My nearest and dearest would be the first to tell you I act like a space cadet sometimes. I can’t blame it all on my HSP trait, but certain aspects of high sensitivity definitely contribute.
I’ve pulled off an impressive range of space-outs in my day. Some were mundane (though potentially messy), like putting the ice cream back in the refrigerator instead of the freezer. Others have been more spectacular, like the day I set out on a ten-hour drive to see my parents in Indiana.
Coming through the toll booths onto the New York Thruway, I absent-mindedly took the easterly entrance ramp back towards Rochester. I ended up back at home twenty minutes later, realizing I had spaced out from sheer exhaustion.
My return home was for the best. Clearly, I was in no shape to make a long solo drive, and I went straight to bed and set out again the next day. More often, though, my space cadet moments are inconvenient, embarrassing, or annoying.
I’ve done my best to cultivate a sense of humor about these lapses. I even have a short but sweet space cadet comedy routine, which I perform to make myself smile after screwing up:
Me: [Singing to the Star Trek theme, with lots of vibrato on the high note] Doo WEEEEE, doo doo-doo-doo doooo…
Me: [In dramatic TV announcer voice] Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Emily.
Once I stop laughing, I ask myself, “Why did this space-out happen? How can I prevent this next time?” Because I value self-responsibility, and because I space out often, I’ve gotten lots of practice answering these questions.
As it turns out, there are several high-sensitivity-related factors contributing to my momentary space-outs. Here are three of them. If you have identified others I haven’t mentioned below, please let me know.
1—I’m experiencing standard HSP overarousal
Overarousal is arguably the biggest challenge we face as sensitive people. When too much information, stimulation, or emotion—internal or external— hits us all at once, we freeze like a deer in the headlights.
This is not the well-known “freeze” response to stress, though. Rather, it’s as if your mental browser has too many tabs open. You are paralyzed by too many options.
When I become overaroused in this way, I struggle to process what others are saying. My brain starts to resemble the drive-through at the bank, where you put your deposit in a canister and it disappears into a tube, not returning until five minutes later. The words go in, but it takes a long time for anything to come back out of me.
Imagine me navigating Penn Station in New York City. I can’t figure out which train to take, so I go ask an attendant in the ticket booth. Speaking rapidly in a Bronx accent, they gesture here and there. My stress level spikes as I struggle to hear them over the din of foot traffic and trains screeching. It spikes even higher if they get impatient with my slowness to comprehend.
I try to head all this off at the pass with advance planning (or better yet, to traverse NYC with someone like my daughter who knows their way around.) And I leave extra time because rushing makes it all way worse. These strategies do help.
However, I’ve found the biggest contributor to resilience in the face of overarousal has been my long-term meditation practice and breath practice (more on that below.) The more grounded I am in my body, in the present moment, the less easily I space out. And if I do get overaroused, I can recover rapidly.
When I’m emotionally triggered, I experience an even higher degree of overarousal. Most HSPs are intimately familiar with this feeling. As my nervous system moves into fight-or-flight activation, my heart rate increases.
If garden-variety overarousal is like having too many browser tabs open at once, getting emotionally triggered is like losing your internet connection altogether. Your prefrontal cortex goes offline. With it goes your ability to assess your own mind state and make decisions from a full field of information and experience.
In addition, when you are highly activated, your attention narrows as your mind scans for signs of danger. Functionally, this radically narrowed attention turns you into a space cadet. You fail to see objects or people that are right in front of you, because your mind is busy searching for danger. In this hypervigilant state, your brain ignores anything that isn’t directly related to survival in the moment.
When I freelanced full time in the late 1990s and early aughts, I was chronically stressed and anxious. I often had to drive several hours to the Albany area and beyond. More than once, I managed to miss the turnoff towards New York City south of Albany.
The signs indicating the exit were huge, spanning the entire width of the multi-lane roadway. Yet I had missed them. Whenever I passed this turnoff in later (and calmer) years, I marveled at the drastic effects of stress on my attention, which had been both hyper-focused and scattered.
As with overarousal, I’ve found that meditation and breath practice are the best preventive medicine for getting emotionally triggered. I’ve had powerful results with #Breath-Body-Mind and highly recommend it.
(Note: The next introductory Breath-Body-Mind workshop will take place on July 8, 9, and 10, 2021. It’s filling fast so don’t wait if you want to sign up. I receive no remuneration for recommending these workshops; I’m just getting the word out having observed firsthand how powerful the practices are for HSPs, including me.)
3—I’m letting my HSP idea mind run the show
My mind generates ideas like McDonald’s produces French fries. This profusion of thoughts can so distract me that I cause me to act like a space cadet. Dictionary.com defines “space cadet” as “a person who appears to be in his or her own world or out of touch with reality.” At certain moments, that phrase appears to describe me all too well.
I’m capable of going into my own inner world, where I no longer hear or see what is going on around me. This can occur in microbursts, too. In response to some “real world” stimulus, I’ll tune out for a few seconds, taken on a mental ride by the implications my mind is generating.
Yet to say I’m out of touch with reality isn’t quite accurate. It’s more that I’m absorbed in my inner reality. For HSPs, the inner world can be more interesting and compelling than the so-called “outer world.” If we don’t provide ourselves with ample daily time to ponder and reflect, our mind will start grabbing reflection time at inconvenient moments.
Because our minds slip so easily into processing mode, HSPs also benefit greatly from the practice of disciplines that require concentration. Meditation and concentration practices are like dog obedience school for your mind. You have to train it not to run off in the middle of a conversation.
HSPs also benefit from external discipline in the form of flexible infrastructure. In that regard, I owe my sanity to executive coach David Allen. His book, Getting Things Done, taught me a comprehensive system for capturing incoming information and organizing my projects so my mind stays free to focus on one thing at a time throughout the day.
Summing it all up
Given the tendencies of my particular brain, including its sensitivity, I will always be at risk of spacing out. As we’ve seen, this can be true for HSPs for multiple reasons. Minimizing your space cadet tendencies requires discipline and practice, including—
- Grounding yourself with daily meditation and breath practice
- Keeping an eye on your heart rate for signs of nervous system activation, and disciplining yourself to take “time out” to calm yourself if you get triggered
- Giving yourself time each day to ponder and reflect
- Setting up the infrastructure to support your ability to focus on one thing at a time
None of these strategies is a short-term fix. Longer-term, though, each of them can contribute greatly to our well-being as HSPs, so we can function well day-to-day while maintaining the freedom to explore our inner frontiers.