Mental Health and the Highly Sensitive Person

Do you ever find that noises are just too loud? Lights are too bright? Scents that don’t seem to bother others are noxious to you? You’re always either cold or hot? You find yourself exhausted after spending time with people? If so, you may be what psychologist, Elaine Aron, calls a “Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).”

About Highly Sensitive People (HSP)

HSP have super sensitive nervous systems that pick up on external stimuli more easily than most other people’s do. They also have a hard time filtering out or ignoring cues in their environment that are irrelevant to their situation.

For example, when having a conversation with someone at a party, a HSP may become distracted by the other conversations going on around them instead of being able to tune them out. Or they may not be able to concentrate on reading a book in a quiet room with a clock ticking softly nearby.

Cluttered countertops, the noise level of a cheering crowd at a sporting event, a crying baby, a windy day, a sunny day, a hot day, tight clothes, or a dirty bathroom can all send a HSP over the edge into an anxiety attack or severe agitation.

HSP also tend to over respond emotionally to situations. They can easily pick up on the emotions of others and can even feel drained or stressed out by negative emotional content portrayed on television or in movies.

Because of their decreased ability to regulate their emotional response to stimuli, HSP often have mental health disorders such as bipolar, depression, and anxiety.

What to do if you are a HSP?

  1. Recognize the warning signs. Take notice when you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed, anxious or agitated. Ask yourself, “Am I having a highly sensitive response to some neutral external or internal trigger right now?”
  2. Identify the trigger. Is it something outside of yourself like noise, light, temperature, or smells? Or is it something internal like fatigue, hunger or physical pain?
  3. Have a plan in place to counter act your triggers. Use headphones to block out irritating noises; sunglasses to mute lighting, cold compress to cool off, if hot. Bring a sweater or dress in layers, if cold. Spray perfume on the back of your index finger and inconspicuously bring to your nose to block out environmental odors. Drink green tea for fatigue; carry healthy snack for unexpected hunger pains and pain medicine for unexpected flare ups. Take time outs from social gatherings in your car, in the bathroom or back bedroom or leave early. Drive yourself so you can leave when you need to. Wear comfortable clothing, get a simple hair style, stay organized, and keep a routine.

All of these things can help a Highly Sensitive Person thrive. Are you a HSP? How so? What helps you cope?

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Things are Getting a Little Personal

I noticed over the past year my posts have become somewhat generic and distant, like making small talk with someone at the water cooler. I haven’t offered much of anything in the way of myself or my personal struggles with mental illness. It’s not for lack of having symptoms, trust me! It’s just been easier to report the facts and keep anything extra under wraps.

My fear is mostly that my anonymity will be compromised, so I hesitate to write about anything in too much detail. I suppose my paranoia could be considered a symptom of my anxiety disorder, so there’s that.

I have recently become more open with family and friends about the limitations my anxiety disorder places on me as far as the things I can’t do, the places I can’t go, and the physical pain it causes me, especially if I push myself beyond my limits. I think this has surprised them some these last few months. I’m not sure they understand, but they seem supportive.

I feel blessed that I haven’t had a major depressive episode in quite a while. I do a little dance between hypomania and a brief down fall every spring turn summer, but other than that my mood disorder is fairly stable. It’s just this darn anxiety mixed with intermittent panic attacks.

I’ll continue to write what I know, sharing knowledge about mental health and mental illness, incorporating my voice a little more than I have been lately.

In the meantime, I’d like to know what you would like me to write about. I’ve written meditations, essays, writing prompts, poetry, and reported on research articles. What would you like to see more of?

Finding Comfort Amidst Change – A Meditation

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Change is difficult for us sometimes.  Often we avoid it or fight it because it scares us. There is a sense of safety in maintaining the status quo even if it is unhealthy.

When positive change occurs it can bring on stress even though the change is good for us.  Sitting with the anxiety, feeling it run through our veins, through our heart, circle our mind again and again, letting it exhale through our breath can eventually allow us to become more comfortable with the stress. Like anything or anyone, the more time we really pay attention to the details of it, I mean really, really observe every nuance of something, the less threatening it will seem.

Today I will sit with my discomfort and get to know it by observing everything about it, including where I feel it in my body, my mind, and my spirit, and I will know peace.

Is a Daily Routine or An Unstructured Lifestyle Better for Our Mental Health?

When I was first diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder my life was in complete chaos. I had a job that didn’t have set hours, with responsibilities and a caseload that changed on a daily basis. Plus, I had three small children with a husband who worked varying hours, including nights and weekends. My days were anything but routine.

Fast forward five years later, and I am a stay-at-home mom with a set routine of getting up at the same time every morning to get the kids off to school, work on house chores during the day as my illness allows me, rest in the afternoon, be there for the kids when they get home from school and in the evening for school and sport events. I also take my medications on a routine schedule and go to bed around the same time every night.

