Chapter 5: In Search of A Sensory Health Model (draft)

Time is timeless and knowledge priceless if you believe you are the breath of life versus the embodiment of life. – Cindy Blackstock

Highly sensitive children are often healthy. Unfortunately, in our modern world, their ability to notice subtle changes in the environment can trigger major sensory stress. As we saw in chapter 4, the world that we have created can provoke many negative reactions and affect their behaviors in profound ways. As many researchers have demonstrated in the last decade, the body is a sensory system, which take inputs from our surroundings that are then processed and reacted to via chemical, physical and social behaviors. Food, chemicals and other sensory inputs affect our hormonal balances, our nervous and other systems much more than previously believed. In a world full of toxicity, these reactions are the healthy responses of a sensitive sensory system.

Our Cartesian cultural understanding of the senses has created such a separation between the mind and body that we no longer understand that sensory processing differences exist and these gifts get misdiagnosed as disabilities. The senses are the connection between the body and the mind but the notion of sensory processing that prevails in modern medicine is still based on a disembodied idea of medicine that separates the body from the mind, attributing their treatment to distinct fields, medicine for the body and psychiatry for the mind (Goffman, 1961)[i]. This explains why OTs and other medical specialists continuously define heightened sensory processing as disorders.  Our lack of appreciation for the role the senses play in our health, has led to heightened sensory processing been categorized as a disability.

Unfortunately, sensory processing sensitivities cannot be acknowledged without some sort of medical diagnostic, three predominate: gifted, adhd or autism. In the modern health system, an adhd diagnostic (and potentially soon autism) tends to lead to drug intake to reduce what are considered deficiencies, without an attempt at eliminating the cause. These diagnostics are only a few of the many that incorporate a sensory processing issue. According to occupational therapists Joan Vertes, from the Sick Children hospital in Toronto, 5%–15% of kindergarten-age children demonstrated sensory modulation difficulties (in survey of 702 Kindergarten children, Ahn, Miller, Milberger & McIntosh, 2004)[ii]. Interestingly, this statistic corresponds to the estimated 20% of highly sensitive people who exist in our adult population. Researchers have also found that 80%–90% of children with autism spectrum disorders showed atypical sensory responsivity (Lane & Schaaf, 2010)[iii] and that 40-88% in children with other diagnoses have co-morbid SPD. The list of diagnostics that include a sensory processing imbalance is quite diverse.

According to Joan Vertes, the following populations are somehow affected by an “imbalanced” sensory processing system: ADHD, Global Developmental Delays, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorders, Learning Disabilities, Developmental Coordination Disorder, Varied Syndromes, Cerebral Palsy, Anxiety Disorders, Visually impaired, Hearing impaired, Gifted, Head injury, Prematurity, Institutionalized children, Drug dependent children (Vertes, 2014)[iv].

This is an alarming phenomenon. How can sensory processing imbalances not be examined more closely when it is clearly affecting so many children? Occupational Therapy is the medical field that examines the senses. According to Ayres, one of the pioneer in this field of research, sensory processing imbalances can be addressed by engagement in individually tailored activities, rich in the needed sensory stimuli, will improve the ability of the brain and nervous system to process sensory information, enhance the organization and integration of sensation, and, as a result, have a positive impact on the child’s ability to participate in daily life activities (Ayres, 1972[v], 1979[vi]).

This suggests that reintroducing sensory stimuli in the environment is key to sensory health. What if we change our lens, and begin to understand that the negative sensory reactions of children is due to a toxic environment, perhaps we could begin a process of healing that changes the surroundings to help the natural sensory system of these children to recalibrate itself.

In my family’s experience, modern doctors rarely make the connection between sensory stress and a child’s digestive and behavioral problems. In the case of my children, modern medicine approaches to health have been a disaster and my children have often had to suffer the dire consequence of doctors’ ignorance about HSP health. For example, my youngest son has been exposed to antibiotics for conditions that I now understand did not warrant it as they caused by anxieties from sensory processing stresses. In the process, his intensely sensitive digestive system has been greatly compromised which has in turn affected his mental health.

Part of the difficulty in dealing with sensory processing issues is that we all exist on a unique sensory spectrum and the causes of reactions are going to vary for each individual. Some of us need higher level of stimulations in some senses and fuller disengagement in others. For instance, my family is a blend of introverts and extroverts. The introverts need mental, social and sensory rest to feel well. They hyper-focus and social life is a distraction that is often painful as silence is important to their wellbeing. They shut out input when it is too intense and eventually get angry when overwhelmed. They turn off the communication system to not feel what others feel. The extroverts on the other hand, are wanderers who require much more sensory stimuli, a lot of emotional and physical interactions with others and the world in order to feel complete. That being said, they also get over-stimulated by certain inputs and under stimulated in many situations and often need to control a situation to feel safe. When they get overwhelmed or underwhelmed, they need to act it out, letting out the energies they need to eliminate. They increase the volume of their communication system to demonstrate what they feel but they also run away from over-stimulation.

This sensorial specificity of each person makes it difficult to abide by any medical “norm” of what is healthy. As I found in our lives, it is empowering people to become self-aware of their senses, to understand how to take care of themselves and advocate for their own unique needs that is key. This has certainly been the case for my family. I had to do my own research and learn to listen to my children by observing them in order to be able to help them. Only understanding our family history and specificities made it possible to create a health system that worked for each individual. This is important in today’s world, where many of us are hybrids, whose genetic make up is highly varied and incorporates the traits of many ethnicities. For some, this renders the use of mass-produced medical treatments, medical knowledge and some nutritional routes ineffective. For instance, my sons, like me, possess Chinese blood, yet physically we look like Northern and Southern white Europeans. This became important in our lives when dealing with my children food sensitivities. They seem to thrive on an Asian diet. My second child can not be given medications as his reactions end up being often more severe than the condition he is being treated for. In other words, modern medicine is toxic to him. His body just cannot cope and his immune system decreases to the point where he will become sick for a few months. This greatly affects his moods, and mental capacities. His system is not only highly sensitive but also complex to understand. He often reacts in the opposite way of what is expected from a medication.

He is not the only one, Elizabeth Kenny in a TEDMED 2014 talks describes her horrifying experience with the medical system. Over a period of 18 months she was put on series of antidepressants, anti-anxieties and other drugs, which poisoned her towards great mental distress[vii]. Some people simply do not react well to these treatments, and this is even more so for highly sensitive children.

Thankfully, our understanding of health is changing and slowly a more holistic vision of what influences health is emerging. The social health model of the disability rights movement has influenced modern medicine. This model emerged as a reaction to the dominant medical model of disability that saw the body as a machine to be fixed in order to conform to normative values (Paley, 2002)[viii]. This model allowed to identify systemic barriers, negative attitudes and exclusion by society (purposely or inadvertently) and to acknowledge that society is the main contributory factor in “disabling” people. In parallel, the introduction of the biopsychosocial model has established a “mind–body connection” into modern medicine. Health is now best understood in terms of a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors rather than purely in biological terms (Santrock, 2007)[ix]. Folk health culture has also influenced our notion of health, and the idea that our environment influences our health is being accepted. For instance, the recovery approach to mental disorder has begun the deinstitutionalization of mental health and resulted in more individuals living in the community.

