Chase, Addisons & Highly Sensitive Personalities (HSP)
It has been a tough period for my tribe. Last week was already in the challenging camp as I had one of my dreaded ear appointments with my surgeon. These put me on the back seat both physically and emotionally. For those that might be new to following me you can read about that here. As a mum and a business owner there are no days off. While I try and put in some buffers to allow for this, generally they still tip the balance (if there is such a thing as balance?).
The week, however, did not end there. I wanted to write up this time for my own memory bank but also to open light on parenting a child with a highly sensitive personality (HSP). It is an area of ongoing research for me, and a future book is already in its draft skeleton form. I am someone with a HSP and as there are some genetic traits it is not a surprise to me that one of my sons (Arjun, oldest) also has a HSP. I am still very much learning to guide him with this, especially as I was never guided as a child. It will be a lifelong journey for both of us. In times of a crisis this becomes a whole new realm.
As many close followers know I have two dogs, both Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. Chase who is 10 years old (my first baby) and Chloe, a puppy, just six months old now. As someone with a HSP and who has been through significant trauma my dogs are part of my therapy and coping strategy. They are for my oldest son too. Chase has been through everything with me over the last decade and they both sleep with me at night on the bed. I got Chloe just before lockdown hit again last year. I did not know that lockdown was to come, which Arjun struggled with immensely, but I have no doubt that the universe had a grand plan for that (previous blog here).
Toward the end of last week, Chase started not being himself. He went off his food, vomited late at night once and wanted to sleep more than usual. I kept an eye on him, initially thinking he had just eaten something funny. Then he did not want to walk. Literally dragged at his lead. The following morning when the same thing happened, I knew something was really amiss and phoned the vet immediately to try and get an emergency appointment as it was Saturday. He deteriorated rapidly over the course of the morning. By the time I took him mid-afternoon he was very floppy, and I had to carry him into the vet. They triaged him immediately. I was left outside the theatre and was a wreak at that point. The vet came out and said he was in a critical state. His blood pressure and heart rate had dropped dangerously low and they needed to try and stablise him but to prepare for the potential worse. If they could stablise him he would need to go to a 24hour emergency hospital. I needed to go home and wait for the phone call.
I had to let the boys know what was going on. Ray was having a nap and at two years of age, too little to comprehend what was going on. However, Arjun (9) and Sahan (7) knew what was happening. I had to prepare them that there was the very real possibility that Chase would not make it or that he would be too sick to keep him alive without him suffering. It has been one of the hardest things I have had to do. I knew Arjun would be deeply affected and feel everything at high volume. This is a very clear trait of someone with a HSP. We feel everything at higher octaves; love, happiness, joy, passion and on the other end sadness, fear and hurt (as just a few examples). I know because this has been my whole life and for the majority of my younger years and even adult years I always thought there was something ‘wrong’ with me. HSPs largely remain not recongised or spoken about. It is slowly starting to emerge more frequently in research and also be translated more publicly.
There has been incredible research done with brain scans showing that those with HSP have more of the active neurons which are responsible for certain feelings and emotions including empathy and concern compared to those without HSPs (non-HSP). It is important to note too that this is not a disorder, rather, a clear personality trait. This is not something we can fix or control. Only learn to recognise, manage and even harness. I know my best work comes when I have funneled my emotions into it fully. It does take everything from me and I require time to download from this. It takes even more to parent a child who is learning about this themselves. The best way that I can describe this level of parenting, having had three children, is that sometimes guiding Arjun’s HSP takes the same amount of parenting as three children would require at once. I would not change this for anything. I know that this was meant to be part of my parenting journey and also part of my lifelong research work.
To break down the traits of a HSP a little further for you, in research there are four identifiable characteristics. These are explained with an acronym D.O.S.E.
D - Depth of Processing
Those with a HSP generally have a greater depth of processing than non-HSP. The part of the brain that is responsible for perception and self-awareness is more active (something else seen on brain scans). More time is required to manage this increased depth of processing so those with a HSP often take in more information from around them (such as reading a room and the people in it more) and reflect before engaging. This can show up in slower decision making time and increased transition time between tasks.
O - Overstimulation
Those with a HSP are highly likely to become overstimulated and exhausted faster. They are taking in and processing more details in their surroundings (which can be very subtle) and are also more impacted by social stimulation and the subsequent range of emotions. Consequently, this high level of input increases the likelihood of overstimulation. I have seen this first hand in Arjun right from when he was a baby, more so in the toddler years and still as a child. I have learnt to read his cues when he is starting to get overstimulated and will try to extract from a social or public setting with him before it becomes too much. Sometimes this is not possible or I miss these early cues, but at least understand why it can almost be like a switch has flicked inside him. He also needs time to decompress when he is at home and in a safe space.
E - Emotional Responsiveness/Empathy
This is perhaps the least understood characteristic but also the most frustrating for those with a HSP. As previously mentioned, brain scan research shows HSP have more active neurons in areas that are involved with emotional responses. What this means is that HSP feel both positive and negative emotions more intensely than non-HSPs and it takes more for them to regulate their emotional response. If they are happy they are really happy, if they are sad they are very sad. They are extremely aware of how others feel as well which relates to the last characteristic.
