10 Ways to Thrive if You’re Highly Sensitive

By Rachel Fintzy, MA, MFT

 

Stressed WomanDo people tell you that you’re too “thin-skinned” or overly reactive?

Do you tend to pick up on other people’s energy to the point where you “catch” their moods?

Does being around a large group of people drain you?

Do you need a lot of time alone to regroup and regain your energy?

Are you frazzled by noise, odors, or chattering, more so than the next person?

Do you compulsively overeat to try and manage uncomfortable feelings?

Are you scared that you might “lose” yourself if you become involved in an intimate relationship?

If you answer yes to most of these questions, you may be an “empath”, according to psychiatrist Judith Orloff, an intuitive psychiatrist who authored the book Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself From Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life.

Being highly sensitive and possessing an exceptionally “permeable” system, empaths are generally:

  • very passionate
  • gifted at connecting to and helping others
  • intuitive
  • spiritual, and
  • in tune with their physical sensations and emotions.

However, empaths are also prone to:

  • soaking up other people’s feelings (for better or for worse)
  • extreme emotional responses
  • anxiety, depression, and exhaustion
  • discomfort and needing “space” when cohabitating
  • long-lasting and distressing physical conditions, and
  • trouble setting limits with other people.

As an empath, you’re likely to allow your feelings to lead the way, which can serve you well in taking the emotional atmosphere of a room and sensing what others (or you) might need. However, at times you may feel as if you’re stuck in an emotional whirlwind.

You may feel paralyzed, incapable of taking appropriate action.

You may flee the scene in mind and spirit (if not also in body).

You may impulsively strike out in anger, trying to defend yourself, when such a response would be excessive.

To make the most of your highly sensitive nature while protecting yourself from overstimulation and situations that can drain or derail you, try some of the following suggestions:

Use positive self-talk. Repeat to yourself reassuring statements such as:

I can handle this situation.

I can love other people without taking on their “stuff”.

Easy does it. 

Calm your body. Take some slow, deep breaths, allowing your abdomen to expand and thus engaging the relaxation response. Babies do this belly breathing naturally – learn from them. Breathe in relaxation, breathe out tension.

To soothe your feelings, put one hand on your heart and imagine love flooding through your entire body.

Determine your needs and boundaries – and stick with them.

If you’re feeling overly extended and someone requests your help, kindly but firmly say no. It’s okay not to explain yourself or to apologize. We all have our limits, and you’re recognizing and honoring yours. This is especially important if you’re dealing with someone who tends to belittle or drag you down. Such individuals may not take it well if you set limits with them — but don’t give in to being intimidated.

If large crowds intimidate you, try positioning yourself on the perimeter rather than smack in the middle of the event. While it’s important to stretch yourself from time to time, it’s also vital to take care of your emotional well-being.

Leave a social event early, if you’re feeling wiped out or overwhelmed. It’s not necessary to stay until what might otherwise be (for you) the bitter end. Know when enough is enough – what level of socializing energizes you and also allows you to maintain your equilibrium.

Have a place at home where you can retreat for privacy. If you have no other recourse (or even if you do), Dr. Orloff recommends the bathroom. People will usually refrain from barging in on you there.

Avoid wide fluctuations in blood sugar, energy, and mood by steering clear of high-sugar foods, along with excessive alcohol or caffeine.

Take short breaks at least a few minutes every day, preferably several times a day, to release tension. Walk around the block. Sit in nature. Have some humorous reading material around to help you lighten up. Laughter is a powerful stress-reliever.

Remember that people differ in their level of emotional insulation. Some individuals appear (appear – don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides) to adapt easily to all sorts of circumstances. On the other hand, such people might miss the exquisite nuances of emotion and sense of aliveness that you’re able to experience. If you’re an empath, you may be more highly strung – but you can use this to your advantage and maximize your many unique attributes. Take pleasure in being your finely tuned self.

Orloff, J. (2009). Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself From Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life. New York, NY: Harmony Books.

 



Proven Help for Compulsive Eating

By Rachel Fintzy, MA, MFT

Woman-Cupcake-SaladThere’s no getting around it – food is an essential and often extremely pleasurable part of life. (That is, unless you’re a breatharian, a concept I personally cannot understand.)

Not only is food necessary for our physical sustenance, but it also figures prominently in many social and religious events. Thanksgiving and turkey (or tofurky). The Super Bowl, chips, and dip. Easter, chocolate eggs, and Peeps. Passover, matzoh, and gefilte fish.

