About HSP’s — Highly Sensitive People

My wife Lynda and I just watched a fascinating documentary titled: Sensitive – The Untold Story. It turns out, the genetic trait of high sensitivity is found in 20% of the population. It is found equally in men and women and in over 100 animal species. The scientific term for the trait is SPS or Sensory Processing Sensitivity. This trait is not a disorder, but it does pose challenges for people who possess it, as well as those with whom they live.

What SPS means is, certain people are more tuned into subtly of words, emotions, environments, threats, meaning, sounds, beauty, loss, poignancy, world events, human suffering, the list goes on. On other words, the brains of highly sensitive people (HSP) not only process more information, but they also process it more deeply. High sensitivity can be a blessing or a curse. Because practically speaking, HSP’s feel more. So their emotions are not only more keen and profound, sometimes they’re more gripping. For this reason, HSP’s can get easily overstimulated in environments that are chaotic, loud, or otherwise intense. Overstimulation is the challenging aspect of this trait, both for the HSP and for those with whom they live. I imagine many stress-related illnesses – addictions, depression, chronic pain, anxiety disorders, and more – are correlated with HSP.

Mark as a babyI am a highly sensitive person. I even joked about it in my guided meditation booklet when I wrote:

“When I was a kid, I don’t remember people thinking that I was spoiled, but I do remember being overly sensitive. I would throw a fit if there were wrinkles in socks when my mom put on my shoes. I’ve always liked things to be just so. I can recall my Dad even telling me to “unfuss myself.” So I guess that’s my life’s journey, learning to accept and allow.”

Being an HSP has been a journey – an educational one – where I’ve had to learn about myself. Learning to meditate and be more mindful has been a big part of that journey. Since I started meditating, my sensitivity has not toned down. Rather, it’s even stronger than ever. But the remarkably positive difference now is in the quality of my sensitivity. I’m no longer reactively sensitive, throwing a fit when I get tired, hungry, uncomfortable, or otherwise when circumstances don’t go my way. Instead, now, I can sit for extended periods of time, experiencing relative discomfort with composure. I’m still sensitive, but now, I’m groundedly sensitive. That’s the blessing that makes all the difference. I now know how to open up and have complete experiences, riding the waves of energy around me. In this way, I can experience the fullness of my gift for sensitivity without it throwing me into an emotional tailspin. The blessed gift of grounded sensitivity heightens one’s senses, and that, in turn, makes life more precious. If you are an HSP, you have the potential to make the shift from reactive to grounded sensitivity yourself. If you need support, I’m here to help.

If you think you’re an HSP, let us know. Add your comment to this post. We want to hear your stories. Also, if you know other HSP’s, share this post with them. They want to know they’re not alone.



Kids These Days!

“Kids these days.” How many times have you heard someone speak these words? How many times have you thought or spoken them yourself? We adults are perfect projection machines—chastising children for their behavior while at the same time forgetting it is a reflection of our own. Sure, each person is born with a unique temperament. Nevertheless, the environment of the home and culture radiates a powerfully influential force that molds them as well.Fighting Children

It might be helpful to think of children as biological recording devices. As such, they come into the world equipped to record and playback everything they experience. How do we imagine children learn to feel, sit with, and process their emotions? Clearly, it is through the process of modeling the emotional responses of those closest to them. Kids learn to speak kindly to others or not, depending on whether or not they hear kind words spoken to them. They may learn to respect others and their feelings, but only if their feelings receive respect first.

Likewise, by modeling the adults in their lives, children learn to become anxious, depressed, aggressive, distracted, impatient or disinterested. Unfortunately, most often our medical system treats these emotional issues as medical conditions. Pharmaceutical companies create pills for dampening all such “symptoms.” This misguided polypharmaceutical approach has no endgame. Lab testing our kids by pouring psychoactive chemicals into them is not the answer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying in all cases. Sure, in rare instances medicine can be a solution. What I’m saying is that pills won’t solve problems related to an unsafe environment, or the unavailability of tuned-in, emotionally skillful caregivers.

Happily, there’s another alternative to taking our children to the doctor. Humans never exhaust the capacity for growth and evolution. Meaning, grace is embedded in the practice of parenting. But, progressing along the path towards positive change requires pulling yourself out of your routine, and then, learning something new. Happy ChildrenIf you want to change your child’s behavior, start by working on yourself first. When you learn to experience your emotions more skillfully, speak more kindly and respectfully, be more compassionate, you’ll become perfectly enabled to model that skillfulness for your children. Then they’ll change.

