Why conscious breathing is essential in stimulus sensitivity and HSP
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Why conscious breathing is essential in stimulus sensitivity and HSP - Séverine Van De Voorde

September 28th, 2022,

6 min read

Why conscious breathing is essential in stimulus sensitivity and HSP - Séverine Van De Voordefeatured image

Loud TVs, vibrating telephones, pinging laptops, wailing sirens… Nowadays, we are confronted with millions of sensory stimuli a day. Amounts that someone who lived 100 years ago would experience in their entire life. Stimulus overload is intense for everyone, but if you are a highly sensitive person (HSP), the challenge is extra high. Sensory and emotional stimuli come in faster and harder and are also processed on a deeper, more intense level.

Sufficient rest and relaxation and paying extra attention to the body and mind are important for every highly sensitive person. If you don’t take time for this, overstimulation can quickly loom. Moonbird can be of great help for HSP, by creating breathing moments in which the brain gets a well-deserved break and the body can relax.

Séverine Van De Voorde holds a doctorate in psychology, is a stress and burnout coach, HSP professional, and career coach. She sees in practice how much benefit highly sensitive people get from regularly doing calming breathing exercises. We asked her about her experiences.

Conscious breathing is a very efficient way to keep the bucket from overflowing.

What challenges do you see specifically in highly sensitive people?

Séverine: “Highly sensitive people have a less strict stimulus filter in their brain, so more information comes through and has to be processed. In addition, in HSP, more areas of the brain are active in processing information. As a result, they have to process more stimuli than average people and they also process them more thoroughly and more accurately.

In a HSP brain, more links and associations are made between all information that comes in. This way of processing stimuli costs a lot of energy and requires much more processing and recovery time. The risk for HSP is mainly overstimulation (negative stress) and an empty battery, unless you consciously build in moments of rest and recovery.

So HSPs also experience more stress than an average person?

“Because highly sensitive people are more sensitive to stimuli, they are also more sensitive to stress. After all, there is a continuous risk of overstimulation, i.e. negative stress. An HSP's stress system reacts faster and more intensely to potential threats. They produce more stress hormones, which can become toxic if they are not consciously discharged. So HSPs have to push their brake and calm their stress system much more often.

In addition to more intense physical responses to stressors, HSPs are also confronted with a greater number of daily 'tigers': things that activate your stress system. This largely stems from the core traits of high sensitivity, such as a great sense of responsibility, justice, and empathy. These specific traits put HSPs at greater risk of developing rejection sensitivity: the fear of not being good enough, of not belonging, of disappointment, and of being rejected.

The greatest risks for an HSP are an overloaded stress system and too little time for rest and recovery.

To avoid rejection, the tendency is to develop coping mechanisms such as maladaptive pleasing (putting the needs of others first) and maladaptive perfectionism (setting the bar unrealistically high). These coping mechanisms and underlying beliefs (I must be perfect to be considered okay, I can not make any mistakes, if I say no I will end up alone) are a major source of stress and cost an incredible amount of energy.

The greatest risks for an HSP are therefore an overloaded stress system due to the combination of too many stressors, too little time for rest and recovery, and the larger amount of stress hormones in the body. As a result, energy problems arise. These are reinforced because too much energy often goes outside (towards to do's or taking care of others) and too little energy comes in (HSP often no longer know what they like anymore).”

What kind of people do you see in your practice?

“In my practice, I see a lot of people who are stressed or burned out. Research from the Netherlands shows that 57 to 75% of HSPs have (had) a burnout. They are the canaries in the mine that show that we will have to do things differently in this rapidly changing overstimulating society. Not only because of overstimulation and too little rest and recovery, but also by going on longer than others due to qualities of high sensitivity such as a sense of duty and loyalty.

Another group of people I see often are people who are at a crossroads in their lives and wondering if they have made the right choices. For example, people who are no longer satisfied with their job. HSPs have often made choices based on the expectations of others and some have strayed far from their core. If you are not concerned with your intrinsic qualities and talents, you cannot experience an intense feeling of satisfaction, meaning, and happiness.”

Breathing is the most direct way to release stress hormones and thus calm the stress system.

How can highly sensitive people avoid becoming overstimulated or overstrained?

“As mentioned, HSPs are at greater risk of an overloaded stress system and they also develop more stress hormones in their body. It is thus very important to hit the brake pedal regularly and calm the stress system. Possible approaches are muscle relaxation (e.g. through movement) and conscious, calm breathing.

Breathing is the most direct way to release stress hormones and calm the stress system. You have your breathing with you all day, so you can practice conscious breathing without others noticing. It is therefore a very efficient way to ensure that the bucket does not overflow.

Concentrating on the breath is also a form of meditation. Focusing on one thing will relax your monkey mind and will alleviate your concerns. It also helps you to cut yourself off from stimuli in your environment, from the emotions of others, while keeping your own emotions in check.”

What are HSP's experiences with moonbird?

“As mentioned, focusing on one thing is important, and moonbird helps with that. Moonbird even increases your focus since you have to concentrate on the tactile signal of the device contracting and expanding.

You can leave moonbird somewhere where you can see it so that it works as a reminder to breathe consciously more often throughout your day. The app gives you immediate feedback on whether you are doing well. The biofeedback that moonbird provides is a strong motivator to (continue to) practice as HSPs are more sensitive to rewards.

A big plus: moonbird makes no noise, so it doesn't disturb your roommates. Furthermore, no other electronics are needed - which can be overstimulating or distracting.”

What is your best advice for people struggling with high sensitivity?

“Firstly, to gather knowledge about the qualities and pitfalls of the sensitive brain. The trick is to make maximum use of your qualities when being an HSP, and to proactively organize life taking into account the limitations.

It is also essential to put self-care first. The main focuses are stress and energy management. Physical stress management involves learning to calm your stress system. You do this by taking sufficient time for rest and recovery and by preventively emptying your stimulus bucket throughout the day, by moving and breathing.

It is also important to look at energy management, by consciously choosing what you do and don't do. Limiting beliefs and unhelpful habitual patterns (such as maladaptive perfectionism, pleasing, and controlling) must be examined and replaced with more helpful ones. Also try to discover what really suits you and what you want in life, apart from what others expect. Learn to say no to things that don't suit you, and focus as much as possible on things that give you energy.”

Séverine Van De Voorde - From stress to resilience (Dutch: Van stress naar veerkracht)

Séverine Van De Voorde holds a doctorate in psychology and works as a clinical psychologist and coach in her own practice. She specializes in high sensitivity, resilience, personal growth, and translating science into human language.

In her book Van stress naar veerkracht (‘From stress to resilience’, www.vanstressnaarveerkracht.be) you will find a treasure trove of insights, tips, tools, and tricks to calm your stress system, and to optimize your energy management.

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