My first memory of being a highly sensitive person is from grade school – first grade, to be exact. I watched as the classmate sitting in front of me slowly wet his pants, the teacher oblivious. To me, it felt as though his embarrassment and shame filled the whole room, until I was the one crying. When the teacher finally realized what had happened, she sent him to the restroom to tidy up and sent me home to calm down.
I experienced this trait as both a blessing and a curse – but mostly a curse – through my early adult years, suffering from chronic, low-grade and frustrating health issues, remaining emotionally sensitive, and experience sensory overwhelm in large crowds. I was also empathic and could easily relate to the needs and emotions of others, making me the chosen counsel for many family and friends. But I often did so with a sense of responsibility that lead to resentment.
If you’re highly sensitive, you probably know it. You may become overwhelmed easily, can often sense or taste the emotional climate in a room, understand how to make a room comfortable or pleasing, and may work easily with others because of your inherent empathic qualities. Defined by Dr. Elaine Aron in 1997, high sensitivity is a neutral genetic trait, like having blonde hair or blue eyes. It’s found in about 20% of the population and is characterized by deeper nervous system processing, sensitivity to stimuli, over-stimulation and emotional sensitivity. Basically, the nervous system processes more information at a deeper level than most of the population.
Ayurvedically speaking, high sensitivity is a function of vata dosha, which governs the nervous system. Vata dosha is light and mobile in quality – it is the force of movement – and is in charge of both the intake of and our reaction to stimuli. Managing high sensitivity through Ayurveda requires creating a safe container for vata to function at its most balanced level. This container helps regulate the intake of sensory information and channel it in ways that are beneficial – allowing us to respond rather than react.
When vata is out of balance, it moves throughout the body in a myriad of ways, often spiraling upwards and creating overwhelm or spaciness. Grounding practices help direct the flow of vata downward and into the earth, giving it an anchor point. Use the following activities to anchor vata, allowing yourself to focus and center your sensitivity and direct it more usefully.
When we digest, we digest not only the food we eat but also the atmosphere around us. Eat in a calm atmosphere free of distraction and focus only on the food in front of you. Chew until the food is of even consistency and eat until you are 75% full. Enjoy the process of joining the ancient molecules of food with the tissues of your body.
Because vata is cold, dry, light and mobile, it is balanced by foods that are warm, moist, heavy and stable. During times of high sensitivity, eat foods with these qualities such as cooked root vegetables, porridge or oatmeal, soups and stews and warming spices like ginger.
Practice abhyanga, or self oil massage. Heat a small amount of sesame oil to above body temperature by placing it in a cup of hot water. Starting at the crown of your head, massage the oil into your body, using long strokes on the long bones and circular strokes on the joints. Recognize that the application of oil is heavy and moist, which calms the nervous system while adding a layer of protection to the skin. Once applied, leave oils on for up to 20 minutes (this is a great time to meditate or practice yoga) and finish with a hot shower. Rinse without soap to keep skin hydrated and protected.
Dinacharya, or daily routines, also help to contain excess vata within the body. Regulate your sleep and wake times, as well as your meal times. Each morning, cultivate a routine that cleanses your body and feeds your soul. Include abhyanga, meditation, a hot shower and other body cleansing activities into this daily routine, setting your energy for the day.
In order to ground, try a meditation focusing on grounding the lower three chakras. Visualize yourself pulling vata downward, through the chakras and into the center of the earth, anchoring it there.
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