Sensory Processing Sensitivity, A Primer

This is the first in a series of posts exploring Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS). In the series, we’ll discuss what SPS is, some common struggles for highly sensitive people, and some coping techniques. I work with the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) in my practice and identify as a HSP too, so this topic feels very important to me. I hope it helps you (even just a little bit) to live well in a world which can feel overwhelming, as well as rich beyond words.

Our Senses Bring the World to Us, for Better or Worse
Our sensory systems are the gateway by which we experience the world. We experience the social world by hearing the voice of another and watch emotion revealed in the small motions they make, or in the glint of an eye. Smelling a scent can transport us away to another time. Hearing the sound of rain can have us sleeping sweetly. Sometimes, especially for the highly sensitive (those who experience SPS), the world can sometimes feel like too much. All the information flowing into our sensitive systems can simply be too much to process. For example, in a social situation, I’ll be aware of so many things: the banging beats of music in the background, the sound of another conversation nearby, the smells of food, and then someone speaking to me with all their feelings and intricacies, plus my desire to really, presently listen… it can feel like too much.
Feeling overwhelmed can be a clue that the way we are choosing to live our lives is exhausting us. Which is to say that, in order for the highly sensitive to thrive, sometimes things will need to change. Change requires a certain sort of environment: one in which we can rest and reflect in order to make decisions and take action. Rest can be hard to find, though, even if we have managed to prioritise the time. It can be difficult to decide how to do what’s good for you. I have found it hard, too.

What is A Highly Sensitive Person? Am I One?
If what I have said throughout this website, particularly on my home page, resonates with you, chances are you are highly sensitive. If people have told you that you are “too sensitive,” then it might be time to hear a different message: a message that your sensitivity is an innate trait, that you have been born in a way which allows you to take in more information than most and reflect deeply. If this sounds like you, you are not made wrongly, but are sensitive in a way that can (when in the right environment) nourish you and the world. However, if you’ve not heard about this term before, I would encourage you to explore more. You can take a look on my website, or further afield (there are links from my page).

Listening to Our Sensitivities
Our sensitivities can provide such wisdom and joy. My ability to empathise, to use my sensitivity with another and my deep reflection on what it means to live, opens the world up to me time and time again. Yet, we can be required to misuse our sensitivities too, whether that’s through societal or relational demands, we can end up not hearing what our body is telling us. This is by no means always the case, but some schools of psychotherapy, point to a link between our senses and some chronic issues we might have… if you have a headache which centres around your eyes, or a migraine which affects your sight, perhaps you have seen enough. If your shoulders ache, are you carrying too much? I like to ask myself these questions sometimes.

Our perspective of the world flows through our senses, this is the way it will always be. But we do, at least some of the time, get to choose when we allow, pause or turn away from the complexities that face us. It’s okay to find stuff difficult; you don’t have to keep doing it because you’ve been told you should. In my next post, I’ll focus on how you might find ways to find some rest and create a better relationship between your needs and your senses.

We all need a nest

This cartoon, is kind of funny, but made me have a wee tear in my eye. It captures something of deep acceptance, which can be deeply moving. It’s the essential part of person-centred counselling, of love, of a healing relationship.

Tips on travel for the Highly Sensitive Person

TravelKitThis time when I travelled I did some thinking and research about what could help those of us who are highly sensitive travel a little easier. I find holidays a curious combination of recovery and pressure. The combination of the shoulds of time away – BE RELAXED and HAVE LOTS OF FUN combined with a lack of sleep, the furious way I try and get everything ‘sorted’ before I leave plus possibly a new culture to absorb. Well, it can be a bit overwhelming. Sometimes I float above all that, and after some rest I then can have some fun, especially when I’m with people who understand and love me.

But for me to have a good holiday it is essential to respect my need for solitude, rest and understanding. Taking time out and being assertive might be a crucial part of that, and you can read more about that here…. BUT ALSO I found some stuff helps too! So here are some of the cool things I found help, so hopefully they might be helpful to you too.