Dr. Mark Pirtle is a meditation and mindfulness teacher who works in the recovery field. He contracts for Sierra Tucson, Miraval and is a faculty member of the Center for Integrative Medicine Fellowship Program at the University of Arizona. He teaches Skillfully Aware, a 6-week class that teaches the brain science of emotional literacy and the practice of meditation and mindfulness. For more information on classes go to www.skillfullyaware.com.

How to Heal Addictions with Mindfulness–In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (Post 5)

In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts Cover

Frustrated_man_at_a_deskHello again, and thanks for joining us as we read and discuss Gabor Mate‘s book “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.” Last time we looked at the factors that predispose a person to addictive thoughts and behaviors. We discovered that stress, especially toxic early childhood stress–even more than genetics–is the strongest predetermining factor for developing an addiction of any kind. The question then becomes, why? The simple answer is that early childhood stress negatively affects the emotional and self-regulatory circuits in a developing child’s brain. Mate writes that four brain centers are particularly affected.

1. The dopamine “motivation” circuits
2. The opiate attachment/reward circuits
3. The frontal executive control circuits
4. The stress response circuits

Very simply, overwhelming stress causes these systems to malfunction. For example, stress creates a lack of the powerful and necessary neurotransmitter dopamine, and also of the receptors that dopamine binds to. A person who suffers from an internal and persistent lack of dopamine will have a tendency to feel malaise, which can predispose that same person to seek out substances and behaviors that increase levels of brain dopamine. It’s strange to think that a person is not actually addicted to cigarettes or cocaine. Rather, they’re addicted to the surge of dopamine that these substances provide.

Normal neurotransmitter levels and well functioning emotional control and stress centers are necessary if one hopes to feel and function normally. Mate suggests that this fact illuminates the central dilemma in addiction treatment, “if recovery is to occur, the brain, the impaired organ of decision-making, needs to initiate its own healing process. An altered and dysfunctional brain must decide that it wants to overcome its own dysfunction… the very concept of choice appears less clear-cut (however) if we understand that the addict’s ability to choose, if not absent, is certainly impaired.”

The foregoing opens the space for many questions. Primarily, is addiction a disease or something else? Secondarily, can a dysfuntional brain hope to heal itself through it’s own efforts? I look forward to your comments.

If you find these posts enlightening, please share them with your social networks. Learn more about my work at www.skillfullyaware.com.

How to Heal Addictions with Mindfulness–In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (Post 3)

In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts Cover

Hi. Welcome back. Thanks for joining me as we read and discuss Gabor Mate’s book on addiction, “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.” Today, we’re going to explore Part II. In this section of his book, Mate explains how addiction creates biological and psychological feedback loops that are self-reinforcing.

First, however, let’s discuss what are the agreed upon hallmarks of addiction, both substance related and not. First, the standard view of addiction is any habitual pattern in which a person feels compelled to repeat despite its negative impact on himself or others. Therefore, addiction involves:

1. an obsessive preoccupation and compulsive engagement with a substance or activity

2. impaired self-control over the use of a substance, or engagement in a behavior

3. continued use of the substance or engagement in the behavior despite evidence of harm

4. a sense of dissatisfaction, irritability, or intense craving when not using the substance, or engaging in the behavior

Dr. Mark PirtleAs Mate writes, ‘these are the hallmarks of addiction, all addictions.’ Mate goes on to explain that addiction involves the same brain circuits, whether the addiction is chemical or behavioral. Therefore, addictions do alter brain physiology.

This is the feedback loop that I was alluding to, where the biology (brain circuits and chemicals) affect the psychology (thoughts and motivations). That explains why it’s so difficult to define addiction from one perspective, biological or psychological. We cannot place addiction in any one of those boxes; it’s more complex than just biology, or just psychology. A larger perspective is necessary to understand it. Without that larger understanding, treatment will necessarily be insufficient.

Mate goes on the write that at the ‘heart of addiction is a dependency, excessive dependency, an unhealthy dependency–unhealthy in the sense of unwhole, a dependency that disintegrates and destroys.” Such a dependency is akin to what I call “attentional fixation.”

In my next post, we’ll explore the factors that predispose a person to addiction. If you find these posts enlightening, please feel free to share them with your social networks.

