A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Whatever you think about your body weight, one thing is clear, almost everyone at some time can say they feel they need to lose weight. I have a medium-boned frame, and I was packing about twenty pounds of extra weight earlier this year. That made getting into clothes problematic and looked bad on me.
I have been thin most of my life, but as I aged, I gained weight via the usual suspects: too much food, too much drink, and too little exercise. Of course, being a desk jockey didn't help either.
I had lost weight before and remembered what a chore it was. I wasn't looking forward to the process but was eyeing the results in my imagination. This motivated me to pull out the ol' weight loss routine and begin to reshape my body. During the several-month process, I learned a few things about myself and my relationship with food and my body. Here are five things I discovered.
#1 – I felt my body again.
Now I don't know the scientific mechanism here, but as I began to lose weight, I began to "feel" my body again. As the fat burned off, the underlying muscle began to stick out, and as I moved either in exercise or just in simple movements, I felt like I was aware of my body again.
Perhaps, adding layers of fat prevents us from feeling the muscles tighten and contract, but I distinctly remember this feeling from the last time I lost weight. It was a pretty good feeling; clothes fit better, I looked better in the mirror, which was surprisingly effective in motivating me to continue the diet.
My best barometer for weight loss was not the scales but rather the way my clothes fit. Feeling the extra room in my pants was an immediate reinforcer. This put me back in touch with the sensory elements of my body in a positive way. The many nerve endings, constantly passing feedback to my brain, kept me ever mindful as the weight slowly but steadily melted away. It helped anchor me again in the physical and reminded me I am also made of flesh and blood.
#2 – I became mindful of the food I ate.
One of the things I would remind my former hypnosis clients when they requested weight loss hypnosis was that they still needed to be mindful of the food they ate. It is important to remember to think about eating food and what our motivation is for eating. So often, we eat without thinking, habitually binging food, mindlessly eating, not thinking of the calories or quantity of the food we consume. All too often, it is a mindless exercise in self-medication to eat without awareness. Before you know it, you have consumed calories that your body doesn't need.
To keep me on track, I used Livestrong's My Plate app to help track my daily caloric intake to ensure I ate my caloric goals for the day. Tracking the food forces, you to be mindful. Like any habit, it takes time and repetition to form the practice of mindfulness. However, it helped me mind the calories as well as the nutrition. The act of keying in the food for the day, although initially a pain, proved to slow me down enough to think before and after food intake.
As the weight came off, which is an inherent payoff, the tedious task of tracking food began to have a purpose. I knew that if I hit my daily goals, I would lose pounds by the end of the week. It worked.
Most importantly, it kept me mindful of not overeating. I began to feel satiated more easily, my mind rewarded me with a dopamine hit when I stayed in bounds, and my body rewarded me with fat-burning weight loss. I began to appreciate food in a new light. It wasn't about quantity, but rather the quality, and I felt the difference.
#3 – What I learned from the hunger.
In the beginning, I felt hunger pangs. For me, that always served as a cue to grab something to eat, to quell the growling - fill-up the grumbling gut and refocus on my tasks. But with weight loss, we have to look at this process differently.
I heard a lot about intermittent fasting, where you only eat during certain hours and then fast the remainder. So I thought I'd give it a try. Part of my regimen was to stop eating at 8 pm and not eat again until around noon. This initially caused hunger, especially in late morning, but I pressed on and was able to go 14-16 hours without eating within a short time.
During the last few hours of the fast, I began to appreciate the hunger for food. I realized that hunger was not always a bad thing. I could feel my stomach (the internals), and it felt good to be hungry and be in charge. I knew that being hungry was not necessarily a nutritional deficit; rather, my stomach was now not bloated with food. I felt lighter, more aware of the spiritual aspects of the physical.
It began to be a cue not for running to the kitchen but rather to sit in my hunger and feel the emptiness of my stomach. It helped me turn inward. Often, I would drink more water and, after a glass, would feel less hungry. Feeling the water travel down your gullet to your stomach is quite an experience.
We seldom realize the difference between our appetites and our need for nourishment. Living in a country where food is plentiful makes it easy to lose sight of what true hunger is and how we take for granted the ease with which we can procure food. Hunger by appetite is a never-ending satiety game, while hunger by nourishment needs is a completely different and conscious endeavor.
#4 – I found a new relationship with food and understood why I ate so much before.
I ate a lot to quell disappointments or feelings of depression. A cookie or a sweet would momentarily trigger-happy emotions and seem like the antidote for feeling alone or sad. I did this way too often but was unaware of the Stimulus > Trigger > Response mechanism occurring unconsciously. It was a roller coaster. After the treat, the inevitable sugar high, then crash, which would set off another round in the chain.