Gradually, modern medicine is acknowledging the idea that the environment is an important part of our health but until behaviors caused by high sensitivity are addressed as signals of a toxic environment, not a defective child or person, sensory processing sensitivities will continue to be stigmatized as a disability. This is an unfortunate reductionist approach to what we are, given the vast knowledge existing in other cultures regarding highly sensitive senses. As Cindy Blackstock tells us, it is a rather myopic vision of what we are (Blackstone, 2009, p. 5)[x] and other cultures recognize that western thoughts have segmented knowledge, a process that has eliminated our ability to see obvious connections with one another with little tolerance for a plurality of perspectives (Lather, 2000)[xi].

In my research, I have found that other cultures have embraced high sensitivities as gifts to be developed and include sensorial life in their health models. Until the Europeans and British colonization efforts, many systems created their health system around the senses. As a European who did not grow up with access to indigenous culture, I have been amazed to discover the wealth of knowledge and wisdom our ancestors had. The chasm between how modern and traditional (or ancient) medicine deal with the mind-body connection is astonishing. But a sad reality is that our modern paradigms have infiltrated many traditional cultures and unless we help those fighting to keep alive their cultural roots, we are at risk to lose many of the knowledge we need to thrive.

By exploring how other cultures look at health, I discovered that traditional medicine models are plurality by nature. Historically, both American and Asian aboriginal cultures emerged out of Siberia, which is the source of shamanistic knowledge. The various cultures that emerged out of this animist tradition are quite varied but they have in common to consider the environment as key to health. These oldest health systems were built on the notion of “difference” as being the norm and identity as being deeply rooted in our world and experiences. They address the idea that we are each unique individuals with unique health needs and the notion that people must take on a high level of responsibility for their health and well-being and that of their family. Another important part of this knowledge is not only related to the importance of genealogy, but also to our social life, as we will see in this chapter.

Indigenous Knowledge and Medicine

Many traditional cultures, there seem to be an acceptance of highly sensitivity as a natural trait that some people simply possess. Their understanding of health is quite different from modern western medicine. Health varies depending on the geographic and cultural diversity within a specific indigenous community as a result there is no uniform health approach.

North American Indigenous pedagogy is one of these cultures that acknowledge diverse ways of knowing and respects pluralism of knowledge. As Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, explains:

“Despite the diversity of Aboriginal cultures, there are several common fundamental differences between Aboriginal and western epistemologies: 1) Aboriginal peoples believe their ancestors were right on most things and western peoples believe their ancestors were either mostly wrong or their ideas could be improved upon (Assembly of First Nations 1993[xii]; Auger 2001[xiii]) 2) Aboriginal peoples believe they hold the land and life knowledge in a sacred trust for the generations to follow whereas many western peoples believe they can own land and knowledge and use it for individual benefit with little concern for future generations (RCAP, 1996[xiv]; Pinto[xv], in press) and 3) Aboriginal knowledge is situated within more expansive concepts of space and time (Auger, 2001).” [xvi]

While aboriginal culture is highly pluralistic, meaning, each group has its own specific belief system; some commonality seems to exist between different aboriginal cultures as to what constitutes health. According to The Government of Alberta, many Aboriginal persons believe that well-being is made up of mental, physical, spiritual and emotional elements. Aboriginal health tends to gravitate towards a more holistic approach to medical treatment that offers a balanced and interconnected worldview. It involves the use of traditional healing practices that are based on beliefs related to the Medicine Wheel:

In the Medicine Wheel, balance between all four spheres of the wheel is needed for health: mental (mind), physical (body), emotional (heart) and spiritual (spirit). People are always in a state of change, so the Medicine Wheel also shows motion and the need to continually focus on the process of balance. Healing from illness, trauma and grief involves re-establishing a balance among the four spheres of the Medicine Wheel (Anishnawbe Health Clinic, 2006).

Many Aboriginal people learn through the Medicine Wheel that balance is needed within an individual, between other living things and Mother Earth (National Aboriginal Health Organization, 2005). Many would say that embracing these beliefs could help to create healthy Aboriginal communities.”[xvii]

In these cultures, nature is the connection to “spirit”. According to the Metis Exchange Portal: Ancestral knowledge is an integral part of traditional environmental knowledge as an influence on subsequent generations in understanding and interacting with the natural world. ”[xviii] Indigenous traditional medicine is inherently tied to land and expressed through language and culture and continues to abide by an animist understanding of the world. As the aboriginal health framework elaborated by Battiste and Henderson states:

“Indigenous peoples regard all products of the human mind and heart as interrelated within Indigenous knowledge. They assert that all knowledge flows from the same source: the relationships between global flux that needs to be renewed, the people’s kinship with the spirit world. Since the ultimate source of knowledge is the changing ecosystem itself, art and science of a specific people manifest these relationships and can be considered as manifestations of people’s knowledge as a whole” (Battiste and Henderson, 2000: 43)[xix].

Ancestral knowledge is recognized as essential to preserve and inculcate to the younger generations. Elders are the knowledge keepers who pass on traditional teachings in many Aboriginal groups or communities. Their teachings or experience may include knowledge about traditional medicines, spiritual knowledge from dreams, visions, myths and legends that can help people with their health issues or other problems, cultural or traditional skills. Aboriginal culture implies a respect between different age groups:

Traditionally, there has been a unique mutual respect between elders and youth in Aboriginal communities.  Youth value the wisdom and teachings of their elders, while elders value the power that youth have to carry on traditional practices and become the leaders of tomorrow.  Youth look to elders for guidance and elders empower youth with the knowledge and skills they need to “walk in a good way.” (Emilea Karhioo, ANFCA, 2009)”[xx].

Traditional ecological knowledge of Indigenous people differs in many important aspects from our western perspectives. It is highly localized, decentralized and sensory based. It focuses on the web of relationships between the ever-changing “flux” and humans, animals, plants, natural forces, spirits, and land forms in particular locality, as opposed to the discovery of universal laws (Battiste and Henderson, 2000: 44). Indigenous knowledge has become a form of “ethno science”, an indigenous epistemology tied to the land, the spiritual laws that govern that land, and how co-existence between animal, plant and human life interrelate to a collective balance (Cajete, 1994).

The flux mentioned here echoes what Deleuze and Guattari discussed, as we explored in chapter 3. While not all aboriginal cultures are nomadic, they position the “spatial embodied knowledge” we examined in chapter 1 and 2 as central to life and being. Interestingly, this inclusion of spatial embodied knowledge as “law” is not unique to North American Indigenous cultures; it can also be found in the East where the senses, space and energy are embedded into various definitions of health.

Eastern Medicine: An Embodied Animist Model of Health

In Ayurveda, one of the most ancient healing systems in the world, dated at approximately 6th century BC, illnesses are considered to be psycho-somatic in nature. Key to this Indian belief system is the idea that lifestyle influences the mind and triggers positive or negative reaction in the body. Similarly, ancient Chinese traditional medicine, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhist Tibetan medicine all share the principle of the need of keeping in balance with the constant change inherent to the natural world:

“ The Taoist world-view is rooted in a close observation of the patterns of change that exist within the natural world. The Taoist practitioner notices how these patterns manifest as both our internal and external terrains: as our human body, as well as mountains and rivers and forests. Taoist practice is based on coming into harmonious alignment with these elemental patterns of change.” (Reninger, 2013)[xxi].