Wishing you well,


How to Heal Addictions with Mindfulness–In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (Post 2)

In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts Cover

Welcome back to our review of Gabor Mate’s Book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. I want to share a few bits from Chapter 3. Specifically, the premise that Dr. Mate puts forth that addiction is a “flight from distress.” He’s very explicit. “Far more than a quest for pleasure, chronic substance use is the addict’s attempts to escape distress.” What he’s saying is this, addicts are compelled to use substances and engage in behaviors in order to feel better. More often than not, in the background, there’s some painful circumstance or condition.  

AddictDepression, anxiety, PTSD, ADD and or any number of other chronic stress-related conditions push an addict to seek relief in their drug of choice or in medicating behaviors. Interestingly, Mate points out that the same brain circuits that feel physical pain are also active during experiences of emotional pain. ‘When people speak of feeling emotional pain, they are being quite accurate.’ Mate states very strongly that ‘hurt’ is at the center of all addictive behaviors.

In my next post we’ll explore the hallmarks of addiction.

For those readers who would like to go deeper, way deeper, check out the work of Eric Garland.

Feel free to comment and ask questions. If these posts are helpful to you, please share them with you social networks.

America’s Epidemic of PTSD and Veteran Suicide

If you’re like me, you’ve already heard that veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan were suffering from PTSD. What I did not know, and what you may not have known either, was the immense scope of the problem. Approximately one quarter of all Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) members struggle with symptoms related to PTSD after leaving the service, says IAVA political director Kate O’Gorman.

A March 28th, 2014 online CNN report stated “researchers estimate that as many as 300,000 service members may meet criteria for PTSD.” Beyond these alarming numbers lies the ominous connection between PTSD and veteran suicide. I watched Rachel Maddow interview Montana Senator John Walsh on Wednesday, March 26th. Senator Walsh told Rachel that 22 veterans kill themselves by their own hand each day! This grave statistic is a tragedy beyond anything I had imagined. Very nearly every hour of every day a vet commits suicide. When I heard that figure tears welled in my eyes. I applaud Senator Walsh introducing a Senate Bill that hopes to bring needed benefits to these suffering veterans.


Senator Walsh’s Bill proposes to:

  • Extend special combat eligibility
  • Review wrongful discharges
  • Increase professionals in the VA
  • Improve mental health care in suicide prevention programs
  • Provide Special training for mental health care workers
  • Increase collaboration between VA and DoD
  • Establish a common drug formulary

There is a problem with a shortage of mental health care providers, especially in rural areas. But that shortage is not the only issue. Mental health care providers trained in mindfulness are more rare still. PTSD is a stress related illness. Therefore, mindfulness training is effective as a remedy beyond mere talk therapy. If you know a vet who is struggling with depression, anxiety, addiction, and/or PTSD providing him or her with a resource for mindfulness training may be another way to help.

Hot Topic: Addiction and Celebrity Overdose

Philip Seymour Hoffman

I know I’m late to the party—writing this article nearly 2-months after the January overdose death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Despite my tardiness, the issue of accidental death by overdose remains topical. For good reason, as a nation we are experiencing an epidemic of drug overdoses—New York alone experienced a 84% increase in heroin-related deaths from 2010 to 2012. If you’ve paid any attention, you’ve undoubtedly witnessed the barrage of headlines and new stories on this subject. Coverage has been wall to wall, from NPR to the New York Times. For good reason too, accidental death stirs up so much emotion. Sadness is the first and most natural reaction to such loss. But I’ve read articles where anger was clearly being directed at the drug user. On the surface, I get it. The author of such an article is likely mad because death by overdose is so avoidable and such a waste. ‘Why couldn’t the addict just made another choice?’ Clearly it must be more complicated than that.

Philip Seymour HoffmanSince all of us likely know someone who suffers from an addiction of some kind, such accidents compel us to find someone or something to blame. That makes sense to me too. It’s natural for us to want to understand the reasons behind these tragedies. When blame is cast, it seems to fall on either the “disease” of addiction, or the poor “choice” of the addict.