As I started losing weight, I noticed I avoided sugary foods. If you avoid sugar-laced food for a while, you begin to recognize how overly sweet our confections are. I also saw the mood swings planed off, and I felt a more level stream of emotion.
I took food out of the happiness equation and saw that food was no longer a drug or product to self-soothe. Reframing food to mean nutritional needs helped elevate my mood naturally. I still enjoy the taste of food, exploring savory spices, or some light sweet flavors now and again. As my father used to say, "everything in moderation."
I began to enjoy meals and healthy snacks and enjoyed the taste of food, savoring flavors I would often overlook before. I slowed down my eating, enjoying each bite, not rushing to inhale the food to get back to other distractions.
#5 – I proved I could reach my goals.
Lastly, I proved to myself that I could reach my goals. Other goals not involved with my body are relatively easy for me; things I can accomplish quickly are not so difficult. Yet goals that require patience, persistence, and the slow churn of day-to-day compliance are more challenging. Weight does not fall off quickly but comes off at a snail's pace.
But persistence, coupled with daily rewards (nonfood), kept me at it until I reached my goal and even surpassed it. For an HSP, the rewards, physical, mental, psychological, and egotistical, are quite enjoyable. I was truly proud of myself for reaching my goal.
For some, weight loss is a dreaded chore. For others, it is a life and death matter. The battle with food and excess weight is largely a mental one that presents in physical form. Much of weight loss is not about the food but the emotional rewards of feeding oneself and the external and internal sensory stimulation. This is taken to the extreme when food is plentiful and easily had. The reminders of cookies at grandma's, ice cream for chores, better times, or a distraction to life become a feign attempt at self-love. It is hard to relinquish all those emotions we tie to food. Like Pavlov's dog, we salivate at the thought of food.
Before you attempt to lose weight, work on the mental part as a prelude to a diet. Find ways to reward yourself with nonfood items. Enlist support with your medical providers, your family, and friends. At first, it may seem impossible, but if you focus on the journey day by day, let the goal take care of itself, you will find a feeling of peace in the mindfulness you learn about food, yourself, and your relationship with pleasure.
It can be done. Trust the process, trust yourself and be healthy.
Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
As much as we try to portray in the most positive of lights the trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), there is a dark side of the trait that those with SPS are very familiar with. No, it’s not sinister nor evil in that sense of darkness, but it does often cast some shade into the lives of highly sensitive people. Sensitivity is not all about goodness and light. HSPs cannot always be about accommodating the needs of others, being kind, thoughtful, and unselfish. Sometimes we need to be selfish, and sometimes that can be confounding to others, and some might say, ugly.
Most HSPs know the side of which I am speaking. The darkness of mood, an almost self-indulgent need to be alone, can sometimes make us appear as prima donnas or divas or just plain arses. This can materialize when emotions go unregulated and allowed to manifest, like bats on the wing.
As people who live a considerable amount of time inside our mental worlds, we often leave the outside world out on what is happening deep within. As a result, complex emotions, deep thinking, sometimes rumination can leave us depleted, confused, angry, or bitter, and the world sees the worst side of us.
What is the dark side of high sensitivity?
It has been noted that HSPs are prone to depression. We are inclined to this in both mild and extreme forms. The way we perceive things, process too much sensory data inputs, and sometimes overstimulation coupled with our ability to deep process this data can lead us to some pretty dark places within our psyche. Our need to be alone often can reinforce this darkness in the absence of reliable external sources to refute the thoughts that carry us downward. Our need to think ourselves through this, make it right, and often go it alone. We can be pretty selfish with our alone time, sometimes even being negligent to others or allowing it to get ugly with those who don’t understand. This leaves us isolated, frustrated, not fitting in, and feeling misunderstood.
Very often, we suppress normal but uncomfortable emotions to please others. If the emotions are conflictual or confusing, we can bury them to get along. Unfortunately, this suppression of emotion can lead to a host of other mental health issues: depression, anxiety, stress, and physical health-related problems. Many HSPs have been socialized to believe that strong emotion is not appropriate behavior and that dealing with emotion should remain stoic and hidden. All this does is negate our true selves, repress our strong feelings, and destroy confidence and self-esteem. This also can lead to resentment.
One of the most common HSP emotions is that of anxiety. Not sure of who we are or how we fit in, HSPs can become overly anxious about everything from physical appearance, to performance, to social activity and anything that puts our often-hidden selves front and center to the world. We can become anxious about how the world perceives us and how we best function in it. Social anxiety is a real thing for us. And can affect profoundly if and how we interact with the world.
