces within us.
We can experience grave and overwhelming sadness when we lose something important to us—sometimes when we just think about how that loss might feel in the future—and loss can take many forms, from cancelled plans for coffee, to being laid off, to an illness that changes our abilities temporarily or permanently.
But it also seems that we can experience the sadness that comes with change as a vital kind of loss, as a feeling of being emptied out and ready for something new to enter. A feeling of being “empty” may mean that there is a space in our heart whose purpose remains undefined. For the new. Or perhaps even that a new space is formed, awakening us to our wholeness.
What if a feeling of sadness indicates a need for reflection, silence and stillness? How can we figure out what the spaces left inside us are for?
Sadness and grief aren’t moments, but processes. Fighting the passing of sadness, circling round in the unpleasant feeling, can be more challenging than taking space and silence, and letting it pass through. We each go through the process of feeling differently.
We cannot avoid sadness. If we understand our individual process, accepting the fact that we are deeply touched both by sorrow and joy, Highly Sensitive People can live in our intensity in ways that serve us, making choices based on our individual desires and boundaries.
Sadness too passes: the new thing in us, the added thing, has entered into our heart, has gone into its inmost chamber and is not even there any more, — is already in our blood. And we do not learn what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing has happened, and yet we have changed, as a house changes into which a guest has entered.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
I wonder what we might gain by welcoming sadness and joy as they move through us, in all their transformative potential?
P.S. If you’ve found the quotes in this post interesting, you might like to have a look at the rest of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to A Young Poet here.
I met a woman recently who described how she’d never felt so vulnerable, open and strong; how she cries more easily than she used to. I saw a truth in her, and I (re)learned something I had, at some level, always known: that embodying every version of yourself, the selfish and the kind, the joyous and the fearful, in fact every apparent contradiction; creates an ever expanding space for the strength of the many. This strength is not in spite of your anger, sadness or the person you were, but because of it.
Strong can mean impervious, a stronghold where nothing can breach the walls. This is the strength of castles and machines, not of the vastness of the natural world. Human strength of survival means adaptability, being open enough to let that which will change us in so we can continue to grow. The alternative is to live our lives in stasis–in our shells, where our potential will never be expressed.
This is not to say that there isn’t a kind of strength, too, in staying firm–in fighting for what you believe in or what you need to hold onto. It is to say the strength is various, though it seems our society holds aloft the strength of fight, of remaining unmoved. What if strength is a spectrum, a duality between hardness and growth? On one end, we stand facing the storm, stand our ground and remain true to ourselves or another. But the other end, where we allow ourselves to be moved by another? Where we allow ourselves to feel pain and to risk the unknown? Well, sometimes that’s the bravest thing I know. Sensitivity is a strength, because it enables growth. As we move into the fearful emptiness inside of us characterised by our “negative” emotions, we find the space for growth.
The amorphous range of what we feel creates our whole self, and without the balance of our dichotomous feelings/selves our growth will always be unsteady. The more we close down our emotions or have them closed down by others, the less space we will have to grow into. And if we can’t grow, we become weak: always using energy in defense of the status quo, without the benefit of enlargement.
Pain – the empty burning of love lost, for example, as big as it feels, pushes the boundaries of how much you can feel. When the hurt has passed, you have more space to contain the multitudes of everyone you’ve ever been and everything you’ve ever felt. You grow into the space the pain has scoured out inside of you.
If you are highly sensitive, I have a feeling that those around you have continually pleaded with you to “toughen up,” and I have a feeling that it just doesn’t work. This is because you are stronger than you realise. This is because you are primed to grow. That which you feel does not make you weak. Your fear, anxiety and hatred are part of the human system of growth. When the time is right, if things are safe enough, you can begin to rely on these deep emotional roots and grow from your depth.
Protection & Growth Work in Relay
We need to move through incarnations of protection and growth throughout our lives. Like a seed in stasis, at certain points you have an absolute need for a hardened shell, but for you to grow that shell has to break. That is, you must take a well-timed risk if you are to flourish. You must risk the unheld hand in order to be met. However, we can only grow if the conditions are right: if you are in a hostile environment, revealing your vulnerable self just leaves you open to pain. In a good enough environment, though, insulation can become a trap. We need safety to grow, but walls can become prisons.
