If you’re both highly sensitive and struggling with sugar binges, sugar cravings, or a sugar addiction, you’re not alone. It’s a pairing that comes up often!
What is high sensitivity?
Being highly sensitive means you pick up more from your environment - you feel things more strongly (both your own feelings and those of others) and reflect more upon what you pick up before acting. Because of this high level of processing and thinking, you’re more easily overwhelmed, overstimulated and overaroused than someone who isn’t sensitive. (For more on high sensitivity, check out the research and work of Elaine Aron. You can see a list of her books here.)
Where sugar comes into play is this: sugar is an easy tool for self soothing when you feel overwhelmed.
Here’s an example from my own life:
Yesterday I went shopping with my daughter. We needed groceries and I was on a hunt for washcloths, walking shoes and drinking glasses. We went to several stores to get what we needed, and by the last store, I could feel this building tension in my body. I felt sad, heavy, amped up, a bit panicky, and like a deflated balloon.
What I was feeling was overwhelm. I was feeling overstimulated from the music, the fluorescent lights, the sheer volume of choices, and the loud noises (my daughter – another highly sensitive person – and I both jumped when the speaker announced, ”Register 1 is now open!” at the checkout line.) I was also feeling anxious - a tightness in my body because of this discomfort.
When I start to feel this way, I recognize that I need quiet, rest and to soothe my overstimulated nervous system.
So I drove home. I got home just as my husband was serving dinner. I began gobbling down my food and recognized that my fast eating came from this desire to soothe my overstimulated system.
Can you relate?
In Heal Overeating: Untangled, I explain how overarousal, overwhelm and overstimulation lead us to eat. I also show how we can care for these feelings without turning eating - a practice I call flowing. This practice may be helpful to you if you’re both highly sensitivity and struggling with sugar. For now, here are a few helpful tips:
Soften self judgment
Many people feel shame (and confusion!) about how their high sensitivity leads to feelings of overwhelm, and a longing to binge. It helps to view sensitivity as a neutral trait, and not a character flaw. With this perspective, the shame softens and we feel more equipped to care for it.
In my experience, much of the anxiety around high sensitivity comes from:
- Trying to control your environment
- Trying to control your inner experience, including your emotions, reactions, and needs.
- And feeling overwhelmed, overaroused, or overstimulated.
All are related to sensitivity! Anxiety is a normal, natural reaction to a world that often feels overwhelming – and this includes intense feelings. (Here’s a helpful and affirming approach to anxiety from one of my teachers, Dr. Gordon Neufeld. He’s talking about children in this video, but you can adapt this approach to adults, as well.)
When we soften the judgment about both the sensitivity and the anxiety, we relax. We don’t feel so caught by scenarios of impending doom because we’re feeling overwhelmed.
You can name it - “Ah, Im feeling overstimulated here!” This allows you to respond with nurturing, kindness and care rather than snap judgments like, ”Here you go again - the world is too much for you!”
If you have inner voices that are highly critical of your sensitivity, it helps to adopt the voice of someone who is accepting, warm and kind – perhaps the voice of a grandmother, friend, or even a spiritual figure. Imagine what this person would say to you, and allow their words and warmth to nourish you.
Recognize situations where you get overstimulated
Where do you reach your limit and find yourself self soothing with sugar? Here are some common scenarios:
- Being overwhelmed by intense feelings - especially “negative” ones like fear, anxiety, loneliness, sadness, and yes, hunger!
- Noisy, loud environments
- Feeling out of balance - too much out in the world time (travel, shopping, errands, or even fun events out with people) without sufficient down or processing time
- Feeling pressured to do too many things at once
- Too much thinking or work without the balance of play and rest
- Any situation where you’re ”on,” in charge, in a caretaking role, or feeling like you’re on stage or being evaluated by others – meeting new people, social situations (especially with people you don’t know very well), teaching, taking care of children, taking a test or exam, or being around people who tend to be critical (you may feel like a bug under a microscope!)
Just reading that list may create tension in your body! But it offers perspective – you’re not crazy or hopeless with sugar. You’re just sensitive.
What I’ve found is that sugar – particularly fatty, creamy foods like ice cream – moves the body into a state of rest, into the parsympathetic nervous system. I’m guessing it’s the rest you’re seeking when you eat sugar, a place of less stimulation and arousal.
Shame about being sensitive leads to perfectionism
Some highly sensitive people develop a striving, “push through the discomfort” approach towards their overwhelm. It was often the only coping strategy available to them as children - perhaps there was no one to nurture them or to offer then empathy, holding and a place to “let down” when they felt overstimulated or overwhelmed.
We can carry these patterns forward. If we’re raised with a “tough it out” approach to our tenderness, emotions and sensitivity (and because we live in an emotion phobic culture, this is a very large group!), we may carry internalized shame about being sensitive. This can become an internalized oppression that we act out.
