Maladaptive Daydreaming: where wild minds come to rest
Are we becoming increasingly intolerant, or is it the case that up to 20 per cent of us fall into the category of Highly Sensitive People,
who are overwhelmed by the hurly-burly of modern life?
A few days ago, I was sitting at my desk at home. It was a boiling hot
day, so I opened the window. In the next garden, some children were
lightly splashing in the paddling pool. Somewhere over the road, a
hedge trimmer whined and the scent of meat drifted from a distant
To most people, it was a lovely summer day, full of happy sounds and smells. To me, it was a nightmare - my heart was
pounding with tension, I felt sick from the smell of sausages and I was
seconds away from screaming: 'Shut up! How can I think when you're all
making such a racket?'
Friends and family have long accused me of intolerance. If my environment isn't calm, silent and smelling right, I find relaxation
impossible, because there's always a distant noise, or a strange scent,
or a bright light in my peripheral vision.
The sound of a TV booming in the living room is unbearable, whereas no one else seems
remotely aware of it. I hate the car radio jabbering away. I find it
impossible to think with music playing. And when the people next door
are cooking their blameless dinner, of chicken or baked potatoes, I
have to fling open the windows, even in winter, to disperse the smell.
The other day, my son left in a hurry and applied deodorant in the bathroom
with the door open. I had to work downstairs all day because the
lingering hint of Right Guard was making me feel violently sick.
Until recently, I assumed I was simply the world's biggest fusspot - a
nightmare to live with, completely overwrought, and inexplicable to
anyone except the handful of fellow over-reacters I've met in my life.
(My grandma was one, one of my best friends is another.)
But realising the desire to hurl abuse at my neighbourhood simply for going
about its business wasn't normal - and nor is my terror of pine-scented
body-spray, or hatred of noise over three decibels - I decided to seek
advice. And it turns out I'm not an intolerant freak after all.
I am simply a member of the fifth of the population that's described by psychotherapist Dr Elaine Aron as 'highly sensitive'. In her book,
The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms
You, she offers the theory that some people are born with a more
sensitive nervous system - and are more easily stimulated to panic,
intolerance and general over-reaction to modern living.
'It means you are aware of subtleties in your surroundings,' she says. 'It
also means you are more easily overwhelmed when you have been out in a
highly stimulating environment for too long, bombarded by sights and
sounds until you are exhausted.'
I took Dr Aron's HSP quiz, to discover whether I am indeed in that group of
genuine HSPs. Ticking statements including: 'Other people's moods
affect me', 'I am particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine'
and 'When I must be observed performing a task, I become so nervous
that I do much worse.' It seemed pretty clear that I'm one of them.
Dr Aron suggests that HSPs share a fear of violent films, a dislike of loud noises, and a regular need to be alone. Well, that would be a resounding yes to all of the above.
I once stupidly watched Kubrick's The Shining and had to sleep with the light on for a month.
If I drink a single cup of tea after 5pm, I'm awake all night.
And I failed my driving test three times despite being perfectly capable of reverse parking - because the moment the examiner climbed in
beside me, my body flooded with dread and I could barely turn the key
in the ignition.
As for other people's emotions, I can feel myself changing colour like a mood-ring, depending on whether my
husband's had a good day or has returned from work grumpy.
Loud noises? If a twig cracks in the garden at 4am, I'm bolt upright, heart thundering with fear.
Self-confessed fusspot: Flic Everett gets annoyed by loud TVs and strong cooking smells
Frankly, it all sounds rather pathetic, and reminds me of my elderly cat, Edna, who flinches whenever biscuits rattle gently into her bowl.
But Dr Aron insists that HSPs also embody plenty of positives. There are
suggestions of a 'rich, complex inner-life' and 'being moved by the
arts and music'. (Then again, this would imply that the other 80 per
cent of the population are lumbering farm-hands, shrugging at Da Vinci
and turning a tin ear to Mozart, which I doubt.)
Our hyper-vigilance to danger means we're less likely to get hurt or ill.
In 39 years, I've never needed more than Nurofen Plus to get by. Our
sensitivity to our environments makes us marvellous communicators who
can defuse arguments.
We're great at developing intimacy with others and are excellent problem-solvers thanks to our highly
tuned imaginations. This all sounds great, but I recall sobbing every
day as a child because I had to go to school, and being petrified by
anything scarier than Mr Benn on TV.