Breaking and moving are essential to vital processes at every scale, from the metamorphosis of a butterfly, to processing your own feelings. From learning to bear confrontation to plate tectonics:
We’re lucky because of these [tectonic] processes, where the plates separate and crack…[because] as a consequence of that, magmas form at deep levels in the Earth. They are brought to the surface, and they bring not only nutrients, but also water. And that is the essence of life.
– Jelle de Boer, geologist: a leading expert on volcanoes and earthquakes from On Being
A life is the constant flux enacted between movements of protection, reaching in and out for connection, letting things in, holding still, bursting open. Sometimes we get stuck in protecting ourselves (and thus not growing) because our past leaks into our present–because quite psycho-logically we have learnt what the world is from our formative experiences. Maybe it’s safe for you to open a little now, maybe not, but it might be worth checking…
To reteach a thing its loveliness
What if you are this plant, and all that we allow ourselves to see is how vulnerable you are in this moment? How, so easily, you could be picked or knocked down. In this view, we fail to recognize that it was the strength of your growth which broke through. Stasis was part of the process, but you did not remain unmoved. You risked living. We sometimes need to be re-taught and reminded of all we have survived. All the beautiful striving we’ve done, despite the surrounding indifference.
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing
To shift from protecting yourself into growing, you need to feel safe enough to share how you feel in the world. You need to be seen as you are, and be retold you are lovely (in words or the unspoken). Then, cautiously, you can touch the boundaries around you, see if they can slide a bit further this way or that and let that which will change you in…
My affinities are infinite
Once I grieved for someone and, for a while, I did everything I could not to feel the crushing imploding empty space. But as I learned to stay with this grief, feel it, fall into it, I learned how much I can love. I feel fierce when I love someone, and I love often. I’ve sometimes stopped caring if someone loves me back – quite simply because I’ve realised that I love the part of me which loves fiercely. And when I love fiercely, I have strength, and it burns in flame and warmth. This strength is only possible through sensitivity (not exclusively the domain of HSPs), to allow what is near to become close.
We are equipped to learn, grow and step into new spaces where things are unknown again. If we allow our roots – our incredible range of past and present emotions – with us, we can step forward with the rich wisdom of all our incantations steadying our way. There is no fixed way of being, only rest and change.
I am involved with the palpable
as that impalpable,
where I walk, mysteries catch at my heels
My affinities are infinite, & from moment to moment
I propagate new symmetries, new
“The truth is you already know what it’s like. You already know the difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the tiny inadequate bit of it all you can ever let anyone know. As though inside you is this enormous room full of what seems like everything in the whole universe at one time or another and yet the only parts that get out have to somehow squeeze out through one of those tiny keyholes you see under the knob in older doors. As if we are all trying to see each other through these tiny keyholes.”
A while ago I felt really lonely, or perhaps more accurately I feared the loneliness sure to exist in the future. I thought long and hard about how to defend from it, and a couple of things struck me:
It is unavoidable, we are all alone inside ourselves.
If you experience this sort of loneliness, it is not because you have failed, it is because you are human.
If you are self aware and made of the deep then I think you are likely to feel this more acutely. Firstly, because you feel things in an intense way. Secondly, if the things which are essential to you are left locked away it leaves you feeling deeply unconnected: feeling somehow wrong, somehow failing. Jung said that:
“Loneliness does not come from having no people around, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.”
Loneliness gnaws at the inside and is an unavoidable.
And yet …
…there can be rich, beautiful moments where time melts away and you feel deeply connected to another person. It’s the best thing I know of. It’s why I do the work I do. This deep connection; the sweet pain and beauty of it is all about being vulnerable. To be with someone, to feel really alive you have to risk being totally alone. To experience joy, you have to risk some pain, some sadness. You can’t have just one side of the coin: nothing is so thin that it only has one side; especially not something as expansive as life.