1. It’s a really cooling water bottle. When the transport is a sweaty affair, my sensitivity helps me to really appreciate the contrast. Sometimes sensitivity means I appreciate things which others might not even notice. Cold, lemony water travelling down is just lovely to me.

2. Melatonin – sleep is essential to us all, but lack of sleep to an already sensitive system can be a path to overwhelm. If jet lag is a possibility consider a remedy such as melatonin.

3. Snacks – if you are already receiving lots of sensory information putting your body under the stress of hunger isn’t going to go too well. High protein, whole grain, nuts or seeds or fresh fruit is may be the best for a body which is probably sensitive to stimulants and processed sugary foods. I often opt for an easy bounce ball and oatcakes stashed in my bag.

4. Travel Sickness Tablets – I’m sensitive. Pretty much everything about me is. Of course this means even moving fast makes me sick. Travel sickness tablets are great.

5. Ear Plugs – The sensitive person’s best friend (y’know apart from you know the deep relationships you have) I think has to be ear plugs. I think the silicon ones are best. I missed it off the picture, but an eye mask can be really handy too.

6. Earphones to listen to…

7. Phone (used for music/podcasts/apps) … one of the following suggestions:

– Music which makes your heart sing

– Nature sounds, there are many apps out there. There are some which have white and brown noise, forest/ bird song, the noise of a washing machine or gongs.

– Favourite podcasts – you’re a deep thinker – use the travelling time to do what you are best at, thinking about the meaning of life. My favourites are: Tara Brach, Philosophy Bites, Radio Lab and Sheep Dressed like Wolves (a Uk based HSP podcast).

8. Big Scarf – A lovely small blanket or scarf, to cosy under, or to sprinke with a fragrance you are partial to. I know the smell of things others don’t even notice can leave me turning green. I can bury my head in this and survive.

9. Lavender Oil – I sprinkle my scarf in Lavender oil. It’s a better smell then the weird gaseous fragrance that are emitted by fellow travellers and the microwaves on trains cooking whole weird burger and bun combos. Ugh.

10. Obviously I missed off a book. A good book.

Travel well. Look after yourself. Try and have an ok holiday (the pressure of a great holiday can sometimes be too much).

Michelle x

Do you love your body?

If not, I think it’s time.

I’ve been aware of carrying a sense of waiting with me. It’s as though at some level I’m waiting for life to start. I knew that this is it; this is my life, but some part of me wouldn’t allow that knowledge to truly sink in. It’s strange the chatter in your head, which becomes so familiar. I was waiting until I was thinner and I had failed to notice the insidious nature of this repeated message. The thoughts have been keeping me living life in the shadows. So much of my own chatter is around not being accepted, and being found to be ugly.

Recently a client said she loved her body, and it changed me. I thought ‘I want to love my body too.’

So I have begun.

I am trying to love my body as it is. I am trying to stop waiting until I am “better”. It’s been amazing and painful too. I used to hope I could become perfect, because this would make me invulnerable. But I am vulnerable and I know that it’s this openness to the pains and joys of life which is real beauty. It’s the visceral openness which connects us.

If you have thought for a lot of your life that you need to make up for how you are, by sacrificing your needs for others, if you sometimes feel shame when you meet the eyes of others, or if fear becomes lodged in your skin and you begin to hate it — I’d like to offer you a heartfelt alternative.

I’d like to say to you: you are beautiful as you are. Not when you lose some weight or start to eat better. Now. I am beautiful and so are you.

For so long I had hated my body, and the story is so typical because I was a healthy, fit and a melancholy sort of beautiful. But I punished my body because I didn’t know how else to deal with this sense that I did not fit, that I was wrong, built wrong, made wrong. I thought at times people could see ‘evil’ through my skin. I’ve come so far from that place now, but there was a hangover, something left over to shed. I’m bored of viewing my own beauty superficially; so here I make a pact to learn and to try to have a good relationship with my body, hopefully eventually to love it.