Enjoying a leisurely meal with friends or family can also help us bond with others while nourishing our bodies.

However, in too many cases food and eating can morph into a source of discomfort and potentially threaten one’s physical health and well-being.

Downing a one-pound bag of M & M’s can become the response to be jilted romantically or losing one’s job.

Grazing on bags of potato chips throughout the day can become a way to procrastinate about schoolwork.

Ordering an extra-large pizza and eating it alone at home with the blinds closed, and then falling into a food-fueled comatose state, can be a way to block out feelings of low self-worth.

This is serious business. What to do? How to regain a healthy relationship with food again? Or develop such a relationship for the first time?

Various types of compulsive overeating exist.

Binge eating is defined as the consumption of large amounts of food over a short period of time (from a few minutes to several hours) and the unsettling sense that one has lost control over one’s eating. Sometimes people can eat thousands, or even tens of thousands of calories, in the course of a binge.

Emotional eating involves eating in response to uncomfortable feelings such as anxiety, grief, or anger. Many people attempt to “stuff down their feelings” with excess food. Sometimes positive feelings like joy or excitement can cause people to eat emotionally, especially if the person has a difficult time feeling deserving of good things.

External eating refers to eating as a result of seeing, smelling, or tasting a bit of food. The slogan “bet you can’t eat just one” applies here. Sometimes a photo of food or the mere mention of food, can precipitate external eating.

In all these cases, food consumption, which initially seems to be the best answer to an disquieting feeling or impulse, becomes the problem.

Fortunately, according to researchers at the University of Southern California, mindfulness-based interventions (MBI) can be effective for obesity-related eating behaviors, including binge eating, emotional eating, and external eating. The study team conducted a search of clinical research studies that employed MBIs, such as:

  • mindfulness meditation
  • mindful eating
  • mindful body scan
  • acceptance-based practices

All but one of the 12 studies aimed at reducing binge eating decreased the frequency and/or severity of the behavior, with most of the studies reporting a major effect. Five out of the eight studies that focused on emotional eating proved to be effective. For external eating, four out of six studies decreased the behavior.

Overall, the combination of mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy appeared to be the most effective approach to reducing compulsive overeating. In addition, most of the studies showed improvement in mindfulness and beneficial outcomes in body weight (either weight loss or weight stabilization).

The therapeutic interventions deemed to be most effective required several sessions over a few weeks (which is not long at all, in the scheme of things).

A multitude of mindfulness techniques exist. Here’s one simple example:

  1. Notice a place in your body where you feel your breath. This could be in your chest, in the back of your throat, or your abdomen.
  2. Bring your attention to that spot.
  3. Observe how breathing feels, focusing on the sensation rather than on your thoughts.
  4. Breathe naturally. No need to force a particular type of breathing.
  5. Try this exercise for five minutes, working your way up to 20 minutes a day, if possible.

Mindfulness works in controlling compulsive behaviors in several ways.

  1. First of all, the more awareness you bring to each moment, the more choice you have as to how you respond. You are less likely to be a victim to automatic thoughts and behaviors. You are less likely to “find” yourself looking at the bottom of an empty cookie jar, wondering how that happened.
  2. Since it’s difficult to have more than one thought at a time, the more you develop your ability to focus on your breath, the less you will get stuck in worrying about the past, the future, or a disturbing situation, all of which might cause you anxiety and the wish to escape through compulsive eating.
  3. With practice, you’ll be able to transfer your mindfulness skills to your activities and thoughts throughout the day. If you notice a self-critical thought about your weight or an impulse to overeat, you’ll be more able to see the belief or the compulsion for what it is, rather than mindlessly accepting the thought as truth or judging the impulse as the right thing to do.

When you choose to adopt healthier routines, such as following a balanced and moderate food plan, and refraining from compulsive overeating between planned meals or snacks, you’re bound to come up against discomfort. Change can be scary, even if the change is beneficial.

Mindfulness techniques can help you to weather the discomfort without adding self-imposed misery (through negative thoughts, obsessing about food or weight, or falling back into dysfunctional eating behaviors). In time, your new, healthier eating patterns can become the norm, and food can assume its proper place in your life.

 

Reilly, G.A., Cook, L., Spruijt-Metz, D., & Black, D.S. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions for obesity-related eating behaviours: a literature review. Obesity Reviews, 15(6): 453-461.

 

 

 



How Religion and Spirituality Can Help (or Harm) You

By Rachel Fintzy, MA, MFT

Spirituality“Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.” (Billy Sunday)

Is it better for your happiness and health to belong to an organized religion or to be “spiritual”? Does it matter?