For me, the amazing part of feeling deeply, even the bad stuff, is that the pain of an experience seems to scour out a space inside of me to feel it ALL more. The positive of this is that in times of encounter I can feel the beauty of connection so deeply it leaves me breathless, acutely aware of being really alive and so incredibly grateful to be in this moment, with this person.
If this really connects with you then I urge you to get in contact with me. Counselling can be an amazing and safe place to take those risks for the very first time, when you feel ready.
This is the forth in a series of posts exploring Sensory Processing Sensitivity. This post is about our sense of taste, which I will explore through interview and will focus on nutrition. Human relationships to food and eating are complex and intimate in ways that our relationship to, say, sound may not be (or might be). So in today’s post, I talk with Mary Cotter, registered Nutritional Therapist at Stellar Health, about how we can use food to support our wellbeing. I hope it answers some questions you have had, or touches on some new things to think about.
What pieces of key advice would you give to a HSP in terms of their diet?
“Eat natural wholefoods whenever possible.
Wholefoods include brown rice, quinoa, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds and dark green leafy vegetables. These foods contain B vitamins and magnesium. Lean meat and fish contain B12. These vitamins and minerals support our nervous systems and help us cope with the demands of life. When we are stressed, our bodies require even more B vitamins, as they are required for thousands of different processes in the body and are easily depleted.
Cook from scratch whenever possible.
This gives you total control over what is in your food: no hidden nasties or artificial surprises. It may take a bit of forward planning and getting used to initially, but you’ll soon get the hang of it. Put some time in your diary and batch cook, freezing portions for the week ahead, or simply double up on portions when you cook dinner and bring half to work with you the following day.
Make sure you eat some protein with each meal.
This supports your blood sugar balance and has a knock on effect on your energy, your ability to concentrate, your mood, and your cravings. Examples include, adding nuts or chia seeds to your breakfast, adding lentils to your soup or chicken or fish to your salad. Don’t forget about your snacks. Sugar free nut butter on oatcakes is a good example of a protein rich snack.
Love your gut (your stomach and intestines).
This is your second brain. It communicates with your actual brain and in order for the two to communicate effectively your gut needs balanced levels of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria, live micro-organisms that support your digestion and immune system. This balance becomes out of harmony easily through too much alcohol, caffeine, stress and antibiotics. We can nourish our ‘good’ bacteria by regularly eating fermented foods such as raw sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir (homemade is best), organic tofu, tempeh and plain, natural yoghurt. We can help reduce the ‘bad’ bacteria by cooking with herbs like oregano, cinnamon, fennel and garlic.
Can you see why a diet of predominantly sweet, white and fluffy foods won’t do?”
What about helpful supplements?
“It is recommended to seek professional guidance from a registered nutritional therapist or GP before supplementing in case of any adverse interactions with medication. In general, supplements that could be helpful include:
– B complex. B vitamins support our nervous system, hormones and neurotransmitters. It is recommended to supplement these vitamins as a complex as they tend to work in harmony together. They can be energising, so take them in the morning with food.
– Magnesium. Magnesium has a calming effect on our muscles and our nervous system. It helps our muscles to relax and can be used to support digestion if constipation is an issue. Try a magnesium oil spray with lavender before bed.
– Fish oil. If you are not a fan of oily fish or are not reaching the recommended intake of 2-3 servings a week, consider a good quality fish oil supplement from a sustainable, pure and environmentally friendly source. Fish oil supports our brain, neurotransmitters and nerve health.
– Vitamin D. Also known as the sunshine vitamin. Vitamin D deficiency is extremely common in the UK due to our northern location. It is impossible to get sufficient levels of vitamin D from food alone. I would recommend getting tested and then supplementing with an oral spray or drops. Vitamin D plays an important role in our mental wellbeing.
– Rhodiola and ginseng are ‘adaptagenic’ herbs. This means they help the body better cope during stressful periods. They support the adrenal glands, which is where we produce our stress hormones.
Combination supplements are available that combine with B vitamins and magnesium. Ask your nutritional therapist.”
HSPs often seem to have issues with their digestion, and I know this is a speciality of yours, so I wondered what could be done to support a sensitive digestive system?
“If you tolerate dairy eat plain, natural, full fat yoghurt (ideally organic).