I sometimes hate my stomach, there’s a bit of fat on it, and it doesn’t look as it ‘should’. But secretly I’ve liked it’s softness and the curve of it. I have begun to think about it from the inside too, it feels so much, it tells me my needs, it lets me know of my anxiety. It even feels anxiety in empathy with another. Surely this makes it beautiful.

lovebody

We tend to view ourselves in bits. Focus on our nose, dislike it; but do you do that to people you love? Beauty isn’t in the smile on a photo, it’s the experience of being with someone when they light up with laughter. Knowing that, letting that sink into my bones makes me feel brave.

When I was at university someone said of her boyfriend “I didn’t used to like hairy bodies, but now I’m glad it keeps him warm” I loved the sentiment at the time. Try to find a part of yourself you bully and begin to think of it as part of your beautiful whole.

Some of this can be a painful process, as with all change. If you have hated your body for a long time you have a familiar process of blaming it for feelings which are hard to bare and it can be hard to find a place for your distress.

If you would like to change this process ask what support you might need, and go find it if you can, This might be finding a good therapist, a trusted friend, or online. Find a way to share and connect through your pain and move away from placing the distress into your skin.

What we see as beautiful is nowhere close to what we experience when we feel beauty. Let it in.

Beauty goes deep; and because of this, you are beautiful as you are.

Guest Blog: Naturopathy for the Highly Sensitive

By Michelle Matthews of Wholistic HealthcareHFC Shel sepia (6)

How can physical or tangible complementary therapies benefit issues of the mind and emotion?

Naturopathy is not just limited to issues of the physical body. Naturopathy’s main health philosophy is to establish balance for the whole person, by looking at the mind, body and spirit and using nature to allow healing.

A naturopath uses their “tools” to help the person achieve inner balance. These tools may include herbal medicine, nutritional therapy & diet, Iridology, functional testing and perhaps a few others.

As a skilled naturopath, I do not just use one therapy for a person but an aspect of a few or all of them to help achieve a sense of wellbeing and health.

But how can Naturopathy benefit you as a highly sensitive person, will not any other complementary therapy do?

As a naturopath the aim is to understand you as a person and your health concerns. A detailed case is taken of your current health concerns, past and present health, discuss your current eating and diet habits, discuss your body systems and some analysis such as Iridology is conducted.

We may eat many foods which we think are good for us or the media and press tells us is good. But are they good for highly sensitive people?

In fact, when we are low, anxious, nervous and reactive to people and our environment we can eat to comfort ourselves, forget to eat or even over indulge in certain foods. It is these types of eating patterns which can lead to more unsettling feelings.

As a sensitive person it is important to eat the right foods for you to nourish the body in times of stress or anxiousness.

For example foods such as chilli, garlic and onions are common vegetables and spices. But can be too stimulating for a sensitive type person. They can evoke anger, too much heat within the body and can bring on sweating in people.

They contain a rich compound called sulphur which dominates the liver. Stimulating the liver can be detoxifying and beneficial for some people but can be too stimulating for others especially if they are sensitive and are prone to stomach problems. Did you know that chilli can be addictive?

Diet and the way we eat and select our food is just simply one aspect that a naturopath will address.

It is important to get the right approach and balance to wellbeing and health for you.

Naturopathy may just help you on the right path.

Michelle Matthews is an Australian trained Naturopath with over 15 years clinical experience. She has a large and varied client base that uses Naturopathy as their form of healthcare for both physical and emotional health issues. She is based in Leith, Edinburgh.

For more information: phone 0845 11 99 099 or email: enquiries@wholistichealthcareuk.com

Clinic: Leith Therapy Clinic, 41 Commercial St Edinburgh EH6 6JD (withing Tiso’s)

How to sleep better and feel more rested

Apparently I was an insomniac. I actually didn’t realise, because for as long as I could remember I’d slept this way. It would usually take me two hours to fall to sleep. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, and every morning I’d wake up feeling pretty knackered. Sometimes I’d only get a couple of hours of sleep.

Realising that I was an insomniac was quite helpful.  I decided to research how I could support myself to sleep better – and here’s what I found out.

I hope that what I learnt can also help you to sleep better and feel more rested.