S - Sensitive to Subtleties/Sensory Stimuli
HSPs notice subtle details that others miss such as non-verbal cues and small changes in their environment. They are also more impacted by strong sensory input such as bright lights, loud noises, strong smells or rough textures. This is also what increases their likelihood to get overstimulated. It does not mean they do not enjoy these environments. It just means they might need more warming up time (to take in these cues) and they may not be able to stay as long. I know that when Arjun asks me to leave somewhere this needs to be done quickly as he has clearly recognised and told me that he is getting overstimulated.
This simple breakdown does not do such a complex topic justice but it may just give a little insight or help you to start your own learning journey. Those of you with HSP yourself, or a child with a HSP will be nodding your heads to all of this.
I knew that the second I walked in the door from the vets, before I even said anything Arjun would picking up everything off me. He did. As soon as I pulled into the garage, he was at my car door. I also could not hold my emotions given the gravity of the situation and my own HSP. We did not even make it inside before we were both crying and I wrapped him in my arms.
Once inside, I just sat down with him on my lap and explained everything to him. My heart shattering as I wanted so badly to protect him from the hurt, pain, fear, grief and uncertainty that was ahead but also knowing that I could not. While waiting, we just sat rocked. I did not say anything more as lots of words and talking can be overstimulating. Here a tight embrace was needed, but in different circumstances sometimes just being close by or a hand on top of him (not even holding) is required as too much touch can also be overstimulating. It can take time to understand what is needed. I find that checking and not being offended at the response is important.
We stayed that way for over half an hour. Sahan was there but he was doing ok. He is completely different in terms of his personality (a clear non-HSP) and often I watch in pure amazement at his ability to process and regulate his emotions so steadily. He has been this way since he was a baby. Neither personality trait is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Just different and requires different parenting. As a side note for the fellow Untamed readers, Tish has a HSP and her sister does not. I enjoyed having the differences explained so well in this book.
The vet called and said we need to transfer Chase to the hospital. At this point I was still operating on very little information so was just taking things one step at a time trying to figure out even for myself what right to do. I asked Arjun if he would like to come with me. I asked without pressure and said he did not have to and that it might all take a while and potentially we would be in the car a long time due to all the COVID restrictions. He really wanted to so he did. It was helpful for him as he got to see and physically hold Chase while we transferred him – like both of them knew they needed each other right then. While it would have been incredibly hard for Arjun to see Chase like this it also gave him the space to sink into his feelings.
By the time we got home that night we were exhausted. Still in a state of a bit of shock and high anxiety of not knowing what would happen. This was to remain the case for the entire weekend – just waiting, hoping and somehow trying to allow room for processing all our emotions.
I turned to things that I knew would work for us - food, books, getting outdoors and keeping the normal family routine going. That night I made my chocolate cookies with the boys. It was an easy task as this is a premade mix just adding a couple of wet ingredients (literally thanking my creative self for this). Hard to beat the smell and feel of warm cookies from the oven right. It also meant we could be together but not expecting talking, allowing room for feelings and decompressing. We called the hospital while waiting for the cookies in the oven so the boys could hear how Chase was doing before I read to them and tucked them into bed. I knew that Arjun would most likely wake up at some point in the night so assured him that he could come to me at any time. Which he did do and continued to have nightmares for most of the week. This is also something to be expected with a child with a HSP in a crisis. Their subconscious brain processing the higher level of input and emotions.
We read a lot over the weekend. Getting lost in a book has been one of my coping strategies since a young child. For those with a HSP it is amazing as there is minimal visual and sound stimulation, very different compared to electronic mediums. I hope that traditional book reading does not get lost in a world so technology driven. Even as an adult I hardly watch a screen at night. A movie with the boys on a Friday night is literally the only time. We have got into the ‘How to Train a Dragon’ series and even I love them! Speaking of Untamed, I used the journal over the weekend to help me process my own emotions at night once I had finally collapsed into bed (with Chloe right there).
Chase has been diagnosed with a condition called Addison's Disease. The vets suspected this at the time but it took a while to get him stable and for an official test to come back. Addison’s Disease is when the adrenal glands aren’t producing adequate levels of stress hormones. Chase had a full Addisonian crisis which nearly took his life if it had not been for the incredible care he received. There was no specific reason for this it is an immune-mediated destruction of the adrenal glands. He is now on life long medication but is expected to still live happily for a long time. He does needs a lot of love and care. He lost a lot of body weight and is now smaller than Chloe and she is just six months old.
With pets there is always the question of the cost of their care. This is where it became tricky as I did not know for certain what Chase was dealing with, nor what the exact cost would be. I do have pet insurance which in this case made all the difference but they do not cover everything and I could not even call them on Saturday to check what would be covered. Big, hard, difficult, scary, emotional conversations and decisions to make with little information. I had all of this to try to process and manage myself, along with my own feelings (heightened with my HSP), while guiding Arjun, parenting all the boys with their separate needs….and still keeping my business functioning while operating in the ongoing COVID crisis. The mental load has been enormous and if I am honest will take me some time to recover from it. I need my own decompression time which is near impossible to get in a busy family but it is important I make the time for this.
It is hard to describe the feelings of what it was like when I finally got to bring Chase home. All of this happened over four days. Four unbelievably anxious, challenging days. I really feel for those where the outcome is different for their pets and I know it is still a path we will eventually follow too. I hope this blog may help in someway to shed light on HSP. It barely scratches the surface on what is an intricate but also incredible topic. As I mentioned at the start it is an area of ongoing research for me but also a lifelong journey to guide my own child. The journey of motherhood never ceases to push us into new realms.
x Dr Julie