Researchers have demonstrated that routines can help those with bipolar disorder by balancing their sleep/wake cycles. Routines can also help those with anxiety by making daily activities more manageable and predictable. Routines help us get more stuff done by keeping us on task, thus providing more time for rest and relaxation, which is also good for mental health. And routines give us a sense of control over our lives since we get to choose what we include in them.

I do find that as my illness symptoms creep back into my life, there is sometimes the need for flexibility in my routine. For example, when I am fatigued from depression, I may spend more time in bed and less time on chores.

However, after a few days or a week, my routine usually kicks back in and I am at least doing a little bit each day. While I might not feel motivated to engage in my routine, my routine motivates me to get things done, because it is what I am used to doing. It doesn’t feel right to not do it.

What about you?  Are routines good for your mental health or do you prefer an unstructured lifestyle?

3 Easy Ways to Practice Gratitude for Better Mental Health

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This week, in the United States, we are celebrating Thanksgiving Day. It is meant to be a day spent with family, being grateful for all we have in life. Often times, however, it is a stressful week filled with mad-dashes to crowded grocery stores, hours of cleaning and cooking, homes filled with obnoxious relatives, and the start of over-indulgent spending sprees as Christmas shopping begins the day after Thanksgiving, infamously dubbed as “Black Friday.”

It can also be an extra lonely and depressing day for those who have lost loved ones around this time of year or for those who do not have anyone with whom to celebrate or share a Thanksgiving Day meal.

In both scenarios, scientific evidence shows that practicing gratitude can improve a person’s mental health, in terms of both anxiety and depression. Now, this doesn’t mean that being grateful one day or one week a year is going to make a difference. It is something that has to been done consistently over time.

Why Gratitude is Good for our Mental Health

The evidence is in:  Across three experiments by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough (2003,) they found evidence that practicing gratitude leads to positive emotional and interpersonal outcomes.  A 2006 study in Behavior Research and Therapy found that Vietnam Veterans who practiced gratitude had lower rates of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Robert Emmons, the world’s leading researcher on gratitude, has this to say:

  • “Gratitude allows us to celebrate the present. It magnifies positive emotions.
  • Gratitude blocks toxic, negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret—emotions that can destroy our happiness. There’s even recent evidence, including a 2008 study by psychologist Alex Wood in the Journal of Research in Personality, showing that gratitude can reduce the frequency and duration of episodes of depression and protect people from stress.
  • Grateful people are more stress resistant. There’s a number of studies showing that in the face of serious trauma, adversity, and suffering, if people have a grateful disposition, they’ll recover more quickly.  I believe gratitude gives people a perspective from which they can interpret negative life events and help them guard against post-traumatic stress and lasting anxiety.
  • Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth. I think that’s because when you’re grateful, you have the sense that someone else is looking out for you—someone else has provided for your well-being, or you notice a network of relationships, past and present, of people who are responsible for helping you get to where you are right now.

Once you start to recognize the contributions that other people have made to your life—once you realize that other people have seen the value in you—you can transform the way you see yourself.”

 

3 Easy Ways to Start Practicing Gratitude Today

  1. The easiest way to start practicing gratitude is to wake up each morning and think of three things for which you are grateful. Name them off in your head and spend just a moment thinking about each one, and then go about your day.  Or think of them at night before you go to sleep, pondering each one as you drift off into dreamland.
  2. One of the most effective ways to practice gratitude, according to Emmons, is to keep a gratitude journal. Write five things for which you are grateful in it once a week.
  3. Finally, act grateful. Don’t just think it and write it, but say it to others, smile, say thank you, give freely in gratitude, write thank you notes, give hugs. A grateful spirit is contagious and attractive. People will be drawn to you, and you will know a new peace and calm in your life.

Personally, I am grateful for this opportunity to write about gratitude. I feel good just writing about it for you. I am grateful that you are there to read it.

I am also grateful for this week and all that it holds for me. I am grateful for my day of rest today and the busyness of tomorrow and Thursday. I am grateful for my new holiday outfit and my dog and the quiet in my home at the moment.

What are you grateful for?

5 Tips on How to Love Yourself When You Have a Mental Illness

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This morning, my middle schooler brought to my attention a quote she heard on social media:

“Can anyone say they truly love themselves?”

I asked her if she loved herself and to my relief she said, yes, except for how tall she is. 🙂  Then she asked me if I loved myself.  My breath caught in my throat as years of self-hatred flashed before my eyes, and I hesitated for half a second before giving her my best answer:  I love my true self, but I don’t like everything that I do.

I prayed she didn’t notice my hesitation, because I want to lead by example and instill a good sense of self-worth within her, but apparently, and thankfully, she already has that despite my poor self-esteem and overall dissatisfaction with my appearance and behaviors.

I went on to explain to her that our “true selves,” our spiritual selves, are different from our human selves, and that I really love my true self, the pure, perfect side of me.  It is the human side, the ill side, that is hard to like sometimes.  She looked at me like I was crazy, because, well, she’s only twelve and I was getting way too philosophical for her.  🙂

Our conversation got me thinking though, about how much I dislike myself because of my mental illness, its symptoms and subsequent behaviors – the depression that leads to crying and laying in bed all day, the irritability that leads to losing my temper with the kids, the anxiety that leads to extra work for my husband to do.  All of these things surmount to loads of guilt and self-hatred, thereby perpetuating the symptoms which caused the behaviors in the first place.

