Highly Sensitive People: Desensitizing Your Fight or Flight Response: Creating a Sense of Safety in Your Life By Changing the Meaning of Your Experiences
by Ewa Schwarz
Eight years ago I wrote an article Understanding Ourselves on Highly Sensitive People (HSP), being highly sensitive myself. So much has happened since that time. I have learned how to take the quality of being a highly sensitive person and evolve it into something that works for me, while living a relatively normal life.
By desensitizing my emotional triggers, my entire perception has been allowed to change, including how external stimuli affect my body and make it highly sensitive. As I have taught my highly sensitive body and mind to feel safer and experiences less stress, I have developed higher tolerance levels for things that used to easily overwhelm me. This is what I want to share with you now.
Being one of many highly sensitive people means that a person’s senses are very easily overwhelmed. What then happens is that the fight or flight response is triggered, causing a person to feel unsafe. It is possible to train and condition yourself to feel far safer than you normally do being highly sensitive and to desensitize those triggers. This allows you to lead a much more normal life, one where you can process information very differently than you do now.
The additional information that a highly sensitive person perceives can then be put to use in a way that works for you instead of against you. You have a heightened sense of awareness in which you can sensitively read your surroundings better than the average person. When you can process this information clearly, you can make much different choices than when you are highly sensitive and in reaction. Having this extra information becomes a gift rather than a curse.
The key is to teach yourself how to feel safer than you do now, to redefine all of your triggers from being highly sensitive. This takes a combination of approaches from both the mental perspective as well as the physical. This process also requires that you examine all beliefs that you have in your highly sensitive unconscious mind and replace them as necessary.
Lets start with this idea of feeling unsafe. From a very early age we were accosted with information, easily misunderstood, our parents had no clue how to deal with us, etc. Over the years we found that this combination actually increased our sensitivity to the point where we were uncomfortable in our own highly sensitive skin. What really happens over the years is that we felt increasingly unsafe.
Combine being highly sensitive with low self esteem and limiting beliefs and it becomes a recipe for struggling to exist. Many highly sensitive people experience anxiety, depression, chronic stress, and so many more physical challenges. This cycle can not only be stopped, it can be reversed. Highly sensitive people can experience life much differently as a result.
How we perceive what is happening around us now, the definition that we give to events is more often than not based on our highly sensitive past experiences. If we were unsafe in the past, it will trigger the highly sensitive mind into assuming that we are unsafe again now. Your highly sensitive mind is there to try to protect you and it thinks that it needs to be on high alert all the time looking for potential threats. As a highly sensitive person these “threats” seem to appear so much more often.
Yet defining current events from our past experiences is what contributes to the ongoing assault on our highly sensitive senses, making highly sensitive people even more sensitive. But over time the source comes largely from our own minds. Highly sensitive people need to look at each and every incident that triggers an emotional reaction within us and to break it down so that we start to understand that we actually are safe in the current moment.
When you go into an emotional reaction, an assumption is being made based on the highly sensitive minds directive to try to protect you. If you are in reaction, your highly sensitive mind has perceived a threat. It has made an assumption that you are unsafe. It then takes that assumption and from that mistaken perspective, it further defines what is happening around you as if you really are in danger.
Your fight or flight response kicks in, flooding your highly sensitive body with hormones. It is this constant flood that contributes to becoming ill. The highly sensitive body cannot process these hormones if they become chronic, which is what happens to highly sensitive people. This constantly being triggered and being put on high alert trying to protect yourself is exhausting.
The solution is to train yourself to always go back to what the initial assumption is. Is it another person’s emotional reaction? Does it feel like they are attacking you? You need to redefine this. The only reason any person, not just highly sensitive people, goes into emotional reaction is because of fear. Fear takes on so many different forms it is mind-boggling. The bottom line is that all emotional reactions stem from some form of fear.
There are the obvious forms that fear comes in, such as: phobia, dread, anxiety, panic, angst, insecurity, stress, depression, etc. There is also fear of change, confinement, constancy, death, pain, illness, loneliness, not having a (good) source of income, etc.
Then there is anger, annoyance, bitterness, hatred, resentment, prejudice, judgment, being “right”, any belief that causes you to feel a negative emotion towards another person is fear based. Underneath any of those labels is a fear of getting hurt, being misunderstood or wronged, of somebody being that much different than you (our partners being no exception).
