Do you feel overwhelmed by the task and the job you are put into? Don’t know how to navigate this stress? Do you feel you totally suck and all these performance expectations are just crushing you? Do you feel a lot of emotions and judge yourself for them?
Here is my little story of how I learned to navigate my sensitivity. I hope it inspires you as well.
I am a very sensitive being. I did not know that for the most time of my life.
By the time I figured it out myself, several therapists and spiritual teachers said the same.
For a long time I was gaslighting myself saying- well you just making this up.
I felt shame for having strong emotions, like starting to cry in business meetings.
I felt wrong and ashamed to feel all these things that apparently others don’t feel. I thought I am just weaker and less worthy.
But that’s not true.
I was and I am just more sensitive. I can feel emotions others are not feeling. I can feel them in my body. And for a long time, because I did not have any boundaries, because I was not able to tell my emotions apart, I thought it was all me and I am the biggest drama queen of the planet.
My environment back then- even back in my early childhood did not have the tools nor the understanding of what I am feeling so I kept getting advice like:
It’s not that bad.
Don’t be so sensitive.
I think what you are saying is wrong.
I cannot feel / see that.
You must be exaggerating.
And I took all of that in. Because I learned from an early age that I cannot trust my own innate feelings, emotions and wisdom. So I outsourced my credibility to others. I did believe them more than I was believing myself. And since I am also a massive people pleaser, I was really good in feeling what other people wanted and adjusting my behavior accordingly. In that sense, my sensitivity became my super- coping mechanism.
When I started with my spiritual journey and intensive inner work- with a lot of help from trauma- aware practitioners, therapists and coaches, spiritual teachers and a great community- I started to understand my sensitivity as a superpower.
I understood that when I grew up I had no idea how to handle all those feelings as a child. And as a child you are especially vulnerable because your prefrontal cortex- the part of the brain that is reasoning and helping you to navigate this world- is not fully developed.
You rely on your older brain parts that speak amongst others the language of emotions and instinct.
So when there is no grown up around you to help to co-regulate you- that means helps you to navigate big emotions and ground yourself in your body to come back to a feeling of safety and calm- you basically don’t learn it. And you stuff all those big emotions in your body and your unconscious, where it sits, undigested, basically for your whole life unless you take the time, space and resources to feel it, look at it, embrace it. This is what I did.
Why you cannot think your way out of stress.
The body keeps the score- this is what Bessel Van der Kolk, a famous trauma specialist named his book. And it is true. When in a situation of stress or stimulation, it is the body, the nervous system that kicks in. The thinking brain will leave the room, so there is space for all the vital reactions: fight, flight, freeze or faint. All protection mechanisms to help you keep safe in a situation of danger. There is a lion standing in front of you? Do not think. Run! It is too late to run? Freeze and faint. So at least the lion thinks you are already dead and might leave you just lying around. So you have another chance to flee. And when he eats you, it’s at least less painful.
That’s the mechanism of the unconscious. And you know what? Your older brain parts do not discriminate if this is a lion in front of you or just a terrifying deadline. If you have stress at work or you have to run from the lion. And you know what’s even worse? Since we are sitting on all that old undigested stuff, these things might just be triggered and the feeling and reaction is way bigger than the situation looks from outside and objectively. Because- yes you guessed right. The body keeps the score. And you cannot think your way out of this. Because your thinking brain literally left the room.
Usually we identify our reactions and feelings not as fight, flight, flee or freeze response. But we feel: overwhelm, frustration, we might like to procrastinate. We might feel feelings of helplessness, feeling stuck. We might get angry at something or feel another strong emotion that seems “disproportionate”. We might be worried about upsetting someone else or all our metal energy goes into making someone else happy or proud. We might be afraid of the judgment of other people and find ourselves not speaking up for something we really want to. We might not even feel what we really want to. Because we shut ourselves down and all our body sensations. And these are just a few of the masks and manifestations of that nervous system activation. Your body is in stress. And it found its coping mechanisms to deal with it. Not always in a way we wish to.