In Eastern though, the individual is a universe within a universe. The microcosm and macrocosm are all related and continuously influence each other. There is an energy that binds life on earth and health exists when that energy is in balance within us and in our relationship with the outside, the environment. Our bodies are like nature, they are not considered to be solid, impenetrable forms. Given that at a molecular level we are composed mostly of water, the body is fluid. And given that at the atomic level it is 99.99% space, it is also empty: “ a vast (and infinitely intelligent) emptiness.” (Reninger, 2013)[xxii].

Asian and aboriginal cultures alike, not only acknowledge spatial embodied knowledge, they consider it key to life. Instead of refusing the external world as a disease, as did our western doctors, sensing space is considered essential to health. From this optic, sensory sensitivity is a gift since cultivating sensitivity to Qi (chi), the “life Force” energy, is necessary to be better attuned to the universe. The more capable of tapping into the subtle Qi energies, the better in sync with the universe one becomes.

Qi is an ancient concept. Approximately 8000 years ago, the Chinese developed a model of life based on two major forces in the universe – creation and reception – and how their interaction forms life. This duality was named yin-yang and is the foundation of Chinese Medicine (Suvow, 2013)[xxiii]. Yin and Yang are opposite aspects of the material world but they are interdependent, and the existence of one end of the spectrum presupposes the existence of the other aspect, like night and day. The idea of Yin and Yang describes the fundamental fluctuating balance of nature. Creation and reception are intertwined. Creation being the energy we create and reception dealing with the energy we receive from the environment (Suvow, 2013)[xxiv].

The friction between these yin-yang aspects of the world creates “Qi”. Qi is the life-force energy, the breath of life that animates all living things. In other traditions it is called prana (Tibet), ki (Japan) or shakti(India). Qi can be understood as the quantum fields our physicists refer to. According to Taoism:

”qi is the vibratory nature of phenomena — the flow and tremoring that is happening continuously at molecular, atomic and sub-atomic levels. In China, the understanding of qi is inherent in the very language. For instance: The literal translation of the Chinese character meaning “health” is “original qi.” The literal translation of the character for “vitality” is “high quality qi.” The literal translation of the character meaning “friendly” is “peaceful qi.”” (Reninger, 2013)[xxv]

Qi exists in the body as well as everywhere in the environment, natural or man-made. Different kinds of Qi exist:

Within the human body there is the qi that we’re born with, called Yuan qi, or ancestral qi. The qi that we absorb during our lives from food, water, air and qigong practice is called Hou tain qi or post-natal qi. The qi that flows at the surface of the body, as a protective sheathe, is called Wei qi or protective qi. Each internal organ also has its own qi/life-force, e.g. Spleen-qi, Lung-qi, Kidney-qi.”(Reninger, 2013)[xxvi]

The fundamental insight of Tibetan medicine, Ayurveda, and Chinese Medicine is that balanced and free-flowing qi results in health; while stagnant or imbalanced qi leads to disease.   It is considered possible to tuned in the body via the breathing and movement practices of qigong and Inner Alchemy (nutrition and other activities that change the body’s chemistry) we can:

“cultivate the capacity to perceive at all of these different levels – to feel ourselves and our world as fluid, and as spacious; as well as being filled with apparently-solid forms. As we become more adept in this way, we become aware, directly, of the vibratory nature of all-that-is. Not only do we experience our bodies as being comprised of patterns and flows of qi, but also come to understand that “emotions” and “thoughts” are also forms of energy. These insights give rise then to the potential for newly-powerful and deliciously-creative action within this tremoring world.”(Reninger, 2013)[xxvii]

Central to many Asian practices is breathing. Through breathing we can access our Qi and alter its qualities. Could heightened sensory processing be the mode of knowing and perceiving these different levels of Qi? Could sensory processing be balanced through breath?

Qi seems to be the medium of spatial embedded knowledge and Asian cultures developed ways to work with the body to enhance its sensory abilities. Qigong and inner alchemy are forms of energy balancing. Qigong is a type of exercise that helps us sense and move the energy within ourselves while Inner Alchemy is dealing with our chemical nature and within which different internal energies are cultivated for the purpose of improving physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health.

The Environment, The Body and Health

As we saw in earlier chapters, for a highly sensitive person, the self starts from sensing the outside not necessarily from within the body. As we saw in chapter 3, sensory processing integration is related to how we interpret signals from space and the environment. The “natural’ or physical environment is important to consider because it’s qualities change the characteristics of our sensory inputs. It provides us with the sensorial nutrients we need to exist on a chemical, emotional, physical, social and spiritual plane. These planes are the basis on which the mind and body move us towards health. Food, air, water, nature and energy are all external forces that help us exist and interact with our senses. These idea are essential to Asian health traditions.

In Tibetan medicine and Ayurveda, a person is seen as a unique individual made up of five primary elements. These elements are ether (space), air, fire, water and earth. Just as in nature, we too have these five elements in us. When any of these elements are imbalanced in the environment, they will in turn have an influence on us. The foods we eat and the weather are just two examples of the influence of these elements.

Tibetan medicine is a believe system that considers that everything in the universe (both animate and inanimate) are composed of five elements (earth, water, fire, air and space). The elements influence the quality of growth and supplement life:

“At a functional level, the earth element act as a foundation for the rest of the body while facilitating the nature of hard and solid to flesh and bone, and sense of smell (olfactory sense); water element helps in binding and forming fluid (blood, serum, etc.) and facilitating sense of taste (gustatory sense); fire element helps in generating heat, maturing organs, providing complexion and radiance and facilitating visual sense; air element generates breathing, skin and sense of touch (tactile sense); and space element provide a condition for the body to grow, orifice through which the life sustaining essence can flow and facilitates aural sense.” (Gyal, 2006, p. 30)[xxviii]

The combination of the five elements gives birth to three different types of energies, which form the body. The “long” maintains the function of movement (both physical and mental), “Tripa” maintains heat of the body (controls digestion and metabolism heat) and facilitates emotions of courage and determination. “Badkan” maintains the structure of the body, facilitates stability of mind and patience and is responsible for the lymphatic function. (gyal, 2006, p.31)[xxix]

An individual’s nature is a mixture of the five elements and the three energies, which can be combined in 7 different natures. Each of these natures has a specific physical structure, perception and way of thinking which creates the personality. This could suggest that highly sensitive children are a particular combination of these energies, a combination that make them more sensitive to subtlety.

The three energies maintain physical and mental health as long as they are balanced. Imbalances, in the form of decrease, increase or disturbance of the elements due to improper diet, behaviors, seasonal changes or external influences lead to physical or mental disorder and begin to harm the body both physically and mentally.

Given these other approaches to health, it seems logical that the separation from the natural environment as well as between the mind and body, that modern western medicine and culture have created, could be at the source of the problems many highly sensitive children face. Given that their sensory system is much more sensitive than most and as such they get overwhelmed by lesser amounts of toxicity, the imbalances in the environment created by our culture are dangerous to their physical and mental health. But other elements affect our health, food being a very important one.