Being religious refers to believing in a specific deity (or group of deities) and following the regulations of a particular religion. In addition, organized religion (as implied by its title) generally takes place in a relatively formal, organized context. In contrast, being spiritual may or may not involve belief in a particular god but does imply that the person is trying to follow a specific moral code, such as being loving and kind, and is seeking a meaning in life that’s bigger than him or herself.

In other words, a person can be both religious and spiritual. In contrast, someone can be religious but not spiritual, as in the case of adhering to religious dogma such as tithing 10% of one’s income but being consistently cruel or unjust. Or, an individual can be spiritual but not religious.

Unfortunately, some organized religions have become associated with hypocrisy and worse, due to a few (or more) individuals of high standing in such communities behaving in regrettable and hurtful ways. So have some spiritual pursuits found themselves under scrutiny, for that matter.

As a result, the very concept of religion or spirituality can turn people off, which is unfortunate. It isn’t necessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Participation in organized religion and in a spiritual community can offer many benefits, including the following:

  • social contact and support
  • a chance to volunteer and feel useful
  • a sense of being part of something bigger than yourself
  • a sense of identity
  • a sense of connection with a loving, powerful, and wise Higher Power
  • the opportunity to learn universal moral principles
  • greater ability to forgive (McCullough & Worthington, 1999)
  • greater emotional and physical resilience after trauma (Ellison & Levin, 1998)

Everyone needs to find out for himself or herself what religious or spiritual path is the right fit. Even if another person’s faith sounds wonderful in many ways, it still may not ultimately be your personal path. For instance, let’s say that you believe in marriage. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to wed just anyone.

It helps to actively participate in your spiritual community and also to practice (however imperfectly) the principles of your belief system. Depending on your faith, such principles can involve:

  • prayer
  • meditation
  • reading spiritual literature
  • attending Bible or other literature studies with fellows in your faith community
  • going to religious or spiritual services
  • volunteering to help in your community (building homes for Habitat for Humanity, visiting home-bound individuals, donating to food drives, etc.)

It is, however, to abuse religion or spirituality. Some signs of this include:

  • passively turning your problems over to God or your Higher Power without doing what’s within your power to do yourself
  • engaging in religious or spiritual rituals to the point of jeopardizing important and healthy relationships
  • berating yourself mercilessly for falling short of what you consider to be “God’s will” for you
  • joining a cult and completely submitting to its rules and regulations
  • being angry and intolerant toward those who do not share your belief system

At its best, both organized religion and spirituality will help you answer in the affirmative to the following questions:

  1. Are you becoming capable of compassion to others as well as to yourself?
  2. Do you strive to practice kindness, even “under fire”?
  3. Are you becoming more patient with apparent obstacles or delays, recognizing that such occurrences may turn out to be for the best? Or, even if there seems to be no conceivable way that the situation in question could be beneficial, can you accept this without resentment or fear?
  4. If you falter in any of the above, are you capable of compassion while also being accountable for your actions or attitude, knowing that nobody is perfect?

 

Ellison, C.G., & Levin, J.S. (1998). The religion-health connection: Evidence, theory, and future directions. Health Education and Behavior, 25: 700-20.

McCullough, M.E., & Worthington, E.L. (1999). Religion and the forgiving personality. Journal of Personality, 67: 1141-64.



Can You Love Someone Too Much?

By Rachel Fintzy, MA, MFT

Heart LoveDo any of the following statements ring true for you?

  1. My feelings of self-worth are dependent on what you and other people think of me.
  2. I focus on solving your problems, protecting you from the consequences of your actions, or “fixing” you, to the point of neglecting my own needs. 
  3. My self-esteem is based on my ability to “fix” you.
  4. I abandon my personal values and interests and conform with your values and interests.
  5. I know how you feel and what you want, but I’m not clear on how I feel and what I want.
  6. My words and actions are chosen in attempts to avoid your anger or rejection.

If so, you may be struggling with codependency, defined as becoming so preoccupied with someone else that you cease to take adequate care of yourself. This is not love – this is looking to an outside source to grant you happiness and a sense of purpose, much in the way that alcoholics or chemically dependent people use substances to numb their feelings and escape life. Although codependents may appear to be kind, gentle, and giving, these qualities can mask a wish to manipulate and control others in order to feel better about themselves. So in a sense codependency is a form of addiction.