Increase prebiotics. These are plant fibres that encourage the growth of probiotics. Probiotics are live microorganisms contained in the food we eat and keep your digestive system and immune system healthy. Examples of prebiotics include onions, spring onion, garlic, leeks and apple.
Experiment with making your own fermented foods such as sauerkraut and water kefir. Fermented foods are rich in probiotics. There are some helpful YouTube videos online and many are really easy to make.
Eat more anti-inflammatory herbs such as ginger, turmeric and cinnamon. Drink ginger tea or add it to a vegetable smoothie. Add turmeric to curries and smoothies. Cinnamon is great dusted over porridge, yoghurt or drunk as a tea.
Try and identify possible food intolerances and eliminate them. Seek professional help from a nutritional therapist if possible so you know exactly what you are doing. Trigger foods will promote an inflammatory response in the body. Inflammation has a negative effect on your gut.
If you experience diarrhoea or constipation, ground flaxseeds can be helpful. Eat daily, starting with 1 tsp. and gradually increase to 1 tbsp. per day. Sprinkle on porridge or over your salad.
Avoid caffeine completely. It puts the body on ‘high alert’ and produces stress hormones. This has a negative effect on your nervous system. Switch to herbal tea such as ginger, cinnamon or chamomile. If you still want an energy boost minus the ‘stress effect’ try maca.”
The gut seems to play an important role in how we experience many of our feelings, and I know often we can ‘hold’ difficult feeling in this area of our body. Is this understood by nutritional science, this interaction between our physical response and our emotional self? If so, do you have any guidance on how to support ourselves in difficult times?
“Yes, this is an area that interests me greatly and there are more and more exciting scientific studies coming out all the time in this area.
It is known as the gut-brain axis, which basically means our gut and our brains communicate with each other. “Butterflies” in our stomach is one example. It is important to look after both gut and brain.
For instance, our brain is 60% fat, so it makes sense to feed our brains the right kind of fat. Fat free diets are not necessarily a healthy choice. You see, not all fats are bad. Eating raw nuts, seeds and their oils and oily fish like wild salmon, trout and mackerel are essential to our health, as are avocados and coconut.
As mentioned previously, the lining of our gut is easily damaged by too much stress, caffeine, alcohol, refined foods and processed foods. Over time the lining becomes more permeable, creating inflammation and increasing the risk of food intolerances and digestive symptoms. This is called gut dysbiosis. In order to support our gut-brain axis, we really need to take better care of our digestive system. Follow the healthy digestion advice above, cook with alkalising, plant-based foods and reduce your intake of sugar and acidic foods and drinks.”
If someone were to come to see you what would you explore? What support could a client expect?
“We would look at their current diet and lifestyle habits and identify areas to improve. They would begin making simple and realistic changes, gradually cleaning-up and optimising the nutrient content of their food intake. The most important thing is that we make it realistic, achievable and enjoyable, establishing manageable goals that adapt to their lifestyle.
Before the initial consultation, they would be required to complete a health appraisal questionnaire and food diary. During the consultation, we would go through this in more detail. Our aim is to get to the root cause of symptoms, so we ask questions about digestion, energy, stress and sleep to get an understanding of what’s going on. We then evaluate their individual needs and use the extensive evidence base for nutritional science to develop a personalised, safe and effective nutrition and lifestyle programme.
Quite often, digestion is a good place to start. If we are not absorbing vitamins and minerals from our foods, this has a knock on effect on how we feel emotionally and physically. After all, we are what we absorb, not what we eat.
Testing such as food intolerance testing and stool testing is also available, if required. Shorter follow-up consultations are recommended every two to three weeks, or as needed to assess changes.
Why would you like to work with HSPs?
“The food we eat has a huge impact on how we feel. Getting the balance right is so important. There is a whole variety of calming and nourishing foods available to us, and helping people tap into what nature provides is very rewarding.
The digestive system is sensitive to our emotions, which is why a gentle, planned approach is essential. Going it alone can lead to frustration and confusion. Nutritional therapists are uniquely trained to understand how nutrients and other food components influence the function of the body, protect against disease and restore health.”