In the East, relationship to food is also directly related to the environment. According to Tibetan Medicine, the consumption of food and drinks sustains life, which in itself is the basic foundation of Sousa-Rigpa or healing (Men-Tsee-Khang, 2009)[xxx]. Some foods and drinks are important to maintain and protect health and the body. But certain foods and drinks can cause physical and mental disorders due to its reaction against particular space, time and an individual’s elemental nature. To discover the positive and negative effects of foods and drinks, our ancestors would continuously investigate and experiment with their diet. They invented their own specific dietary habit based on their experience of surviving in a particular region (Gyal, 2006, p.20)[xxxi] They would identify which foods and drinks maintain health, treat an imbalance or act as a precaution against disease.

These health models are very useful as they acknowledge the complexity of health and are much more suited to understand highly sensitive people health than the western systems of thought. These belief systems understood long ago that the environment influences what goes on inside the body and how we are behaving in the world. Our environment is composed of many things: the “natural” or physical environment, the air we breathe, our dwellings, our food, etc. But the environment also includes our social life, the people we interact with and the quality of these interactions.

The Complexity of A Spatially Embedded Social Life

I have observed that when they are unaware of themselves, my children define themselves by mirroring what others feel and think of them. It is as if they are empathic chameleons that reflect the dominant emotions and thoughts of a social environment. This leads me to believe that when highly sensitive children (or adults) are not aware of the boundaries of themselves, they absorb everything in a social situation as being their reality, causing a great deal of anxiety. This is partly why kids overreact in new social settings. These children are not being impolite or seeking attention, they are having a strong reaction to sensorial space violations. As they do not need close distance to feel others, entering a room or having to sit close to a stranger can trigger very intense reactions.

When we lost the understanding of our self as defined outside the boundaries of the body, we stopped acknowledging that social life has sensory dimensions. We culturally simplified our relationship to space and time by eliminating external stimuli from how we perceive the world. In the process we forgot that children’s first representations of themselves and perception of the world are filtered through these sensorial experiences of space. Such an omission has led us to create an environment that no longer sustain highly sensitive children’ heightened sensorial needs.

Modern models of social life do understand space as being important. For instance, Edward T. Hall, an American anthropologist, created the concept of proxemics to describe the subjective dimensions that surround each person and the physical distances they try to keep from other people, according to subtle cultural rules (See figure 1). Personal space is the region surrounding a person, which they regard as psychologically theirs. Most people value their personal space and feel discomfort, anger, or anxiety when their personal space is encroached (Hall, 1966). According to Hall, the norm for personal space is close to the body, 1.5ft.

Figure 1: Hall’s Proxemics Spatial Model[xxxii]

chapt 5 fig1


In contrast, Aboriginal health models provide a different framework that addresses the notion of self quite differently. As Cindy Blackstock explains:

“ There are a few epistemological approaches in social work that acknowledge epistemological interconnections such as the ecological model and structural theory but even they bracket the time frames and dimensions from which they view reality. Figure 1 (figure 2 of my text) demonstrates how differences in time, value of ancestral knowledge, values and beliefs play out when the ecological model is viewed from western and Aboriginal viewpoints.

The child is seen in a fixed moment in time within a larger context of family and world and there are interconnections between these dimensions that shape the reality of the child. If an Aboriginal epistemology is applied, the child, family, community and world are wholly affected by four interconnected dimensions of knowledge -emotional, spiritual, cognitive and physical informed by ancestral knowledge which is to be passed to future generations (Assembly of First Nations, 1993[xxxiii]; RCAP, 1996[xxxiv]). Despite the differences evident in this example, too often social workers negate the importance of ontology and epistemology in shaping our understanding of theoretical approaches (Kovach, 2006)[xxxv].”[xxxvi]

Figure 2: Contrasting Epistemological Approaches to Ecological Theory

chapt 5 fig 2

As explained in regards to indigenous health:

“ For Indigenous Peoples living in Canada and around the world, the inter-relationships between the physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional aspects of being are integral to individual and community health. This holistic view is increasingly being acknowledged and accepted by the mainstream health community, and is often described in relation to non-medical, or social, determinants of health, such as education, housing, economic status, social capital, etc. Relying solely on bio-medical concepts of disease and of health — as is often the case in western health — is not necessarily an effective system for disease prevention and public health in Aboriginal populations. Culture and ethnicity are among the key determinants of health now being recognized by Health Canada, Canada’s federal health ministry. Research has demonstrated that culture and ethnicity are important to individual and community health because they influence an individual’s interaction with the health care system, their acceptance of and participation in preventative health programs and services, their lifestyle choices, and their access to health information. “ (Naho, 2008).[xxxvii]

All of this to say, socio-economics are also at play.

From these ancient health models flow very different concepts of life, morality that shape the role, construction, and processes of knowledge informing all dimensions of experience, including child welfare. “(Blackstock, 2009, p. 2-3). Many indigenous cultures have an entirely different social and political organization, which are non-hierarchical, non-coercive and non-authoritarian. Instead, they value the interconnection of all things. As Cindy Blackstock explains in relationship to social work that in aboriginal approaches:

“ The child is seen in a fixed moment in time within a larger context of family and world and there are interconnections between these dimensions that shape the reality of the child. ”(Blackstock, 2009, p. 5)[xxxviii].”

This implies that the senses are indeed another dimension of social life. Highly sensitive children have very different identity boundaries. Their notion of self relies on the interconnectiveness of multiple spatial and social dimensions. They sense others and space as part of themselves. Their identity boundaries are porous and exist outside of the body.

We assume that the senses are outward flowing but ancient cultures knew that they also flow inwardly. For Tibetans, for example, in addition to the Qi, which is referred to as the wind (Prana), the “nadis” is important. It represents a network of 84,000 psychic channels through which there should be continuous circulation of prana for homeostasis and health to be maintained (Dummer, 1988)[xxxix].   Just like the adrenal system, which regulates hormonal flow within the body, these channels overlap the circulatory system of the body.

Tibetan medicine includes Jinlap Maitri, “The Way of Loving Kindness and Healing”, which is a healing and self-development system. Interestingly it is also referred to as space therapy:

” … each Buddha family reflects a basic style of relating to space. Typically associated neuroses specific in patterns to the Ego’s efforts to relate to space (the world outside in this instance) produce equally typical patterns of neurosis suffering, which may if unresolved lead to actual psychosis..” (Gyal, 2006)[xl]

It is recognized in other cultures that neuroses can derive from an imbalanced relationship to space! This suggests that there is a natural form of intimacy that exists in a broad spectrum of space. Fields in space are the conduits for this intra-personal communication, the 84,000 channels are part of a communication system via which we develop and give and receive empathy and love. Given that highly sensitive children’s natural form of communication and feeling is through space, does this mean that they need to sense the “loving kindness and empathy” mentioned above in order to thrive?

Western colonization of space could be understood as the transformation of this loving kindness into stress. Being self-aware to highly sensitive children, within an environment that has been stripped of the sensorial nourishment they need, could potentially lead to serious mental distress. For children whose sensory system are designed to sense the energy of space, feeling stress emanating from their loved ones instead of love, or not being heard when sending loving kindness to others must be a form of terrible suffering that could possibly lead to trauma. Trauma can happen, as this energy is not only a means of communicating with the world; it is also essential to another aspect of being, our psyche.