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Hints for Effective Stress Management

By Rachel Fintzy, MA, MFT

Stressed-RelaxedGenerally when we talk about being “stressed”, we mean that we’re feeling overwhelmed and anxious. However, we all need a certain level of stimulation and challenge in order to feel fulfilled, and this crucial amount of stress is termed eustress.

Defined by the endocrinologist Hals Selye, eustress refers to “good stress”, or responding to a stressor as if it were a growth-enhancing opportunity, rather than as something to be feared, resisted, denied, or avoided. Of course, the chances of our viewing something as eustress have a lot to do with when and how the stressor occurs, as well as how much control we think we have over the situation and how welcome we view the stressor to be. 

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10 Ways to Increase Self-Esteem

By Rachel Fintzy, MA, MFT

Self-Esteem

Healthy self-esteem is comprised of self-worth, self-confidence, and self-acceptance. It does not mean that we are proud, arrogant, or think that we’re inherently better than other people, but that we feel worthy of respect and as if we are of value. In this state, we’re able to let go of self-centeredness, because we aren’t preoccupied with how we are or aren’t measuring up. While we take appropriate action toward our goals, they don’t define who we are as people. Thus, our self-esteem remains independent of our achievements or what other people think of us, although we still strive to maximize our potential.

Some ways to bolster your self-esteem:

  1. Be realistic. Don’t compare yourself with others, but just focus on doing your best. Also, recognize that your best may vary from day to day, based on factors such as how much sleep you got the previous night, the types of food you’ve been eating, how much work you have on your plate, and your social interactions.

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Does Your Road to Recovery Have Heart?

By Rachel Fintzy, MA, MFT

Rainbow

Look at every path closely and deliberately.

Try it as many times as you think necessary.

Then ask yourself, and yourself alone…

Does this path have a heart? If it does, the

path is good. If it doesn’t, it is of no use.

- Carlos Casteneda

When it comes to dealing with addiction, emotional problems, relationship problems, or having gotten off-course in life, recovery has two components: recovery from behaviors that no longer work and recovery of a healthy and fulfilling life. Focusing only on not doing something anymore or moving away from particular behaviors keeps us in a deprivation mentality.

After all, what we really want is happiness grounded in a sense of purpose and things to wake up to with joy and enthusiasm each morning, to keep us going when the road gets rocky (as it inevitably will, from time to time). The cup can always be at least half-full rather than half-empty — and at times the cup can even be overflowing!

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Enhancing Intimacy: The Art of Listening

By Rachel Fintzy, MA, MFT

Woman Listening-Touching Arm Small“Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival – to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated.” Steven Covey

Most of us agree that good communication is essential for healthy relationships. However, when we think of communication, we often focus what we want to say, rather than the quality of attention we can offer the other person. Stephen Covey, author of the best-seller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, lists “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood” as Habit 5, and states that when we practice empathic listening, we are giving the other person “psychological air”, the priceless gift of being accepted, and help in clarifying what they’re really feeling, thinking, experiencing, and needing.

Some hints for effective listening:

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Creating Meaning In Your Life

By Rachel Fintzy, MA, MFT

Path In Woods

“He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)

When we’re immersed in depression or anxiety, finding some semblance of happiness or purpose in life can feel almost impossible. Depression makes even the smallest task feel like a monumental effort, and anxiety tends to make us run from or avoid people and experiences.

Our self-confidence decreases, as we tend to forget that at one time we were functioning more effectively. Our shrinking back from life makes our world smaller, and we lose touch with those things that gave our existence meaning. Without meaning, we are more prone to chronic anxiety and depression – it’s a vicious cycle.

Even if we’re doing fairly well at the moment, we may still be haunted at times by the sense that we’re drifting somewhat aimlessly. So, how do we increase our sense of meaning and purpose?

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Fish Oil Consumption Protects Against Death of Brain Cells

By Rachel Fintzy, MA, MFT

Gel CapsAccording to a study published in the January 22, 2014 on-line edition of the journal Neurology, the higher the level of fish oils in your blood, the larger your brain volume is likely to be, implying that such oils may slow down the loss of brain cells as you age.

The study team assessed the level of the marine omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA in the red blood cells of over 1,000 post-menopausal women. Eight years later, the women’s brain volumes were measured using MRI scans. The average age of the participants was 78 at the time of the brain scans.

Study subjects with omega-3 levels twice (7.5 percent) as high as those in the lowest range demonstrated a 0.7 percent higher brain volume. In addition, higher levels of omega-3 were associated with greater (2.7 percent) hippocampal volume. The hippocampus is the area of the brain first ravaged by the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. 

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