My friend Kaitlyn in Vancouver sends me stunning photos from time to time and lets me share them with you.* I look at this photo and feel myself expanding inside. It’s a rich, complex reaction: in Focusing, we call it a “whole felt sense.” It carries memories of the ocean and the mountains, the feel of traveling somewhere I’ve never been before, the unique flavor of my friendship with Kaitlyn, and more.

Like all highly sensitive people (HSPs), I’m much more susceptible to my environment than the non-sensitive majority. This photo takes me into its expansive environment, and I respond to that world. I’m similarly affected by the emotional tone of a social gathering, the stillness of the woods, or the visceral intensity of a war movie (I’ll never forget going to see the The Deer Hunter by myself as a 16 year old: I walked out in an altered state which lingered for three days.)

Environmental susceptibility is a double-edged sword. Research shows that HSPs who endured abuse or neglect in their family of origin suffer more adverse effects than similar non-HSPs. They are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety as an adult and more likely to struggle with insecure attachments.

On the other hand, as an HSP you are highly susceptible to healthy, nurturing environments. Even if you’ve had a difficult childhood, you can earn a sense of security as an adult, given the right environment: a loving, caring, stable relationship with a partner or a therapist or close friends.

Beyond the usual definition of “environment”

Today, a different aspect of environmental susceptibility is on my mind. I had my annual physical last week and got the “all clear” from my doctor. Then, a few days later, the phone rang and a pre-recorded female voice announced, “Emily, your appointment is at 8:30 AM Friday September 29 at the Lipson Cancer and Hematology Center. Parking is…”

Never mind parking. After the word “cancer” I stopped hearing what the voice said.

When we think of “environment,” we tend to think of the external environment: visual order or clutter, noise levels, fumes or smells; emotional energy from others; family dynamics; home or work settings.

But when you think about it, what environment affects you more than your mind? The mind is your meta-environment, the environment through which all your external environments are filtered. Some philosophers would even say that nothing exists at all outside the mind. Whether I believe that or not, one thing is unarguable: the meaning I put on events has a huge effect on my reactions to those events.

“OK,” you say, “But how does this relate to me as an HSP? Isn’t this true for everyone, that their mind-environment affects them?” My answer: “Yes, it’s true for everyone to an extent, but it’s true for HSPs to an extreme degree.” We think so long and hard about things, and take things so deeply to heart, that our minds can spin out of control if we let them.

Case in point: after that call came in from the Lipson Cancer Center (I had forgotten the hematology part of the title at this point), I did a pretty good job calming myself down. I told myself it was surely a mistake. I reminded myself that I just completed my annual physical last week and received a clean bill of health. And I resolved to clear up this obvious misunderstanding in the morning when the office re-opened. With these self-reassurances in place, I went to bed and slept peacefully.

The next morning, though, I found out the appointment was NOT a mistake. Even worse, I couldn’t reach my doctor to find out more. My mind said, “Why did my doctor do this without telling me?! Is there something terrible he was afraid to tell me himself?” My reason said, “This isn’t like him not to tell me. There must be an explanation.” My mind retorted, “What if I have leukemia! or some other horrible disease?” My reason said, “Hmm, you’ve got a point there. This is bad!” It went downhill from there.

I lost control of my inner environment, and it was really stressful. As I’ve written before, my HSP mind is like a chainsaw: highly useful if used safely for the right tasks, and downright dangerous in the wrong hands. When an HSP mind gets out of control, look out. The irony is, my mind is one of the very few things in life that I CAN control, as Viktor Frankl so eloquently expressed in Man’s Search for Meaning. That’s why—

Mental discipline in service of spiritual connection is a “must” for HSPs

We really need the skills to cultivate a loving, peaceful inner environment and to hold onto that when the going gets rough. Mindfulness—simple awareness of one’s thought patterns—is a great start. But for me, this goes beyond mindfulness: it is a spiritual issue. It’s really hard to let go of what you can’t control (which is nearly everything) and surrender to the reality of the moment, if you don’t have something to surrender into.

I do have a spiritual practice I can surrender into, to my extreme gratitude, and that’s what finally calmed me down Wednesday. I remembered that I, and I alone, create my inner environment. I remembered I’m more than this body and this mind. Most important, I remembered it’s OK to let my monkey mind do its panicked thing: I don’t have to attempt the impossible and try to make it stop. (That’s an important concept for me: otherwise I start to panic about my panic….a hall of mirrors.)

I just needed to use my will to turn some of my attention towards the inner quiet of my spirit. I did that, and I calmed right down. Once again I witnessed the comforting truth that no matter what is happening externally, I can find the “peace that passes all understanding.”

Our worldly circumstances—intimate relationships, jobs, living situations—are like ocean liners: they have momentum and take time and space to change course. But we can change our minds in an instant. I’m convinced the hours I’ve spent in spiritual practice are the single most important self-care action I’ve taken as an HSP, and that we HSPs really need that spiritual connection to stay happy, peaceful, and energized.

Post script: Each of the two doctors in this little saga say the other referred me. It’s a mystery, but the good news is, I’m fine. This is great AND the even better news is this:  even if the news were “bad,” I’d know where to go in myself to be at peace.

*Thank you Kaitlyn, for this beautiful photo (<aity.wyenberg@gmail.com)