Spiritual Healing Modalities

As we discussed in chapter 2 and 3, quantum scientists are slowly demonstrating that energy drives the universe (Pagels, 2012)[xli]. It is a puzzling element, although it can be measured and quantified, but scientists have no real idea of what it actually is. Yet, physics find that energy is the most fundamental property of the universe; everything can be created by or dissolved into energy, including matter itself. (Waller, 2010, p. 16).[xlii]

While many have forgotten the impact this energy can have on us, it is the medium of spatially embodied knowledge and the most natural form of communication for highly sensitive children. It is what allows them to be deeply connected with the world. But energy does not only exist outside of us, it also lives within us. Not only does it carry sensory messages, it is also the carrier of messages from our internal inter-connected consciousness, our spirit.

Most ancient healing systems have known for millennia that energy is central to life. Most have a way to describe a protection energy layer around the body such as the “Wei” in Chinese medicine, a protective energy that circulates along the meridians at the most superficial level. But this energy is not just there to protect us; it also serves an important communication function:

“Ancient spiritual systems throughout the world – including Vedic knowledge in India, shamanism or Earth-medicine (of which all tribal peoples have a version) and spiritual healing methods – all agree with modern physics on this business of energy being everything, but give this a different slant. Everything that exists is made of energy, including us. Because of this, we can communicate with everything – there is a place within us that can experience and in a very subjective way understand and use this energy. (Waller, 2010, p. 16)[xliii]

Any belief system that creates a connection between health and spirituality can be challenging for modern doctors. In part because this recognition of a spiritual dimension drastically alters how life is defined and as a consequence how health is understood. As Pip Waller explains:

“For most systems of medicine in the world, the spirit is in charge, healing must happen in the spirit and healing comes from the spirit. “(Waller, 2010, p. 318)[xliv]

Thus our health depends on living in close harmony with what is all around us, including nature:

“The Hopi people have long understood the interconnectedness of life forms, warning ‘if you kill off the prairie dogs there will be no one to cry for rain’ – “amused scientists, knowing that there was no conceivable relationship between prairie dogs and rain, recommended the extermination of all burrowing animals in some desert areas planted to rangelands in the 1950s ‘in order to protect the sparse desert grasses’. Today the area (not far from Chilchinbito, Arizona) has become a virtual wasteland” (Bill Mollison in ‘Permaculture’). It turns out that all the burrowing animals, from gophers to spiders, create a network of tunnels under the earth that then allow the water deep within the earth to rise and escape as moisture laden air which forms clouds and thus provides rain. Stephen Harrod Buhner says in ‘The Lost Language of Plants’ “…indigenous peoples have always had access to the finest probe ever conceived, one that makes scientific instruments coarse in comparison, one that all human beings in all places and times have had access to: the focused power of human consciousness.” (Waller, 2010, p. 16)[xlv]

In this relationship to nature lies the character of our consciousness. In many cultures, the goal of life is to be connected to that consciousness. For instance: “ Vedic practice is about realizing one’s true nature; realizing that one is pure consciousness, therefore knowing everything, having access to all knowledge from within” (Waller, 2010, p. 17).[xlvi] This “knowledge within” is our interconnected consciousness, our soul or spirit. It is understood by many traditions that disease can have a spiritual cause.

For example, the Iroquois distinguish a particular type of illness related to “the resentment of the inner soul” when its basic needs are not met. Iroquois culture uses dream interpretations to make sense of messages from the unconscious or the “spirit” realm. Given that dreams express the desire of the soul, the fulfillment of a dream is of paramount importance to the individual. (Larsen, 1998, p.93)[xlvii]. Dreams are used for both personal and societal guidance, and as such they operate to support a psychological function. In shamanic traditions, one of the shaman’s roles is to decipher these dreams.   Given that the particular mythology of a culture influences how dreams are understood, it is essential to preserve ancestral and knowledge myths alive. The timeless messages embedded within these myths by our ancestors can help us understand the imagery of our dreams and help us understand our identity.

Modern medicine does not understand that in many practices, this spiritual or soul level is also a powerful psychological tool and healing is often achieved through personal inner processes. This lack of understanding of spiritual practices in guiding us to fulfill the needs of our inner-soul, lead modern medicine to create forms of therapies that are ill adapted to many human experiences and eliminated any connections between the senses and our health. Going further, it created processes to eliminate behaviors related to our spatial communication system.

As we examined in chapter 2, with modern medicine, any external stimuli became considered a disease. Behaviors and conditions that would have been attributed by ancient cultures as a plea from the inner soul to change, or, in the case of highly sensitive children, behaviors of over-stimulated senses, or in the case of gifted individual changes associated with a positive disintegration process, or deeply processing the effect of trauma, can be understood as diseases. While these processes are a normal part of some people’s live, their intensity being much higher than what is socially acceptable renders them susceptible to be defined as signs of mental illness.

Some groups are putting into question the idea of mental illness itself:

“ The term “mental illness” is widely used to describe something which is very different than a disease of the brain. Many people today take it· for granted that living is an arduous process. Its hardship for modern man, moreover, derives not so much from a struggle for biological survival as from the stresses and strains inherent in the social intercourse of complex human personalities. In this context, the notion of mental illness is used to identify or describe some feature of an individual’s so-called personality. Mental illness — as a deformity of the personality, so to speak — is then regarded as the cause of the human disharmony. It is implicit in this view that social intercourse between people is regarded as something inherently harmonious, its disturbance being due solely to the presence of “mental illness” in many people. This is obviously fallacious reasoning, for it makes the abstraction “mental illness” into a cause, even though this abstraction was created in the first place to serve only as a shorthand expression for certain types of human behavior. It now becomes necessary to ask: “What kinds of behavior are regarded as indicative of mental illness, and by whom?”(Szasz, 1960)[xlviii]

Serious concerns about mental health institutions also exist. According to psychiatrist Henry A. Nasrallah the list of perceived misdeeds of psychiatry include:

“• Medicalizing madness (contradicting the archaic notion that psychosis is a type of behavior, not an illness)

  • Drastic measures to control severe mental illness in the pre-pharmacotherapy era, including excessive use of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), performing lobotomies, or resecting various body parts
  • Use of physical and/or chemical restraints for violent or actively suicidal patients
  • Labeling slaves’ healthy desire to escape from their masters in the 19thcentury as an illness (“drapetomania”)
  • Regarding psychoanalysis as unscientific and even harmful
  • Labeling homosexuality as a mental disorder until American Psychiatric Association members voted it out of DSM-II in 1973
  • The arbitrariness of psychiatric diagnoses based on committee-consensus criteria rather than valid and objective scientific evidence and the lack of biomarkers (this is a legitimate complaint but many physiological tests are being developed)

Psychoactive drugs allegedly are used to control children (antipsychiatry tends to minimize the existence of serious mental illness among children, although childhood physical diseases are readily accepted)

  • Psychiatry is a pseudoscience that pathologizes normal variations of human behaviors, thoughts, or emotions

  • Psychiatrists are complicit with drug companies and employ drugs of dubious efficacy (eg, antidepressants) or safety (eg, antipsychotics).”[xlix]

While psychiatry practices have changed to eliminate some of the problems listed above, recently, a renewed crisis of confidence has been caused by diagnostic inflation leading to over-medicalization, particularly of children, given the serious or intolerable side effects of some antipsychotic medications by some.

The controversy focuses on increasingly broad definitions of mental illness. For diagnostics of mental illness, psychiatrists rely on the publication DSM: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which lists conditions defined as mental illness.

