Updated: Jan 20
How do I know if I or someone I know is a highly sensitive person?
A HSP is someone who is largely affected by the actions and emotions of others, as well as changes to their environment. As an HSP, your senses are on full alert everywhere you go, and your mind is always picking up little details from your surroundings. This is similar in some ways to empaths, which feel the emotions of other living beings in an extreme way.
HSP differs slightly, because this person may or may not choose to take any action towards “fixing” or “helping” the individuals around them. The energy that a person with HSP absorbs from external stimuli instead affects them on every level of their being.
Persons who consider themselves to be highly sensitive will notice every text message notification, weird smell or furrowed brow and may feel drained and overwhelmed. Under circumstances where the average person may not feel threatened or feel the need for concern, a highly sensitive person will be on high alert. This can cause an imbalance of the stress response hormones in the body, and make the individual’s sympathetic nervous system work overtime.
It may make a HSP feel more secure to be over prepared in every situation. They may have a hard time parting with material items or may hoard money in fear of a time of drought. Fear of the unknown is common for most people, but someone with HSP will go to very far lengths to ensure a specific outcome or to learn everything they can about an event or situation ahead of time.
Someone who is highly sensitive may also have a hard time relaxing in a non-optimal environment. For example, in a clinical setting the individual may have trouble closing their eyes or taking deep breaths, when the rest of the group welcomes the change of pace.
Highly Sensitive Persons and Addiction
If someone is highly sensitive, they may struggle to cope with the constant messages from their internal and external environments. This can lead to the person seeking ways of coping outside themselves.
Many persons who are highly sensitive look for ways to quiet the mind and get a break from obsessive behaviors. If that person is exposed to substances that do that for them, it is likely they will become addicted. Since being HSP affects every part of their being, including their personality, behaviors and habits, an addiction can quickly take control.
Addiction and Meditation
First off, what is meditation and what is the role of a meditation teacher?
Meditation teachers are facilitators. They are not usually (although they can be) therapists, counselors or psychologists. If they do happen to have a degree in any of those fields, that role still takes a back seat to the main purpose of a meditation teacher.
Meditation teachers, like mentioned above, are facilitators, they simply provide the content, and offer up experienced suggestions to the students taking the meditation. It is up to the student, on whether or not they allow the content from the meditation to affect them in a positive way.
Meditation is a beautiful tool for self exploration, and for that reason, it is important for meditation teachers to remain as neutral as possible. A meditation space is a place of non-judgement and acceptance, no matter the amount of commitment the student has to the practice. It is the journey of the student, that matters and nothing else.
If a student has trouble committing to, or involving themselves in meditations, that is okay. Simply being in a quiet space free from outside responsibilities is healing.
Meditation and its Benefits in a Clinical Environment
Stress reduction is one of the top reasons a person will decide to try meditation for the first time. Normally, mental and physical stress cause increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This produces many of the harmful effects of stress, such as the release of inflammation-promoting chemicals called cytokines.
These effects can disrupt sleep, promote depression and anxiety, increase blood pressure and contribute to fatigue and cloudy thinking.
In an eight-week study, a meditation style called "mindfulness meditation" reduced the inflammation response caused by stress.
(see full study-here https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24395196/)
Research has shown that meditation may also improve symptoms of stress-related conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder and fibromyalgia.
2. Controls Anxiety
Less stress ultimately equates to less anxiety. Some individuals will even differ in the way they define stress and anxiety. For some there may be no difference between the two, for others high amounts of stress can lead to anxiety and extreme anxious feelings in the mind and body.
Habitual meditation helps reduce anxiety and anxiety-related mental health issues like social anxiety, phobias and obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
3. May Help to Fight Addictions
Meditation is not easy. In many situations it would not even be considered “fun”. Meditating is a self-discipline and like other self-disciplines such as, exercise and diet, meditation takes work and commitment.
The mental discipline you can develop through meditation may help you break dependencies by increasing your self-control and awareness of triggers for addictive behaviors.
Occasionally, meditation will bring up negative emotions, or cause a feeling of unpleasantness in the participants. This is totally normal, and is actually a part of the process. Sitting with these negative feelings in a safe place teaches the participants that they are able to cope in a healthy way, and is an example of real life situations.
Meditation shows the participant that everything is not perfect, some things are challenging, yet we can still make it through.
Research has shown that meditation may help people learn to redirect their attention, increase their willpower, control their emotions and impulses and increase their understanding of the causes behind their addictive behaviors
One study that taught 19 recovering alcoholics how to meditate found that participants who received the training got better at controlling their cravings and craving-related stress
(see full study https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4106278/)
4. Helps Control Pain
Biological science today has made it very clear that we can no longer think of any part of the body in isolation. No body system is unaffected by another, and in most cases the parts of the body are so connected it makes little sense to think of them on their own.
Acknowledging the connection between the mind and the body is a primary example of this new type of thinking. Your perception of pain is connected to your state of mind, and it can be elevated in stressful conditions. If stress is reduced, and individuals are taught ways they can cope with emotional and physical pain, symptoms will reduce.
The mind cannot function properly if it is not given the chance to reset and evaluate the situation. Since many times, sufferers from addiction have pain related triggers, lowering chronic pain symptoms can increase their chances of maintaining sobriety.
Meditation subliminally teaches participants to respond to environmental and internal stimuli, instead of react to it. Thus, decreasing the chance the individual will overreact to pain or make an impulsive decision that is unhealthy for them.
Highly Sensitive Persons & Meditation: Challenges
A person who is highly sensitive can benefit greatly from the practice of meditation. However, because they are more in tune to their environment than the average participant, they may be more sensitive to the content of the meditation. Like before mentioned, meditation practices can bring up negative emotions, as well as memories that have been suppressed. This is especially likely for a person with HSP.
This person might also be more specific in terms of what they like in a meditation space (even down to the detail like lighting, energy, temperature), or from a meditation teacher. Some students will prefer male or female teachers, or teachers of the same background as they are. While these are always taken into consideration by students, persons with HSP will be much more likely to succeed in their meditation practice if the total situation fits their needs.
The Process: Helping Students with HSP in their Meditation Practice
Introducing a routine of consistent meditation practice will help to establish familiarity and safety for the student. Familiarity and safety will lower stress in an environment, not just for individuals but for groups a well. Less stress= higher effectiveness of meditation content.
Once routine and familiarity with the general practice of meditation has been established, you can start to introduce different types of meditation. This is especially critical for group settings, because not every student will benefit from every type of meditation.
Yoga Nidra: This type of Meditation was pioneered by Dr. Richard Millar for use with veterans suffering from PTSD. Yoga Nidra is a subliminal practice that takes the participant through layers of the body, starting with the physical and moving all the way to the spiritual. Yoga Nidra can be highly activating, but when practiced regularly is very effective at treating emotional and behavioral disorders. For more information on Yoga Nidra- https://www.irest.org/
Intention Based Meditation: This type of meditation chooses a theme to center thought around. It can be very challenging, because it asks the participant to actively think and ask themselves questions during the practice. The answers may not always be things the student wants to know about themselves, and thus can be triggering.
Guided Imagery Meditation: This final type is the most relaxing. A script is read and the student can follow along or create their own story in their minds. It is the most laid back meditation type, and is wonderful for reducing stress and pausing the relentless societal demands on the participants.
Once a routine has been established and the participant has been exposed to the three types of meditation, it is really up to them on how they move forward.
As facilitators, meditation teachers can offer support to counselors who are better able to make note of the changes (or lack of) in an individual taking meditations, but for the most part, the individual must make the choice to participate on their own.