Moodiness, ah, moodiness. Because we often hide our real feelings until we can’t, the change in mood leaves many surprised, hurt, or angered by our sea change of emotions. To the outside world, this is the dark, mysterious world of sensitivity. The world sees this as problematic, leaving us to feel guilty for finally expressing our deepest emotions. This guilt has a dark side to it because we feel disconnected and abnormal. The world sees us a drama kings or queens.
Then there is repressed anger, then explosiveness- perhaps, one of the most noticeable emotions is anger suppressed, then released explosively. It catches others off guard, usually unprepared for such an outburst. Usually seen by the world as meek and mild, an HSP who has reached a boiling point can be quite surprising when anger is unleashed. It surprises us HSPs, too. Not always cathartic, it can leave us embarrassed, apologetic, and feeling guilty for showering the stored anger at an unsuspecting recipient. Showing our human side, good and bad, can be troublesome for introspective HSPs.
How we see it.
We often see our moodiness or feelings as defects- because of the external negative feedback we get from our family, friends, and peers. It can be embarrassing to watch our moods change like floodwaters sweeping down across our life’s landscape.
The anxiety we experience can be a roadblock to our growth. In the absence of externalizing our feelings, thoughts, and ideas, we miss the opportunity to share our deep thoughts. But, fear of criticism or non-reciprocation leaves us suspicious of fully participating in life. This fear is very real and is our invisible barrier towards the outside world. Our anxiety is our signal, our warning to be cautious in the extreme.
We feel guilty about the moodiness once it has passed, but it may make us wary about expressing emotion later for fear of alienating others. As a result, society disfavors those with mood swings.
The anger, once surfaced, leaves us feeling incompetent and apologetic for having expressed such intense feelings. This creates a loop of further suppression, which is not healthy.
How the world sees us.
Let’s face it, sometimes the world sees us as perpetrators of drama because of the cycle of on and off again emotion. But, unfortunately, in our culture, intense feeling is equated with manipulation or lack of discipline.
Our need for decompression is seen as being socially dysfunctional. We are seen as social snobs or, worse, weird isolates who shun human contact. When told about our need for downtime, we are just told to soldier on.
The world is confused about who we are and why we function the way we do. Perhaps, rightfully so. The word needs to get out wide and far about high sensitivity – the obvious gifts and the sometimes unfortunate drawbacks.
Because the outside world cannot see our internal workings, they often try to control us or fix us.
Dealing with the dark side.
Emotional suppression is seldom a winning strategy. Learning to regulate emotions appropriately for the moment is the name of the game. Regulation is not suppression. Channeling the emotions, dealing with the intensity, calming the mind and body will go a long way to helping HSP emotional draws.
Be more transparent to the extent that you allow the outside world to know what you are dealing with on the inside. Find sympathetic companions who understand. Stand unafraid in your sensitivity.
Learning to deal with your comfort zone is very important and can be useful in coping with anxiety. The work is expansion, not jettisoning your ego to far-off worlds outside of your protective bubble. It’s there for a reason, but not to cage you. Grow it, and your life will grow, and the anxiety will drop.
Learn to retreat for downtime gracefully. Explain to family, friends, and those around you the physiological and constitutional reasons you need rest. There is no need to apologize for this; it’s who you are and what you need. Do it without apology.
Follow up and learn as much about SPS as possible to help educate others and create a welcoming environment for you and other HSPs.
Remember, all emotions/moods will pass. Ride the wave like a surfer. It may be uncomfortable, but you can get the hang of it. Learn to eat the right way for HSPs, for your body. Rest (whatever your requirements are), learn brain training, mindfulness, or meditation to help your brain be more resilient. Take care of your body as well as your mind.
Finally, if you are depressed or if anxiety is debilitating, seek out professional help. Some things are bigger than you. Do not be ashamed of getting the assistance you need.
There is a duality with high sensitivity. With the intensity of sensory data, emotion, and passion comes the darkness of overstimulation, overwhelm, moodiness, and emotional reactivity.
Do not despair; the trait is nonetheless a great gift that nature has outfitted you with. Regardless of the hazards and obstacles we encounter, the darkness will always fade into the light with care.
Unfortunately, we are never taught early enough in life to regulate our feelings, but there are many techniques, tools, and practices that can help with the roller coaster life sometimes places us upon. Learn them and apply them and teach them to other HSPs.
Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
Bill Allen currently lives in Bend, Oregon. He is a certified hypnotist and brain training coach at BrainPilots.com. He believes that male sensitivity is not so rare, but it can be confounding for most males living in a culture of masculine insensitivity which teaches boys and men to disconnect from their feelings and emotions. His intent is to use this blog to chronicle his personal journey and share with others.