According to A Frances[l], over the life time of its publications, the DSM has increasingly opened the door to loose diagnosis by defining conditions that were no more than slightly more severe versions of such everyday problems as mild depression, generalized anxiety, social anxiety, simple phobias, sexual dysfunctions, and sleep disorders. Over time, the DSM led to unexpected occurrence of 3 market-driven diagnostic fads. In the past 20 years, the rate of attention-deficit disorder tripled, the rate of bipolar disorder doubled, and the rate of autism increased more than 20-fold. Frances warns that the lesson should be clear that every change in the diagnostic system could lead to unpredictable overdiagnosis.

Frances articulates a serious concern that is very much of interest to highly sensitive people, dangerous treatments and the over-prescription of potentially dangerous pharmaceutical drugs. Frances is not alone, organizations such as MindFreedom International and World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry argue that psychiatrists exaggerate the evidence of medication and minimize the evidence of adverse drug reaction. They and other activists believe individuals are not given balanced information, and that current psychiatric medications do not appear to be specific to particular disorders in the way mainstream psychiatry asserts; and psychiatric drugs not only fail to correct measurable chemical imbalances in the brain, but rather induce undesirable side effects. Today, this concern also incorporates the significant increase in prescribing psychiatric drugs to children. (Nasrallah, 2011)[li]. For example, in 2007, the New York Times published the article “Psychiatrists, Children and Drug Industry’s Role” which reported the following:

“When Anya Bailey developed an eating disorder after her 12th birthday, her mother took her to a psychiatrist at the University of Minnesota who prescribed a powerful antipsychotic drug called Risperdal.

Created for schizophrenia, Risperdal is not approved to treat eating disorders, but increased appetite is a common side effect and doctors may prescribe drugs as they see fit. Anya gained weight but within two years developed a crippling knot in her back. She now receives regular injections of Botox to unclench her back muscles. She often awakens crying in pain.

Isabella Bailey, Anya’s mother, said she had no idea that children might be especially susceptible to Risperdal’s side effects. Nor did she know that Risperdal and similar medicines were not approved at the time to treat children, or that medical trials often cited to justify the use of such drugs had as few as eight children taking the drug by the end.

Just as surprising, Ms. Bailey said, was learning that the university psychiatrist who supervised Anya’s care received more than $7,000 from 2003 to 2004 from Johnson & Johnson, Risperdal’s maker, in return for lectures about one of the company’s drugs. “[lii]

In many cases, children are put on Ritalin and other psycho-stimulants to make them more obedient to parents and teachers (Breggin, 2000)[liii]. As Breggin explained:

“The “therapeutic” effects of stimulants are a direct expression of their toxicity. Animal and human research indicates that these drugs often suppress spontaneous and social behaviors while promoting obsessive/compulsive behaviors. These adverse drug effects make the psychostimulants seemingly useful for controlling the behavior of children, especially in highly structured environments that do not attend to their genuine needs”[liv]

For these critics, the diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder on the basis of inattention to compulsory schooling also raises critics’ concerns regarding the use of psychoactive drugs as a means of unjust social control of children.

It has been argued that psychiatry, through the ages, has continuously served to reinforce the values of social control of specific powerful social structures (Foucault, 1961)[lv]. The confinement of the mad to institutions that dominated the previous centuries began to be substituted by the use of medication. The spiritual mythology necessary to advance psychological health has been replaced with medical and media mythologies that, instead of encouraging internal processes favor suppression and oppression of spatial and internal messages, promote medication as an alternative to communication through the senses, redefine the distressing behaviors of sensory and other types of traumas as a sickness, and provide media mythologies that take us away from the symbols and images that could help us make sense of the needs of the inner soul while stimulating the senses towards their submission.

By the 21st century, this criticism of psychiatry has reached popular consciousness, and the dangers associated with drugging our children are better known. The hidden toxicity of these drugs potentially has dreadful consequences that scientists are beginning to seriously examine. Researchers have shown that the medical community may be inadvertently creating a new generation of illegal, recreational drug users by prescribing anti-anxiety or sleep medications to teenagers[lvi]. Scientists are also beginning to redefine the nature of mental illness. Medical researchers are studying the effects of permanent stress on the immune system and have been demonstrated that activated through permanent stress, immune cells will have a damaging effect on and cause changes to the brain. This may result in mental disorders. [lvii]

These doubts about psychiatry are sending an increasing number of people to search for other solutions. To these medical approaches, others exist that have a very different understanding of what is referred to as mental illness. In modern times, various schools of psychology and neurobiology have offered gentler approaches to mental illness and health that take into consideration the “inner soul”, adapting some ideas from ancient traditions. And taking us back to the subject of dreaming.

On one hand, Freudian traditions understand dreams to embody the involuntary occurrences within the mind. In “The Interpretation of Dreams” (1900)[lviii], Freud inferred that dreams are a product of one’s individual psyche, the totality of the human mind, conscious and unconscious. The unconscious referred to the mental processes of which individuals make themselves unaware.[lix] To him, dreams were the road to the unconscious. Freud believed that significant psychic events take place in the unconscious mind, as hidden messages.

Understanding the dominant the repressive culture of his time, Freud considered the unconscious as carrying what is actively repressed from conscious thought or what a person is averse to knowing consciously. He viewed the unconscious as a repository for socially unacceptable ideas, wishes or desires, traumatic memories, and painful emotions put out of mind by the mechanism of psychological repression. Without a connection to spirituality and its mythology, he believed that unconscious thoughts were not directly accessible to ordinary introspection, but could be “tapped” and “interpreted” by special methods and techniques such as meditation, dream analysis, examined and conducted during psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysts replaced shamans as the experts capable of interpreting their messages.

On the other hand, in Jungian psychology, while dreams still give us access to unconsciousness, it is believed that there is both a personal and collective unconsciousness. The personal unconscious being a personal reservoir of experience unique to each individual, while the collective unconscious collects and organizes those personal experiences in a similar way with each member of a particular species. Jung considered the scope of dream interpretation to reflect the richness and complexity of the entire unconscious, both personal and collective. He believed the psyche or self to be a self-regulating organism in which conscious attitudes were likely to be compensated for unconsciously within dreams. (Storr, 1983).[lx]

For Jung, the Self : “is not caused by consciousness, rather it is the base on which consciousness itself rests. As such it is of the order of instinct. (…) This instinct comes from within, as a compulsion or command (…) and in this process we are expressive of a psychological situation”[lxi](Jung quoted by Larsen, 1998, p.96).   According to Jungian psychology, most of our difficulties come from losing contact with our instincts. The Jungian shadow refers to everything outside the light of consciousness, and may be positive or negative. “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”(Jung, 1938, p. 131) [lxii] It may be (in part) one’s link to more primitive animal instincts (Jung, 1952, p.12)[lxiii], which are superseded during early childhood by the conscious mind.

This may be a clue as to why highly sensitive children do not respond to acculturation in the same manner other children do. Could these primitive animal instincts be the source of our ancient inter-connectiveness with nature? Could it be that they are stronger in highly sensitive children and cannot be suppressed by the conscious mind? Could the shadow emerge as we deny our own nature, leading some to mental distress and eventually illness?