How do those of us with mental illness combat this destructive thinking; disrupt this negative thought cycle?

How do we come to love ourselves despite our mental illnesses?

Here are some ideas:

  1. Change our thoughts – I know, I know – easier said than done.  A long time ago, I even wrote about how impossible it can be, (How Positive Thinking Can Be a Crock) but try replacing negative thoughts with positive ones.  For example, instead of thinking, “I’m such a loser,” say to yourself, “I am a kind, thoughtful person with friends who enjoy my company.”  If you can’t bring yourself to think of positive thoughts, that is ok.  Don’t stress over it.  Just being aware of the negative ones is a good start.
  2. Keep a thought journal and write down any negative thoughts you have that day in one column.  In a second column challenge those thoughts.  For example, when my daughter said she didn’t like the fact that she is taller than everyone else, I said, “Even though being tall is an advantage when playing volleyball?”  She said, “Oh yeah, I guess I do like being tall then.”
  3. Make a list of positive attributes in your journal.  If you have a hard time coming up with things, ask friends or family members for ideas.  Keep adding to the list and refer to it often.
  4. Practice, practice, practice.  Just like learning any new skill or playing a sport, you won’t get good at this over night.  It will take lots of repetition before it becomes more automatic.  I have been keeping a thought journal for almost two months now and I still have a hard time catching myself in the midst of self-criticism, but this brings me to the final tip:
  5. Don’t give up!  Keep trying.  Have faith that it will work and that your joy and peace of mind are worth it.

And remember:

You are not your mental illness.

Your true self is perfect.

What to Do About Bipolar Disorder and Stress

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Bipolar and Stress

We all have stress. Can’t avoid it. Can’t get rid of it. Might as well learn how to deal with it. Right? Wrong. Let’s make a list of our stressors. Pretty long list, eh? I bet we can avoid or get rid of at least a few of them if we really wanted to. It may take some finagling, help from others and a lot of courage, but I bet we can do it.

The problem is we may be too worried about what other people think or hurting someone’s feelings or feeling too guilty to make the changes necessary to reduce our stress. We may be too proud to ask others for help or too embarrassed to let others see how we really are, so we put on our masks and act like everything is fine, thereby increasing our stress.

For those of us with bipolar disorder, this is especially dangerous because stress can trigger mood episodes. According to an article on PsychCentral, “people with bipolar disorder are more prone to stress than the average population.”

Along with the danger of triggering mood episodes, chronic stress can over-produce stress hormones resulting in “chemical imbalances and physical changes in parts of the brain already vulnerable due to bipolar disorder. The prefrontal cortex shrinks, leading to emotional instability, self-regulation problems, and mood changes.”

So, you can see how important it is to reduce the amount of stress in your life! My doctor told me just that and my response was: “Yeah, right! I’ll just get rid of my kids then.”

There are some stressors we obviously cannot eliminate. However, I have made changes to reduce my stress, even with my kids like making them do more for themselves and not saying yes to every activity they want to do.

I go to support group meetings for people in recovery from drugs and alcohol. In one meeting, there is this one lady in particular who causes me a lot of anxiety whenever I see her. So, I now avoid that meeting even though I like the other people who go there. The stress is not worth it to me. There are too many other meetings I can go to where I don’t feel stressed.

I say “no” to seventy-five percent of the parties I am invited to because of my social anxiety. I know I offend some people because I say no so much, but I don’t care. I used to force myself to go and then get panic attacks while there and sick with anxiety and migraines for days afterwards. I have to eliminate the stress that I can from my life in order to stay balanced and healthy.

Let’s not forget about positive stressors, too. A recent weekend trip to see friends, while fun, left me feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. I came home and crashed for two days straight just to mentally and physically recuperate from lack of sleep and over-stimulation. Fortunately, my husband helped around the house so I could do this.

Before I understood how bipolar works, I would have continued trying to do everything for and with the kids until I crashed into yet another severe depression. I also would have returned from that weekend trip and went on with my week like any “normal” person would have. Only unlike a “normal person,” by week’s end, I would have been in full manic irritability and dissociation. This would have lasted for a week or two followed by a depressive episode lasting for who knows how long. Now, I know good self-care is the key to managing my stress.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to play shrinky-dink with my brain, so

My basic plan when dealing with stress is this:

  • Identify my stressors
  • Get rid of them when possible (e.g., say, “No.”)
  • Avoid them when possible (e.g., remove self from situation)
  • Ask for help
  • Practice good self-care (eat well, sleep well, take meds, have routine)
  • This goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway – when I am stressed I write.  (Guess you know how I am feeling right now.) 😉

What helps you deal with the stress in your life?