In response to this shame, we overcompensate: we try to eradicate the sensitivity, as if it doesn’t exist. We may spend our adult lives trying to prove how unsensitive and tough we are! So we cover over our sensitivity with perfectionism and by suppressing and minimizing our feelings, needs and experience. Ouch!
Honor your highly sensitive nature
The healing process involves shedding this pattern of soldiering through discomfort and finding a kinder way of relating to ourselves.
There are many reasons why we may ignore or suppress our sensitivity, but I’ll touch on a few here. In my experience, they all center around this idea: change involves facing uncomfortable feelings. For example:
- We resist caring for our high sensitivity because to care for it, we have to accept the sensitivity in the first place. We have to stop trying to be someone else, someone who’s not sensitive. This can bring up those feelings of shame and anger that I described earlier – and facing these feelings can be painful.
- It can also bring up feelings of grief for the ways we’ve felt shamed, or grief for how our sensitivity impacts our life, or grief in honoring the truth of our sensitivity. When we honor the truth, we abandon the false hope that it could be different. It’s a mini death, and a vulnerable feeling! It’s a paradox of accepting life’s limits - in this case, the limit of our sensitive body – and then finding a way to thrive within them.
- In giving ourselves exactly what we need to thrive, we have to open to our human neediness. This is a vulnerable feeling, as well, as it means admitting ”weakness” like fatigue, overstimulation, and more. In a Western, high speed, culture, rest and limits are not valued – no wonder we may hide them! It takes courage to say, ”Hey, I need to stop and rest,” versus plodding on with a candy bar.
There’s a lot to process and feel! Because of this, I invite you to be gentle with yourself as you explore your relationship to your sensitivity.
Soothe your body’s overwhelm
Healing your relationship to your sensitivity often opens the door to loving action – new ways of caring for your sensitivity. If you’re highly sensitive and use sugar to soothe your nervous system, try these things instead:
- being in nature (even going outside helps!)
- reach out to trusted loved ones (Connecting with others is important! We often try to “take on” the soothing ourselves – thinking that adults shouldn’t rely on others for help – and forget that it’s healthy and nourishing to be in the flow of giving and receiving care. Stan Tatkin has helpful things to say on this. )
- laying down, napping, putting your feet up, or closing your eyes
- meditation, prayer, quiet
- something grounding and hands on, like chopping vegetables
- cuddling with a pet
- coloring or making art
- any rhythmic activity like knitting, sewing, or fishing
- play, play and more play!
- moving energy in a physical way – dancing, yoga, martial arts, walking
Relate to your sensitivity
When you practice soothing your overwhelm, you’re positively relating to your sensitivity. This shift from shame and judgment and into relationship changes your perspective. In a word, you stop making your sensitivity wrong. Your sensitivity shifts from something “bad” – a limit or flaw – to a tenderness that can be embraced.
When I relate to my sensitivity, I’m much more wise and kind in caring for it! The image I use is of a little girl that I carry around in my pocket. She often needs soothing, she’s easily overwhelmed, and she is tender hearted. She is not all of me – (she’s in my pocket, after all!) – and yet is a part of me. I simply carry her with me.
With this tender girl, there is also a wise inner voice, a stillness. It is this part of me that I try to remember and to embody. And it is this part of me that cares for the overwhelm and overarousal, that soothes with a loving touch of, ”Sh, sh, I’m right here. You’re safe with me.”
If you’re interested in learning more about sensitivity in a film format, you may enjoy the documentary Sensitive, featuring Elaine Aron and Alanis Morissette.
Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/, Creative Commons CC0.
I've read about Highly Sensitive Persons and I believe I am one of them. I hope it is a real diagnosis and not some funky passing "thing", because then my life would make so much sense. I never, until reading this, connected being overwhelmed and super sensitive to the time I binge out and eat mindlessly… but again, like a slap in the face, now it makes sense. You are showng me so much through this site… I hope someday I can embrace and be gentle and LOSE the weight I carry around like armor. Nature always soothes me. I need… need… need… to seek it out more. Thank you so much for this article… all of your articles/blogs.
My favorite resource on high sensitivity is Elaine Aron, who coined the term "HSP." She's done a lot of research on high sensitivity and says 15-20% of the population carry this trait. I also find Dr. Gordon Neufeld's work helpful.
The connection between overwhelm and overeating has become so vivid for me. I hear it from my clients all the time – how they can eat healthy most of the time, but when they get too tired, too hungry, overstimulated, or overwhelmed, they give in. They feel badly and ashamed and like there's something wrong with them. Nope – just sensitive.
This became crystal clear to me today. I had a busy day with my children, and several times throughout the day I felt this need to recharge in quiet and even darkness. As this wasn't an option – I was driving in a city with my children – I found myself inhaling the nut mix I had brought with me in an attempt to soothe myself.
I think this is one of the reasons why yoga has been so good for me – it calms my sensitive nervous system and helps me find a place of inner quiet. I find nature incredibly calming too. Makes me wonder about all the addiction in our modern world, where we are so disconnected from nature….