  1. The body is a creature of routine. It likes to trust you to get it into and out of bed, at the same time every day. If sometimes you’re unable to do this, your body will forgive you, but its needs need to be respected. 
  1. Sleep goes through a number of phases, and one of these very important phases is deep sleep. I have always described myself a ‘light sleeper’, which simply meant I wasn’t great at falling into a deep sleep quickly.  You can train your body to fall into a deeper sleep more quickly, and it’s not that hard to do. This is how you do it: go to bed half an hour later and get up half an hour later. Simple. Yes, you will feel sleepy at first, but then you will train your body to fall more quickly into a deep sleep.
  1. Doing anything other than sleeping in your bed (although intimacy is allowed) does not help you to sleep. I know there are people who read in bed and fall to sleep, but they do not have an issue with sleeping. If you find falling or staying asleep difficult then try not to read, watch tv or check your phone. This is because your body will begin to associate the bed and sleeping time with a whole host of stimulating activities, which will not help.
  1. Dedicate your bedroom to sleeping alone – do not use the room for other activities if you can help it.
  1. An hour before bed do not look at anything with a blue light screen i.e. computer, mobile phone, tablet – as there is evidence that it stops you from sleeping.
  1. Exercise helps you sleep, so try and do gentle exercise – even if you are tired – a few times a week. A walk around the block or going for a swim, will all help you get into the habit of sleeping better.
  1. Get out of bed when you wake up, do not lie there feeling tired, pressing the snooze button. I know you will be tired, but lying there will make it harder to sleep well, as you will associate bed with lying in bed awake. Get up and sit on the sofa if you are tired.
  1. At the point you cannot sleep there are a number of things I have found helpful:
    • Remember that tomorrow you will feel tired, and despite that not being ideal, you will just be tired and you have survived being tired before.
    • If your mind is racing, try and be aware of your thoughts, but choose not to follow their trail. For example, if you are thinking about a meeting the next day, say in your mind, in a slow voice, “just now I am thinking about my meeting” then the cupboard you meant to tidy out pops into your mind, “now I am thinking about that cupboard I needed to tidy it out”. Make sure your minds voice stays slow, even insert in a yawn here and there. Repeat until sleep.

I do hope these tips help you enjoy improved sleep and feel more rested. Most of the information was gained from this book, if you want to read more.

If you are finding it hard to sleep because of anxiety, then sometimes getting the rest we need can be really difficult. If the tips above don’t work, it’s not because you have failed, simply that life can be really hard at times. And sometimes that’s when counselling might be of help.

If you have any tips that work for you, please comment and share your experience below.

Surviving Christmas

Christmas can be a difficult time of year for many of us. The image of a happy family and friends enjoying time together over the festive period can make lots of us feel lost, unhappy and anxiSurviving christmasous; because perhaps this image doesn’t match your experience at all.

If you’re spending Christmas with your family this year and you find this difficult, try to be kind to yourself if you can. Families can be a place where you can feel unsafe or just struggle to hold onto any compassion you have for yourself. Elizabeth Gilbert talks here about how our ‘buttons’ can be pressed so easily by our family, because it’s often our families who had a hand in installing them. It can be painful to experience this yet again – the feeling that you aren’t accepted by those people you most wanted acceptance from.

If this is the case for you, try to work out how you can take some time out, whether that’s going out for a walk or run on your own, going to bed early and using that time to write and connect with how you are feeling; basically, if you can, come up with a plan to get some time for yourself, however that might work for you.

There are a few important tips you might like to think about or try to help you to survive the Christmas period. They include boundary setting, having realistic expectations of yourself and others and making time for things that are important to you: you can read more about this here.

Christmas can be a lonely time too. Whether this is because you’re on your own, or surrounded by people who don’t seem to understand you; the ache for belonging can feel particularly acute. Loneliness can be hard to bear, a deeply painful and fearful experience.

Loneliness is a complicated thing too, one aspect of which can come from our experience of relationships growing up and the way in which we survived these relationships. As adults, these methods of surviving may not be helping when developing close relationships – in fact, they might be keeping us isolated.

This is where counselling can help, by helping you to value and understand your ability to survive difficult relationships, then choose (when feels safe and appropriate) to live differently. The other aspect I spoke about here; the human experience of never being able to share everything that goes on inside of us with others.

