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.