Horsley refers to sensory gifts as instinct and has this today of its relationship to culture:

“(…), instinct is seen as the enemy of culture. Socialization and enculturation, as Freud described, entails the suppression of instincts in order to prevent unchecked sexuality and barbarism (i.e., mimetic violence). Yet animals get along fine without a culture, and whatever else they may be, humans are animals. Culture is meant to represent our superiority over the other animals; it is seen as an expression of our higher nature. But all the evidence would suggest the reverse. Bees know how to build complex structures. Birds know when and where to migrate to. Pigeon, eels, and most other creatures know their way home no matter how far they are from it. (…) If human beings have a similar, more advanced, internal guidance system to animals, then learning by imitation — adopting the social language — may not be essential to our survival at all. There may be no need for culture or for externally shaped group arrangements. These things may only be a distortion of our true natures and a distraction from them. They may also cause a disruption of our internal guidance system. “[lxiv]

Jung offered another answer. He equated these instincts with the “old-aged unforgotten wisdom” stored up in us, the “old man”. Also referred to as the “great man within” by the Naskapi Indians, he is a source of guidance and knowledge far more ancient and wise than man’s conscious self”(Speck[lxv] quoted by Larsen, 1998, p. 96). He proposed the wise old man to be the personification of the collective unconscious, accessible through dreams as archetypal messages. He understood archetypes as universal, archaic patterns and images that derive from the collective unconscious that manifested themselves in dreams, as dream symbols or figures. They are inherited potentials, which are actualized when they enter consciousness as images or manifest in behavior on interaction with the outside world (Stevens, 2006)[lxvi]. They are hidden forms, which are transformed once they enter consciousness and are given particular expression by individuals and their cultures. Acquaintance with the archetypes as manifested by these symbols served to increase one’s awareness of unconscious attitudes, integrating seemingly disparate parts of the psyche and contributing to the process of holistic self-understanding he considered paramount (Storr, 1983).[lxvii]

This notion of self-understanding is particularly relevant to highly sensitive children. As Elaine Aron points out: “ Sensitive persons can certainly have mood disorders, but should not be mistaken for being chronically depressed only because of a pessimistic view of the future of the world or of their own abilities (a pessimism which may well be accurate, as in the case of depressive realism). Likewise they do not have an anxiety disorder merely because they worry more than the nonsensitive, and they do not have a personality disorder (avoidant, dependent, obsessive-compulsive, etc.) merely because their unusualness has been present throughout their lives as an impediment to the cheerful, resilient functioning expected of most people most of the time…. They cannot shut out the world’s achingly subtle, fleeting beauty or its inexplicable cruelty and suffering. They must find their own meaning in it.”[lxviii]

In opposition to the invasive modalities of treatment of modern medicine and psychiatry which can be traumatizing to a highly sensitive child’s body and spirit, psychology and ancient health approaches to the spirit offer gentler, kinder models of healing. While modern medicine has chosen to eradicate our “instincts” and ignore the importance of spirituality to health, it has become one of the pillar of health to an alternative modern health approach, that of holistic health.

Holistic Health Model

As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, modern medicine is adapting and beginning to reincorporate some of the ancient wisdoms we have explored into its practices. In part due to the influence of holistic practices. These practices are quite different from modern medicine. They promote health prevention instead of intervention and try to understand all the factors operating on a person’s life. As such it is a highly personalized and pluralistic approach to health, which takes into account diversity of life experiences.

According to Pip Waller, author of the book “Holistic Anatomy. An integrated guide to the human body”:

“At heart, holism says that a person is a whole, and also is a part of the greater Whole. Because we are deeply connected both within ourselves and with everyone and everything else in the universe, all these influences, within and without, affect us. “(Waller, 2010, p. 318)[lxix]

Holistic practices do not define health as the absence of disease:

“ Mostly, a model of fully healthy human is someone who is:

  • Full of energy and zest

  • Feeling connected and happy, or more accurately, deeply contented with life and a well-functioning body

  • Interested and involved in many things, with a deep sense of the rightness of existence and the goodness of the universe

  • Enjoying work and play in a balance manner, with healthy relationships and healthful diet and exercise

  • Taking care of our planet, knowing our deep connection with each other and life

  • Working to restore, and then to cherish and wonder at the awesome splendor of nature “ (Waller, 2010, p. 326)[lxx]

In other words, these practices consider well-being as the pinnacle of health. An approach that is infiltrating many cultural institutions, the University of Minessota’s Center for Spirituality & Healing and Charlson Meadows, being a good example of that transformation. In this context:

Wellbeing is not just another word for physical health—it is about finding balance in body, mind, and spirit. In this state, we feel content, connected, energized, resilient, and safe.” [lxxi]

Dr. Mary Jo Kreitzer, Director of the Center for Spirituality and Healing, at the University of Minnesota, identified six dimensions that contribute to wellbeing. These take into account our interconnectedness and interdependence with our friends, families, and communities, as well as the personal and global environment we live in. They also address the importance of security and purpose in our lives, which often associated with a connection to spirituality. The influence of ancient traditions is clear, but the wheel of medicine has been transformed into a wheel of well-being that integrates many of the elements we discussed in this chapter, as seen in the figure below.

Figure 3: Well-being holistic model


Holistic practitioners attempt to understand many aspects of people’s needs: nutritional, emotional, physical, social and spiritual. Holistic practices acknowledge that all these aspects operate as one inter-penetrating and co-operative system. What affects one area affects the others, and being aware of how this happens will help a great deal in achieving a wholesome balance.

In holistic practices, it is understood that change and movement is central to our ways of being:

“The body exists in a state of constant change and movement. There is an internal balance, known as homeostasis, which is constantly monitored and maintained. This is the Western way of explaining what the Chinese call ‘yin and yang’: the complementary opposites which in life are always moving and dancing together in and out of balance (although in Western physiology, homeostasis relates to physical functions only).

In life there is no stasis – all is continually moving and changing. The chemicals in the body are kept at optimum levels. They move up and down these levels, and by so doing keep our bodies functioning well.”(Waller, 2010, p.1)[lxxii]

One of the necessary functions for life defined by holistic health practitioners is that of responsiveness:

” Responsiveness is the ability to sense changes and react to them. All cells are responsive, but the nerve cells are particularly so and this is what allows them to carry out their functions of communication and control of body activities, Responsiveness is also call irritability.”(Waller, 2010, p.8)

This acknowledgement of the centrality of the senses to our health is important to highly sensitive children. Responsiveness is the mechanism affected by sensorial toxicity. Could this irritability be the cause of highly sensitive children’s overreactions? This seems possible particularly given that this responsiveness is not solely limited to functions within our physical body; it involves the movement and change of energy as another necessary functions of life:

“energy cannot be destroyed, only move or change from one form to another. The movements and changes in energy are produced by forces – such as by the push and pull of electrical force, and the pull of gravity, which is produced by all the local matter being attracted to all the other local matter (we experience this by being attracted to, or pulled, to the earth).” (Waller, 2010, p.16

Here is an important clue to stabilizing the symptoms of sensory overload; working to understand the nature of the energy that highly sensitive children sense may help them learn to work with it as a communication tool instead of a disruptive sensory input. This means being able to discern the characteristics of the energies that they sense.

Holistic health modalities acknowledge the complexity of health and are much more suited to understand highly sensitive people health than the western systems of thought. But one element these modalities do not yet address is the impact of communication technologies on us. While this can be challenging, it is essential to a highly sensitive person as the quality of space and the energy it carries have changed by our use of communication technologies.