Part of my reason for writing this post is that I want to say to those who feel lonely, anxious or sad at Christmas; this is painful, it really is, you are not bad for feeling this way. I want you to know that your experience can be understood and you are here in your life because of all that you’ve survived. So try to be kind to yourself at this time of year, if you can.

If you need to talk to someone soon do contact the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 or email jo@samaritans.org
If you’d like to explore counselling with me in the new year please get in contact – together we can begin to explore relationships and your experience of life so far.

Take good care. Michelle x

Inexpensive Self Care in Edinburgh

Self Care in EdinburghI wanted to simply share a few ideas of things you can do in the Edinburgh area to give yourself a bit of space, a bit of peace. Of course it totally depends on what you’re into, but if you are sensitive, you might be craving some time out. I encourage clients during our counselling sessions to find ways to value who they are, and often self care can be part of that.

I find that setting aside time for myself helps me to feel more grounded, feel valued when I’m finding it a struggle to value myself and gives me the space to reflect. Could you include a few minutes, an hour, a day doing something that you need right now? It can help.

Before you fall into doing something: think, is this really what you want to do right now? If you’re going to do something good for yourself, own up to it, and celebrate that time. For example, rather than almost sneakily watching that box set, celebrate that time alone: make some popcorn, get a take away, bring the duvet with you; whatever you can do to make a mini event of it. It’s about treating yourself as you would a treasured friend.

So here are a few ideas to get you started.
(As a disclaimer – please note I don’t endorse or guarantee anything about any of these places. You might like them, you might now. I do hope you find something you enjoy though.)

At home

Allow yourself that time alone, whether it’s watching your favourite tv show, or listening to music. Value that time, and make it special (see above)

Take a soothing epsom salts bath – it’s said to have numerous health benefits

Allow yourself to lie on the floor, and listen to the sounds around, observe your breathing, notice the sensation of the floor taking your weight. Spend about 3 or so minutes here.

Take 30 minutes out to create something to express how you are feeling just now.

Write about how things are for you now, check here for guidance on reflective journaling

Nature

There’s loads of research out there which links improved mental health with your contact with nature. Here’s a few ideas to connect with nature in the city:

Take a flask of tea or coffee and climb to the top of a favourite hill, be it Arthur’s Seat, Carlton Hill or Blackford Hill. Drink in the view and keep yourself toasty with your hot drink.

Sit beneath a tree in the meadows or your favourite park, if the weather suits. For these chilly months buy or bring a hot drink. My favourite is a cardamom hot chocolate from Peter’s Yard on a bench in the Meadows on a chilly day.

Indoors

On a rainy day there are some beautiful spaces to simply be in, perhaps take your sketch book or write something about how you are.

Good spaces I have found are: the atrium in the National Museum of Scotland (big, grand space), the open spaces in the Portrait Gallery (there are seats and space and art) or perhaps the big airy space of a cathedral (if religious spaces feel ok or helpful for you).

Spend time in front of two pieces of art from any of the vast collections and galleries in Edinburgh.

Portobello Turkish Baths – are a treat (if you like being very hot, followed by very cold) for your body. An inexpensive spa day.

I do understand that there can be times where to decide to care for yourself can feel too hard; but it may help, even just a little. You are worth the effort, you really are.

I’d love to hear what you do as self care. Please post your ideas below, and feel free to share this post with others who may find it useful.

‘Being with’ your feelings

A thing that I often encourage (but don’t push) clients to try is to feel how they are actually feeling. The thing about feelings is that the more you try to ignore them, the more they begin to swell, so eventually they become overwhelming. It’s the same with all feelings, not just anxiety, and well, I could definitely not say it better myself….

Counselling the feeling away...

Today

This is a really short blog post about the impact my clients have on me. Today I have really been struck by the beauty of my clients, in their struggle to be kind, real and true to themselves. And whilst I often feel this, today it’s taught me about how to be be kind to myself in my own struggles. I am so grateful of what my clients share with me. And today, seeing the beauty in others, has helped me to re-find it in myself.