So as sensitive beings we sit on all that s*load of undigested emotions. We did not learn how to befriend our nervous system. We are unaware of all the things that sit in our unconscious and body. That is so easily triggered, we might often experience overwhelm or strong emotions that others do not feel. And then we internalized all the “it’s not of a big deal” we got to hear so many times. Because guess what- it is wildly uncomfortable for someone to be with someone with strong emotions. If they never learned to be with them.
And here comes the creme de la creme: we even might pick up emotions from others. So we are feeling all the things that others are not feeling. And then we think we are just some kind of crazy person. Too dramatic. Too emotional.
Your sensitivity is your superpower.
When I entered the field of therapy, inner work and spirituality I slowly began to understand what was going on. And first, I did not want to admit it. I told myself “yeah, everyone is highly sensitive, it’s kind of a fashion thing here”.
I do honestly believe that originally, everyone of us has this sensitivity. But it closes down. And there are some individuals like me, maybe also you, that did not experience that closing down to the degree that others experienced it. So we feel and sense more.
I needed a long way to a) first admit that I am highly sensitive and b) to own it as my superpower.
I admit that with a) it helped to have teachers and therapists mirroring that intuition that I already had. Several times. So after 3 or 4 times of someone different telling me that they sense I am sensitive, I was finally ready to own it.
And after I owned it I started to open up to the beauty of it. The beauty of sensing things before they physically manifest. The beauty of having a strong sense of intuition. The beauty of feeling my heart, my subtle energy body. The beauty of being connected to my emotions. I use this superpower actively in my coachings and sessions to open up to wisdom I did not know was even there. I feel more than I think in my sessions and with this I am able to facilitate my clients with a delicacy that I would not be able to hold with my mind. I use my sensitivity and intuition for all my business and life decisions and it saved me several times, taking just the right decision without knowing why it would be the right one. It kept me safe and calm in a hurricane and when I am traveling and on the road when unforeseen incidents happen.
Learning to navigate sensitivity as a superpower.
So now I shared how I cherish and appreciate my sensitivity now, it is and was still quite a way to learn to navigate that ever increasing talent.
I am giving some best practices, some which I used myself, some of which you might come across and the field of trauma- sensitivity, coaching and spirituality. I would like to acknowledge that every person is different and unique. So if you want to experiment with it, go for it. But ultimately it’s you and your unique wisdom that knows best. Please, if you are in a vulnerable state do not hesitate to reach out for professional help. There is no shame in that. I dare to say I am a really good coach, but I am not a therapist. Reading this might be a first inspiration and a very good first step- but don’t forget to follow up and get support.
Especially in states of freeze and faint (which manifest e.g. as overwhelm, feeling helpless, hopeless, down), but in any other states, co- regulation is key! Co-regulation is a fancy word for: get out there and be with people you feel safe and calm with. Because our nervous system and their nervous system communicate with each other. Talking to someone in a regulated state helps us to “get in their vibes”. But just getting out there being with friends you cherish and appreciate helps.
You can co-regulate with people. But another awesome way to co-regulate is to spent time in nature. Go for a walk. Hiking. Hug a tree. Go swimming.
Not to mention the third way to co-regulate which might be a little over the edge for some people, but when you are a spiritual oddball like me, you´ll love it. Co-regulate with your soul and higher self. This is something you might already have an intuition of and you are just missing the concept, or something that is developed with a spiritual practice of your choice.
My teacher once mentioned that a good ratio of self- and co-regulation is 50- 50. So again, if you find yourself hiding from people, you might go a little on the co-regulation edge.
If you are someone who cannot be on their own, some self- regulation techniques come in handy. I would recommend having both in your toolbox and in stressful times- especially when you know they will come ahead-, plan for some good co-regulation (meeting for a walk in the forest with a friend) and self regulation (for example planning some brakes)
Here are some self- regulation tools
First, some quick ones:
Calming breathwork: for example breathing out longer as you breathe in. Also a full and calm belly breath for a few minutes help.
