Your mind, and your ability to manage it, is the key to managing your HSP environmental susceptibility and making it a positive force in your life.
My friend Kaitlyn in Vancouver took this stunning photo and generously allowed me to share it with you. Looking at it, I expand inside. My reaction is complex and rich: 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 much more.
Like all highly sensitive people (HSPs), I’m much more susceptible to my environment than the majority who are not as sensitive. This photo draws me into its expansive environment, and I respond strongly to it. I’m similarly affected by the uplifting energy of a chanting service, or the peaceful calm of the woods on a still day.
However, I’m also equally susceptible to disturbing energies, like the visceral intensity of a war movie. I’ll never forget going to see the The Deer Hunter by myself as a teenager: I walked out in an altered state which lingered for three days. After watching The Hurt Locker, an equally intense movie about a soldier assigned to a bomb squad in Iraq, I couldn’t sleep all night.
The two sides of HSP environmental susceptibility
In other words, our HSP environmental susceptibility is a double-edged sword. Research published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews in 2021 determined that
…as the number of family adversities was negatively associated with children’s physical and emotional comfort and perceived academic performance, whereas supportive resources provided by the family were positively related to child well-being.
In other words, HSPs who endure challenges in their family of origin may suffer more adverse effects than similar non-HSPs. They are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety as adults, and more likely to struggle with insecure attachments—if they lacked support.
On the other hand, HSPs are equally susceptible to healthy, nurturing environments. Even if you or your family had difficulties during your childhood, you may not have suffered long-term adverse effects if you had steady, positive support. What’s more, any adverse effects you did experience can heal in the positive, supportive environment of loving, caring, stable relationships with a partner, therapist, or close friends.
Beyond the usual definition of “environment”
Today, a different aspect of environmental susceptibility is on my mind. I’m recalling a particular annual physical I had a few years ago. I left the office relieved to have gotten the “all clear” from my doctor.
This relief proved short-lived, however. A few days later, the phone rang. 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. I stopped listening after I heard the word “cancer.”
When we think of “environment,” we tend to imagine our external surroundings: the degree of visual order or clutter; the noise level; the presence of fumes or smells; the emotional energy we sense coming from people around us; the relational dynamics in our family or at work.
But what about your internal environment—that is, your mind? In truth, your state of mind affects you more than any external factor. The mind is your meta-environment—the environment that influences and filters your perceptions of every experience you have.
In fact, some philosophers and spiritual teachers would say that nothing exists at all outside the mind. As Zen Master Hakuin said, “Mind is mind because of things, and things are things because of mind.” Whatever one’s spiritual beliefs, however, there’s no arguing that the meaning we put on events has a huge effect on our reactions to those events.
High sensitivity and your internal mind-environment
“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?” Yes. It’s true for everyone to an extent, but it’s true for HSPs to an even greater degree. We process experiences deeply. We also feel intensely. When these two powerful forces synergize in us, we can easily get our knickers in a twist.
Case in point: after that call came in from the Lipson Cancer Center (I had immediately forgotten that the title also had “hematology” in it), I managed to calm myself down. I reminded myself that I just received a clean bill of health. Surely this must have been a mistake. I could clear it up in the morning when the office reopened. With these self-reassurances, 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. The following internal conversation ensued:
[Scared part]: “Why did my doctor do this without telling me?! Is there something terrible he was afraid to tell me himself?”
[Logical part]: “This isn’t like him not to tell me. There must be an explanation.”
[Scared part]: “What if I have leukemia! or some other horrible disease?”
[Logical part]: “Hmm, you’ve got a point there, why else would they send us to a cancer center?! This is bad!”
In short, I let my mind-environment spiral steeply downwards. It was extremely stressful. As I’ve written before, my HSP mind is like a chainsaw: essential for certain tasks, powerful and effective when used safely…and downright dangerous in the wrong hands.
Mental discipline in service of spiritual connection is a “must” for HSPs
If your HSP mind gets out of control, it can take you to scary places. Ironically, though, your mind is on the short list of things in life over which you actually can exert some influence. (Viktor Frankl wrote eloquently about this in Man’s Search for Meaning.) That’s why HSPs urgently need skills and practices to cultivate a spacious mind-environment, one sturdy enough to hold any intensity that comes up.
In my case, I started by reminding myself that it’s OK to let my monkey mind do its panicked thing. I didn’t have to attempt the impossible, and try to make it stop worrying: I could simply make space for it there. Thank goodness for that, because otherwise I’d have panicked about being panicked. I call that the HSP hall of mirrors, and it is not a fun place.
Notice I said that I didn’t attempt to calm myself down. I made space for my inner experience. When you are very upset, making space in yourself to hold all that is the key first step. This mindfulness—simple awareness of one’s thought patterns—is a great start.
But I find I need more than mindfulness. 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. This is a spiritual issue, and to address it, you need a spiritual practice.
I do have a spiritual practice I can surrender into, to my extreme gratitude, and that’s what finally calmed me down that day I got the call from the cancer center. I remembered that I, and I alone, create my inner environment. I remembered I’m more than this body and this mind.
Later, I attempted to find out how I got referred for that appointment. My family doctor said the hematologist referred me. The hematologist said my family doctor referred me. It’s a mystery. Fortunately, I’m fine.
I was happy I got good news that day, but even happier that I had practices that I knew would work even if the news were “bad.” Our worldly circumstances—our intimate relationships, our health, our jobs, our 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.
For this reason, I believe there’s no more important self-care action for HSPs than spiritual practice. If we cultivate the discipline of spiritual connection, we can manage our inborn intensity and skillfully field whatever comes in our lives.
Image: ©2017, Kaitlyn Wyenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org). Thank you Kaitlyn.
This article is an updated version of a post first published on October 2, 2017.