Anyone who is highly sensitive must often wonder, Why am I the way I am? Is it nature, nurture, or both? A number of recent scientific findings and popular theories indicate that the answer is undeniably both.
The gene that encodes the serotonin transporter varies across the human population. Some people carry a “short” version of the gene, which means they have fewer copies of the serotonin transporter and therefore higher concentrations of serotonin in the gaps between neurons. Other people have a “long” version of the gene, which leads to more copies of the serotonin transporter and lower levels of serotonin in the cross-neuron gaps.
Previous studies found that people with a short version of the gene tend to pay more attention to negative or potentially threatening information. This negative bias is characteristic of many anxiety disorders, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and irritable bowel syndrome.
people with the short version of the serotonin transporter gene were not only more sensitive to negative information but also to positive information. According to the lead researcher, Dr. Elaine Fox, such people “are likely to be far more reactive to both very negative situations, such as a car crash, and very positive ones, such as a very supportive relationship.”
providing enhanced adaptability as well as greater vulnerability in the first place
In contrast, people with the long version of the gene are likely to be less influenced by negative stimuli but also less able to benefit from a highly positive emotional environment—since their reactivity in the different experimental conditions barely changed.
The serotonin transporter gene—and others like them—can be characterized as an orchid gene, like the flower whose bloom is spectacular but requires great care to cultivate. If the environment is supportive, a person with orchid genes will probably thrive and possibly succeed in spectacular ways. But if neglected or subjected to negative emotional input, such a person may develop any of the anxiety disorders and wilt
Those who are more resistant to the vicissitudes of life and aren’t quite so subject to the relative quality of their nurturance are dandelions. They are more numerous and more hardy.
People who are orchids, they point out, have a heightened genetic sensitivity to all experience, but their environment plays an equally important role. They call this biological sensitivity to context. Although orchids are more susceptible to stress and tumult, whether they go on to develop various health conditions ultimately depends upon their emotional environment.
The latest findings indicate that environmental stimuli can be as deterministic as genes were once believed to be and that the genome can be as malleable as only environments were believed to be.
The Boundaries Concept
Boundaries are a way to assess the characteristic way individuals view themselves and the way they operate in the world based on how they handle the energy of feelings. To what extent are stimuli “let in” or “kept out”? How are a person’s feelings processed internally? Boundaries are a fresh and unique way of evaluating how we function.
each of us can be characterized on a spectrum of boundaries from “thick” to “thin.” In his words
There are people who strike us as very solid and well organized; they keep everything in its place. They are well defended. They seem rigid, even armored; we sometimes speak of them as “thick-skinned.” Such people, in my view, have very thick boundaries.
At the other extreme are people who are especially sensitive, open, or vulnerable. In their minds, things are relatively fluid… Such people have particularly thin boundaries… I propose thick and thin boundaries as a broad way of looking at individual differences.
- The accumulated evidence shows that thin-boundary people are highly sensitive in a variety of ways and from an early age:
- They react more strongly than do other individuals to sensory stimuli and can become agitated by bright lights; loud sounds; particular aromas, tastes, or textures.
- They respond more strongly to physical and emotional pain in themselves as well as in others.
- They can become stressed or fatigued by an overload of sensory or emotional input.
- They are more allergic, and their immune systems are seemingly more reactive.
- They were more deeply affected or recall being more deeply affected by events during childhood.
In a nutshell, highly thin-boundary people are like walking antennae, whose entire bodies and brains seem primed to notice what’s going on in their environment and to understand more precisely what it means.
Thick-boundary people, on the other hand, are fairly described as stolid, rigid, implacable, or thick-skinned:
- They tend to brush aside emotional upset in favor of simply “handling” the situation and maintaining a calm demeanor.
- In practice, they suppress or deny strong feelings. They may experience an ongoing sense of ennui, of emptiness and detachment.
- Experiments show, however, that thick-boundary people don’t actually feel their feelings any less. Bodily indicators (such as heart rate, blood pressure, blood flow, hand temperature, and muscle tension) betray their considerable agitation despite surface claims of being unruffled.10
In sum, highly thick-boundary people don’t take in nearly as much in their environment and are much slower to recognize what they’re feeling. However, they are affected by what’s happening within them just as much as thin-boundary people.
high sensitivity is not the same thing as shyness. Indeed, approximately 30 percent of highly sensitive people are gregarious. But, as they still tend toward being careful and deep thinkers, highly reactive, and easily overstimulated, they need much more downtime than do extroverts to recover
Value of Knowing Your Boundary Type
Hartmann’s boundary concept goes to the heart of what actually drives the formation of that particular personality. In a word, it’s stimulation—what kind (positive or negative), how much (not enough, just right, too much), and most important, how the person handles stimulation (acts as if it’s not happening, reacts immediately, stores it away for future rumination).
The person’s boundary type—thick or thin or any degree in between—mediates with the outside world and the internal world of feeling.
That flow, that characteristic style of processing emotional stimuli, has a direct bearing on what kind of illnesses a person will experience.
Chronic Illness Is Different from Disease
Rooted in our emotional biology, these types of illness include the following:
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- irritable bowel syndrome
- migraine headache
- post-traumatic stress disorder
- rheumatoid arthritis
- skin conditions (such as eczema and psoriasis)
These conditions—call them the Dozen Discomforts—are far more constitutional than a disease. They affect a person, yes, but they are also of the person. They are rooted in how we handle stimuli, the most important kind being emotional, and they won’t be resolved through standard medical interventions, such as drugs and radiation, for the simple reason that they are not really “alien” to us.
Allopathic medicine, which fundamentally views sickness as originating outside the person, fails in many cases to successfully treat chronic pain and illness. However, CAM can often do so, because complementary and alternative approaches are psychosomatic in the literal (and appropriate) sense of the term.They address the whole person: the emotional/mental (psyche) as well as the physical (soma).