People can also have fears of beneficial aspects of life: love, commitment, self-actualization, public speaking, the future, success, etc. Fear can also be subtler and come in the form of doubt, needing to be liked or admired, in how you look, what other people think of you, needing to please another (at home, work, socially, etc.), getting older, irritability, etc.
How we define our value is a prime breeding ground for fear, experiencing fear or doubt about your value. There is also the fear of speaking the truth in all situations, including relationships, family, work, friends, etc. Do you have a fear of conflict? How do you handle an aggressive personality? Are you what you would call a peacemaker for others? What subtle or not so subtle fear is underneath that? Highly sensitive people have many fears.
Knowing this you go back to your own initial emotional reaction. Your highly sensitive mind has made an assumption that you are under some form of attack or that you are unsafe. Instead, choose to see that the other person is in fear and reacting to try to defend themselves. You have a choice here, to continue with your reaction and believe that the threat is true, which it is not, or you can talk yourself through this to feel safe again.
Everyone should do this, not just a highly sensitive person.
Acknowledge that your highly sensitive mind is trying to keep you safe. That is the truth. Then look closer at the source of what is causing your highly sensitive mind to assume that there is a potential threat. Tell yourself that you really do not know what the “threat” really means, which you don’t. Your highly sensitive mind will try to justify its own assumption by creating meaning that is not there. Repeat to yourself that the trigger does not have the meaning that you think it does, that your highly sensitive mind is trying to define it based on your past.
Breathe deeply and slowly and tell yourself that you are safe. Do not allow your highly sensitive mind to continue with its justifications that you are in danger. As with anything new that you learn, you need to practice this. It will take a lot of time and much trial and error to change a lifetime of habit and of feeling unsafe. You can do this with any trigger that a highly sensitive person has.
Even the times where an external stimulus causes you discomfort, part of that discomfort comes from your highly sensitive body tensing up and your highly sensitive mind spiraling into that unsafe zone. Yes you will still probably need to minimize the external overstimulation, but realize that you have just been triggered into fight or flight and you do have the means in which to calm yourself and minimize the hormones that flood you.
You do this by acknowledging how your highly sensitive mind has jumped to protect you by putting you on high alert. There is no threat to you. Breath deeply and slowly and tell yourself that you are safe. Consciously relax the muscles in your body. Calmly take whatever action you need to, while working on what it will take to make your body feel better internally. As a highly sensitive person, you may not have external control over events, but you always have this internal choice.
It is essential that you work on breaking the habit of allowing your highly sensitive mind to define every trigger from your experiences in the past. All emotional triggers fit this definition. Work at it relentlessly, day after day, week after week, year after year. Change the definitions of what your highly sensitive mind automatically jumps to. Search for whatever it is that you can tell yourself in that moment that will allow you to perceive safety and cut the fight or flight response short.
What you will find is that over time, you will start to notice that your fight or flight response starts to lessen. You start to feel safer. You stop defining events as threatening to you. This is going to be a very long process, but it is well worth the battle to take back control over your own highly sensitive experience. It is worth the effort to maximize your physical and emotional health. Doing so allows highly sensitive people to see their sensitivity as a gift.
For myself, being able to minimize my triggers and in many cases eliminate them has become one of the best and biggest accomplishments of my highly sensitive life. Now when I experience all this extra information that I regularly do as a highly sensitive person, I can process most of it without all the extra meaning that my mind used to give it. This information is so valuable in understanding the world.
With this information I can clearly see and clearly understand what is happening for other people. For the most part I have stopped taking other peoples actions personally, because I have taught myself to stop perceiving events as possibly threatening and to fully understand how we all act out of fear. This puts me in a position of personal power. I now have the tools to even further deconstruct my fight or flight response. I can’t even begin to imagine what further freedoms await me.
All of you who highly sensitive people who are reading this can do this. But in order to do this, you will have to let go of many old beliefs and to challenge many ways of thinking that you are accustomed to. Yet the old adage becomes more valid than ever in this regard, with a slight adjustment.
Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy and be able to feel safe in your own skin? Being a highly sensitive person no longer has to hurt.