Other kids thought Dr Who was great. I had only to hear the theme tune for my legs to turn to
jelly - and bear in mind this was rubbish, Seventies Dr Who, when
everything was made of cardboard and pasta.
According to Jenna Forrest, author of HSP memoir Help Is On Its Way: 'HSchildren pick up
subtle signals, thoughts, moods and other sensory energies from home,
TV or school - and they don't know what to do with them.'
I developed a reputation for being a cry-baby, as sadly, the HSP concept hadn't reached Manchester in 1976. I thought it was just me,
but a bit of research among my female friends reveals I'm not alone in
my disproportionate reaction to mild stimuli.
One friend said: 'I cannot bear the smell of cooking salmon. I have to leave the house if I get the slightest whiff of it.'
'Oh, ugh, the sound of milk being poured,' shudders another. 'It sets my teeth on edge. I don't let my partner have cereal because of it.'
Others cite the sound of whistling, strip lighting the noise of the Grand Prix
on TV, and nearness to polystyrene packaging. Several, too, insist they
' cannot sleep without earplugs - the slightest noise keeps me awake.'
Women are twice as susceptible to stress than men due to an excess of corticotropin, produced at times of anxiety
It surely can't be the case that every one of my fortysomething friends fits into the HSP bracket, so perhaps we're simply getting less tolerant.
Modern life offers so much stimulus, with its constant demands and barrages of information and noise. We're
constantly subjected to intrusions into our peace, from planes, cars,
TV, music and mobile phones.
'I don't know if I'm an HSP,' says my friend Jenny, 35, 'but I feel murderous when someone gets on
the train with tinny earphones turned up too loud, or when my husband
watches football - the cheering makes me want to scream.'
Jenny believes she's become more hyper-aware since having children: 'I think
it's because with a new baby, you're constantly attuned for their cries
in the night. So now, the slightest noise wakes me up and I instantly
Perhaps my fellow HSPs and I resemble nothing so much as the weird kid in The Sixth Sense, attuned to some dog-whistle frequency that normal people can't hear.
Being an HSP is not curable, but, says Dr Aron, it's not an illness either.
It's like having a musical ear, or an allergy to raspberries. You're
stuck with it; whether it's genetic - my grandmother could hear a cat
wake up two streets away - stress-related, or due to excess cortisol,
the stress hormone. But there are tips to help prevent a constant state
of red-alert, the most important being: 'Avoid over-stimulation.'
HSPs can be sociable, but too much excitement usually means we need to lie
in a darkened room. Calming bedtime rituals are also useful, and a
soothing sleep environment is essential.
You should also learn to say no, warns Dr Aron, so never take on too much, because you'll feel overwhelmed.
Being an HSP can be wearisome - especially for long-suffering family and
friends. But ultimately, we're a better bargain than we appear. Because
at least we'll always wake up when the house is being burgled - and our
kitchens will never smell of frying fish.
What an interesting post. It feels like I'm the only one at times. Everything on earth seems to bother me. I don't understand why people can't talk without smacking. I mean it's bad enough when they eat like barn animals. Plus I can't stand crackling, clapping, or other sharp noises. I've looked into sound sensitivity, and Misophonia seems to fit the best for that........especially since it doesn't limit it to just certain sounds. Certain sounds bother me enough that I'll pound on my ears & cry from the stress at times.........but any sound can bother me if I'm already worked-up. Plus there's so much more to it, like I always have an itch somewhere, and I'm never comfortable. I'm always too hot or too cold, and I can just feel everything around me. I'm on permanent sensory overload, and you're right that people are really judgmental about this. No one understands. I used to get screamed at endlessly as a child for it, and even a therapist told me I was rude for politely asking him to at least be aware of & attempt to correct his smacking when he talked. I thought being a therapist he'd grant me that. Instead the jackass put antisocial in my file & told me I was rude. He was hostile to me until I empathized & actually calmed him down. Talk about backwards. I'll have to look into that book.
Having said that, I think this sounds more like a blog post to me. I'd like to keep discussions shorter & more fluid. If you want to do both, just post something brief under "discussions" and then elaborate in a blog post. You can do both. Remember that blogs are highly visible & people often read them & comment. When people post too many discussions they often get lost & it can be hard to find older ones which are really informative. However blogs are kept on the main page as well as easy to find on your page. Anything longer that you want to keep fairly visible should be a blog post in my opinion. Let me know if you disagree. :)