Disembodied Electronic Spaces

Discussing electronic technology in a book about the senses may seem counter-intuitive. However, today’s urban children are immersed in media that are altering their relationship to space in ways our species has never encountered before. A new spatial dimension has been introduced by our modern times. Electronic technologies have altered the nature of our social lives and of spatial energy in important ways, adding new communication and energetic signals to space, in the process, altering its quality.

On the positive side, research on children and electronic media has shown that they spend a lot of time in virtual spaces where social life is being redefined. While our social contexts have always been complex ecosystems in a state of dynamic flux, they now are intertwined with a virtual social life. My own research in this area has found that digital environments have become hacking spaces where children are experimenting and learning about alternative forms of identity, communities, gaming, economic and social activities. It is also clear that digital life influence physical life (Bal, Nolan and Seko, 2013)[lxxiii].

Children are using simulation games to learn about things they do not have access to in the real world. Some use these as a form of meditation, therapy and/or as a means to be alone and to reduce their physical sensory inputs. As we will explore in chapter 8, digital media have become a type of virtual forest where some children are finding solutions to their sensory overloads, easing their anxieties and in some cases, learning social skills.

Children are exploring their identities in these spaces, which in turn influence how they present themselves in physical social life. The disembodied nature of these technologies can act as a filter to simplify sensory and social learning within a complex situation. I have witnessed my son doing so. He has loved soccer since very little but found playing too overwhelming and would refuse to play in a league as it meant too much new stimulation. When I introduced a WII gaming system into our home, he began to play soccer with the system. Within a few weeks, he asked to join a physical soccer team. I came to understand that he used the game to learn the rules of soccer and the type of behaviors that are acceptable and appropriate before playing. He had simplified the learning process of a complex spatially social and sensory situation. For a child with heightened sensory processing abilities, a soccer game, or any team game for that matter, is difficult to navigate. The complexity comes from the fact that there are layers of rules and stimuli to process all at once in order to play. A child must simultaneously understand the rules of the game, the social rules of the situation, navigate the sensory overload of a team of children all moving simultaneously, a coach giving directions, an unknown space with variation in temperature, heat, sound and visual cues, control his body while keeping track of other players’ bodies in motion and follow the ball.

When not knowing the game, such an experience was overwhelming. By using a digital game, he simplified the sensory situation, deconstructed the play and learned step-by-step enough elements to not be overwhelmed in the physical situation. By bypassing most of the embodied and spatial sensory input he could focus on learning one element at a time. Once he honed the game, its social rules and practice strategies, he felt comfortable enough to then deal with the other sensory inputs of the situation. I came to realize that technology could become a tool to help children learn some aspects of a complex sensory and social life. A notion we will explore in chapter 8.

Another important aspect of children’s use of digital media emerges from their ability to actively co-construct media artifacts. Although often tied to corporate/institutional culture, these activities give them a sense of voice and self-determination.

On the negative side, it is known that mobile technologies use electromagnetic radiation. According to the World Health Organization:

Mobile phones communicate by transmitting radio waves through a network of fixed antennas called base stations. Radiofrequency waves are electromagnetic fields, and unlike ionizing radiation such as X-rays or gamma rays, can neither break chemical bonds nor cause ionization in the human body. Mobile phones are often prohibited in hospitals and on airplanes, as the radiofrequency signals may interfere with certain electro-medical devices and navigation systems”.[lxxiv]

We do not know the long-term effect of exposure to computers and mobile devices. This has leaded some national radiation advisory authorities to recommend measures to minimize exposure to their citizens. The amount of electromagnetic radiation in homes and urban centers is increasing, without much knowledge of their effect on our health. Additionally, most computers are full of chemicals, which also can affect our health. Finally, Urban pollution, computers and other electronic devices also affect air quality. To appreciate this, we must look at what ions are. When an atom is attracted to another atom because it has an unequal number of electrons and protons, the atom is called an ION. If the atom has more electrons than protons, it is a negative ion, or ANION. If it has more protons than electrons, it is a positive ion.

Anions are believed to be important to our health. Researchers have demonstrated that a lack of these negative ions disturbs neurohormonal regulation and pituitary insufficiency (Goldstein and Arshavskaya, 1997)[lxxv]. Researchers have also discovered that negative ions are able to help protect the body from induced physical stress (Livanova et al, 1998)[lxxvi]. Negative ions are “biologically active and that they do affect the body’s circadian rhythmicity.”(Reilly and Stevenson, 1993)[lxxvii].

According to WebMd, Ion researcher Michael Terman, PhD, of Columbia University, found that in people with winter and chronic depression, negative ion generators relieve depression as much as antidepressants[lxxviii].

While these ions are abundant in nature, they are limited in cities. According to seismologist T. Neil Davis:

“ Outdoor air contains about a thousand positive and negative charges (ions) within each cubic centimeter. Cosmic rays coming into the earth from the sun and elsewhere break apart air molecules and thereby create much of the ionization that exists in the air. Since more cosmic rays come in at the high latitudes, the high-latitude air normally has a higher proportion of ionized air molecules or molecular clusters. However, in cities and in confined spaces such as offices, processes take place to reduce the number of ions[lxxix].

In hermetic homes with little ventilation in the winter negative ions are eliminated from the environment. This could be creating changes in a child’s neurohormonal regulation.

These issues suggest that a sensory health model must seriously consider the role of technology in a highly sensitive child’s life. A balanced use of digital media and other technology can help a child learn safely about his or her senses. On the other hand, it is also important to consider the amount of media children are emerged in. Finally, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of digital media to help children learn about their senses.

Conclusion: The Need For A framework to Decolonize the Senses

Whereas Ancient health wisdoms understood that our senses and space are central to our well-being, modern cultures have colonized space and the senses, and led us to forget their importance. In the process we lost access to the wisdoms and knowledge of the past and blinded ourselves to the sensory parts of who we are. The domination of Cartesian logic in our societies have taken us far from our body and in the process ostracized highly sensitive people’s ways of being. The oppression of the senses that modern society has promoted is destroying the most sensitive members of our society by preventing access to the knowledge necessary to be connected, energized in positive ways, and to build the resilience necessary to deal with toxicity. As we advance in the 21st century, we are realizing the dangers of this colonization and many health practitioners are working to use ancient wisdom in a modern world.

The neurodiversity approach, for instance, emerged in the 1990s as a challenge to prevailing views of neurological diversity as inherently pathological. It asserts that neurological differences should be recognized and respected as a social category on par with gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability status and that diverse neurological conditions appear as a result of normal variations in the human genome (Linköping University, 2014)[lxxx]. Similarly, sensory diversity is important to recognize as a normal genetic variation.

Given that highly sensitive children can not help being tuned into modalities of holistic and empathic perceptions and meanings, sourced not within the mind but the sensorial body and space, we need to provide them with frameworks of reality and strategies to trust and become guided by their senses, and develop a healthy dialogue between their internal and external environments. But how do we begin to re-understand the importance of the senses and space and what a healthy relationship to both are, particularly in a technological age? The next chapter represents an attempt at synthesizing what we discussed in this chapter into a highly sensitive children health framework that may help us begin this process of relearning.

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[xxi] Reninger, Elizabeth(2013). “Introduction to Taoism”. About Religion.

[xxii] Reninger, Elizabeth(2013). “Introduction to Taoism”. About Religion.

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