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Dysregulated Eaters and Sensitivity

Reading an article about the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)—someone who’s unusually reactive to most everything—I recognized the temperament of many disregulated eaters. Interestingly, an equal number would seem to fall at the other end of the sensitivity spectrum, feeling pleasure or gratification only through unusual intensity.

According to Andrea Bartz, author of “Sense and Sensitivity” (Psychology Today, July/August 2011), highly sensitive people tend to be creative, care deeply for animals, and are considered thin-skinned or touchy. They are greatly attuned to nuance, both positive and negative, and have exceptionally intense emotions and affective experiences. They often shrink from bright lights, loud noise and crowds. Heightened senses may make them acutely aware of stimuli others miss, but also make life difficult and sometimes painful. What seems just right for the average person is often too much for the HSP. One explanation is thin boundaries; another is a tightly-wound, easily distressed nervous system, perhaps due to a quickly aroused amygdala, the part of the brain that manages our fear response. Another is a gene variant responsible for some depressions and anxieties which may trigger the strong reactions of an HSP.

At the other end of the spectrum is the individual who appears to shrug off pain and, in fact, seeks out intense experience. Let’s dub her or him the Barely Sensitive Person (BSP). My massage therapist was telling me how some of her clients come in tense and wired and want, not a soothing Swedish massage to relax them, but a deep, neuromuscular massage which can bring you right to the edge of bearable pain. BSPs take no apparent notice of bright lights, noise, and crowds and, in fact, seem to thrive in a multi-stimuli environment. Their motto is more/higher/louder is better. Only after being in a high stimuli situation for a long while do they come crashing down to earth.

Admitting to having no scientific evidence to support this assumption, I could see how folks at both ends of this sensitivity/intensity spectrum have difficulty with food. The HSP may have food sensitivities—there appears to be a correlation between the two—which may make “normal” eating difficult. Or perhaps because there are so few intense sensory experiences that are tolerable, food becomes the one that’s safe and familiar. On the other hand, the BSP may turn to food looking for yet another intense experience or rely on it to calm down after being exposed to too many stimuli for too long. If you fall into either category, it might be worth considering your sensitivity/intensity reaction and seeing if you can modulate it to better regulate your eating.