When someone blames the disease, as did Huffington Post blogger Akikur Mohammad, MD did in his March 14th article, addiction is equated with cancer and diabetes, which have no known cure. I know I’m swimming against the stream of generally accepted medical consensus here, but the word disease, when applied to addiction, makes me wince a little. Is smoking a disease? I know smoking causes disease, but is it a disease itself? Also, if addiction were a disease, then addicts would have no free will. Nothing is forcing anyone to use drugs. Sure, ample evidence proves addiction causes brain changes that dysregulate both thoughts and emotions, which fixates an addict’s attention on obtaining and using drugs, which then makes it difficult for the addict to curb cravings. This is all true. And this is precisely why Dr. Mohammed also rightly makes the case for compassion rather than condemnation of addicts. But clearly, there’s a difference between an addiction and say, Alzheimer’s disease. Addicts can and do learn new attentional and emotional self-regulation skills. They can and do recover. Despite the best medicines modern science can provide, one cannot practice one’s way out of Alzheimer’s. We also often hear that addiction is “progressive.” Yes, sure. But my response to that argument is that addiction is progressive the same way practicing the piano is progressive. The more a person engages in any activity, the more one’s brain changes in response to the activity. Call it what you like: neuroplasticity, or training effect, or Karma. People get good at what they practice. For these reasons, I think it’s best to view addiction as a conditioned flow of contextually dependent triggers, thoughts, and sensations. If this flow remains unconscious, the addict cannot interrupt it, and it will continue indefinitely. If the flow of triggers, thoughts, and sensations is interrupted with skillful awareness, it can and will change. In that sense, addiction is more like a verb than a noun. Addicts wanting to recover must first learn how to mindfully monitor triggers, thoughts, and sensations before they engage in healthier behaviors. Healing any addiction requires one to consciously break out of an attentional fixation, and then wake up to a broader perspective from which a better choice can be made.

When a writer blames the user, he or she making a similar mistake, which is to say oversimplifying a complex flow of interdependent actions. This is what New York Post reporter, Andrea Peyser did in her Feb 9th article. Peyser is relentlessly damming, but on target when she takes on a complacent recovery industry, but then mistakenly blames Hoffman for his accidental overdose when she concludes her article with this sentence: “He made his choice.” In one sense she’s right—Hoffman engaged in a premeditated act. He made a string of fateful decisions that night, which culminated in his accidental death. And if this were a legal proceeding, Hoffman’s many “choices”—from calling his dealer, to going to and taking money out of the ATM, to cooking the drugs, and finally to injecting them into his arm—would convey responsibility onto him. But in another sense, Peyser and others who blame the addict are missing a vitally important nuance. First, even though he’d been sober for 23 years, he’d never really understood the causes of and remedies of his addiction. His “recovery education” up to that point failed him. Subsequently, once caught in a conditioned flow of triggers, thoughts and sensations (what others call the disease) Hoffman was ill equipped to skillfully work through the urges. Attentionally fixated as he was that night, access to the full range of choices was not available to him. I can relate with Peyser and her dislike of a recovery system that’s surely broken. But we lack compassion when we blame Hoffman for not knowing what he didn’t know. Without the understanding or the skill to get “meta” on himself, Hoffman did not have the ability objectively watch the flow of triggers, thoughts and sensations. Without the ability to be mindful, he was stuck in a cyclic addictive compulsion. Therefore, his “choice” to use was not so much a conscious one, but rather the only one available to him at the time. Addiction is complicated, where paradoxically, two seemingly contradictory conditions are true at the same time: 1) addicts are not forced to act out; and 2) once in the grip of a conditioned flow of triggers, thoughts and sensations, compulsive acting out is the only thing that occurs to an addict[1].

For the reasons stated above, blaming the disease, or the addict for lack of moral strength, is not appropriate. In Buddhist psychology, the primary reason people suffer is because of ignorance. Meaning people just don’t know how to help themselves. All of us want to be happy and avoid suffering. That’s what Hoffman was trying to do the night he died. The reason he was compelled to use drugs is because he had used them before. He was seeking relief in a way he had received relief in the past. We all do this. We repeat the past is because we are conditioned by it, and that conditioning influences us in the present. For this reason alone, the problem of addiction will not go away. We are only days or weeks away from the next talented but troubled person crossing the line and inadvertently killing him or herself with drugs. My hope is that this article can wake us up to a new mindfulness-based recovery paradigm—one that does not over simplify a complex set of interdependent conditions. There is a middle way between the extremes of blaming the disease or blaming the addict. If readers are interested in an evidence-based recovery programming (online courses, 13-month guided program, workshops and 1:1 Skype sessions) that employs mindfulness practice to work with triggers, thoughts, and sensations please visit www.skillfullyaware.com.

[1] Field M., Cox WM. Attentional bias in addictive behaviors: a review of its development, causes, and consequences. Drug alcohol depend (2008) 97:1—20. DOI: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2008.03.030