I now see overeating as a sign that I need inner quiet and rest. 5 or 10 minutes does wonders. So does sleep! So does watching the clouds.
I feel happy this blog nourished you, Kai. I believe in your healing journey, dear one. You are making progress, each baby step at a time….
In love and support, Karly
This is so beautiful, Karly! Just what I needed to hear, tonight!
Karly, your post for today was exactly what I needed to hear. Your description of your experience with sensitivity mirrors mine precisely. In social situations I often use the excuse of going to the restroom to just get away from the stimulation of the room and regroup/recharge for a few minutes. It works wonders and doesn’t involve me standing by the snack table trying to figure out a way to eat every chip, cookie, or celery stick (and all of the hummus) without anyone actually noticing, although sometimes I do this, as well. Thank you for your honesty and willingness to share your experience. It is so very validating to know that others feel this way and be reminded that even though those around me may not share the qualities of being highly sensitive, it does not mean that what I am experiencing is any less real or that my need to care for myself when others seem to not need such self-attention is any less necessary. Thank you. with much love, Esther
Yeah – This makes me feel so happy, Justin! Thank you for taking the time to write and say so.
In love, from one sensitive soul to another, Karly
This is one of the best posts I've read about being highly sensitive. I score high on the hsp test, and I feel that this trai limits my life a lot. I stopped Doing hair, because it was much too overwhelming. Now I'm a stay at home mom writing a bit. I realize that I'm constantly either overwhelmed or overwhelmed (usually the latter) and I use food to regulate. I want to lose some weight and just can't because I need the food to survive mentally and emotionally. It's very frustrating. Life can't always be paired down- kids are by definition stimulating- and I just want to deal with life better and stop judging myself. Maybe I need medication.
I find new things every day on this site!! I never thought anyone else was like me! Love this site. Thanks Karly!
You’re welcome TJohn!
Yes, you have described me to a ‘T’. Thanks so much for sharing and for others not feel so alone. I personally would like to recommend http://www.radiantrecovery.com – it has helped me so much with the related conditions of ‘sugar sensitivity’, depression/anxiety and HSP (highly sensitive person). I don’t think I would had the confidence to become a mum without the support and healing of the radiant recovery plan.
Thanks so much for bringing this condition to the forefront and helping others
I’m a big fan and admire Kathleen’s work tremendously – thank you so much for sharing your experience with her here and what has helped you. I’m so glad of the healing you found with her. Love, Karly
Just began reading about HSP this morning and I am fascinated. I want to learn more, especially about how diet factors into this. I’ve felt that my diet is off kilter for years and have tried various fad diets to heal myself, with minimal success. Most recently I’ve opted to give up grains and dairy. Realize I need to consider quitting sugar as well, as I have a tendency to overindulge. Just so many questions. I have felt like a freak my whole life. Like I don’t fit in and it’s comforting to see there may be others in the world who struggle with these feelings as well.
Learning about high sensitivity was a part of my path of self discovery, too. One of the most interesting books that I’ve read that explores diet-sensitivity connections is this book by Sharon Heller, about challenges with sensory integration and processing: http://sharonheller.net/tooloud.php Many holistic or integrative doctors can help you better understand which particular foods you may be sensitive, allergic or intolerant too. On an emotional or spiritual level, I would gently invite you to explore the gift in your sensitivity. While it can bring challenges with overwhelm and bodily reactivity, it also brings beautiful gifts – like openness, awareness, and a tender heart. One of my teachers, Jeff Foster, says it beautifully here: https://www.facebook.com/LifeWithoutACentre/posts/630080477089564. Love, Karly
I am thrilled to have come across this information….I have been trying for years to understand why I binge on sugar and never made the connection to those times that I have felt overwhelmed or over-stimulated…it now all comes together. Karly, everything you explained is me and I can’t wait to learn more.
So glad this was helpful to you! You may also be interested in the work of my friend Brooke of Intuitive Warrior. She offers resources to support HSPs – https://www.intuitivewarriorway.com/
I think it was through the grace of God that I stumbled upon this. No stranger to the existence of High Sensitivity, I still failed to connect my overeating to overstimulation. While not the only variable in my eating habits, it is a BIG one. I think I finally have the answer to my dilemma. Now, how to minimize the helter-skelter that is life nowadays…
I’m always touched when we find just what we’re needing! I’m glad to hear that connecting the dots between eating and overstimulation was helpful to you. For many HSPs, this understanding brings a sigh of relief!
Yes – modern life is not very HSP friendly. Helter skelter is a good way to describe it!
I need to regularly create pockets of ‘no stimulation’ into my days, as well as outlets to let off emotional and sensory ‘steam.’ Exercise is a primary way I release this build up of stimulation. I think of it as “HSP self care.”
I just came across this article today and so glad that I did!
Thank you so much for this!