Humming: The vibration that is created by a MMMMM has a calming effect on our vagus nerve. Do it for 10 minutes some days in a row and see what it does for you.
Shaking: An antelope, after being chased by a lioness (because we all know lions don’t hunt) will shake itself. This is a very natural mechanism to shake the stress out of the body and find closure of the activation. Our bodies shake and shiver as well, naturally, after a shock. Unfortunately we have learned to suppress that very useful mechanism. So to reclaim it by shaking every day for 10 minutes with some fun music for 21 days. And everytime you need it, really. It feels super weird in the beginning and also exhausting. But it is really helpful
Baths: hot and cold. Taking a hot bath can help you to come down. Another famous method that has been popularized by Wim Hof is ice bathing. I personally love to jump in the cold river in front of our house in winter. Make sure to bring someone with you the first time and to know how the breathing works. Safety first.
Longer, continuous practices that help to increase nervous system flexibility:
Yoga Nidra: The so- called “yogic sleep” is a deep relaxation that is done in shavasana, laying down. Yoga Nidra is a truly miraculous practice with many, many benefits. One of them is cultivating your nervous system flexibility — your ability to “switch gears” between states more quickly. Just lying down in shavasana for 10 minutes every day and doing a progressive relaxation can make a big difference. It helps to use an eye mask or scarf for extra relaxation.
Hatha Yoga Practice: Hatha Yoga has a truly beautiful spiritual depth that I want to appreciate here. Depending on the style, it is also very helpful to learn to feel your body and center yourself. I am not talking about fitness yoga here. But of the one that helps you to come into your body.
Meditation practice: I love meditation. Building up a good meditation practice might take some time, so make sure to also try other things especially when you are a beginner. Meditation helps you to cultivate more and more mindfulness and witnessing quality. With that you will be able to hold more and deeper experiences.
Something that I would like to emphasize very strongly: you don’t need to do this alone! Get some help. A Coach. A group of family and friends. A co-counselling group, a community. And when you feel it’s truly a lot: go to therapy. Seriously, do not underestimate the value of a good therapist. I personally would always recommend a coach or therapist that is working with the body- i.e. a somatic approach. Because- you guessed right- the body keeps the score.
These are all techniques. In the end regulating your nervous system becomes a lifestyle. You develop an understanding of the clues of your body. Of how what feels. Of your strategies. Of your wants and needs. You start to build a life that honors brakes, breathing, and nature. You start to see your body and that delicate machinery with more loving eyes and honor the language of your wellbeing. It’s a whole path. And a very beautiful and rewarding one.
So, this is just a short riff on the mirades of possibilities to help you to befriend your nervous system and to tap into your sensitivity as a superpower! Find your own way, style and don’t forget to enjoy it.
Sensitivity and Spirituality
On a short note in the end I would love to think with you about the significance of our sensitivity on the spiritual path. I personally believe, the more you are on a spiritual journey, the more sensitive we become. Why? Because we open up more and more to the subtle dimensions of your beings and of this existence. The yogis describe the human beings as having 7 bodies- the seven koshas. And only one of them is our known physical body. Imagine what happens if you open up to the different dimensions of your beings through a spiritual practice? Yes, you become more sensitive. In that way I really think it is something beautiful to have this sensitivity or even more- to increase it. At least this is where my path is going. It sure means that I sometimes feel a whole lot of things and some of them are not very pleasant. For example, the more I open my heart, the more I feel deep joy, but also deep pain. My pain and the pain of others. Also the more I am rooted in my heart, the more I have the capacity to be with that pain, so it doesn’t feel like suffering. I know it sounds like a paradox, and that’s what it is. It’s hard to describe in words but it feels more whole.
It is my choice and deepest aspiration to walk this path.
And here my sensitivity is one of the biggest gifts that I received on that path.