Exploring Happiness, Sensitivity, and Medication

nature healing "You seem to look upon your depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you," he said. "Do you think you could see it instead as the hand of a friend, pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?" - Parker Palmer's therapist's words from the book, Let Your Life Speak.

Studies indicate that while happiness is certainly in part due to our genetic makeup, it is also a choice. Our outlook on life is more linked to our happiness than our circumstances are.

Personally I identify myself as having a sunny disposition…most of the time, and I feel more joyful than not.

However, I am also very sensitive. And recently I have come to identify myself as a “Highly Sensitive Person” while reading a life-saving book with the same title written by Elaine Aron, Ph.D.

I’m not much for labels, but this one has helped me to understand and accept aspects of myself such as my tendency to get over stimulated easily, a trait very common in highly sensitive people.

I was a sensitive child too. Take for instance when I was little and my brother told me “Cone Heads” like the ones from Saturday Night Live were real. I had been making fun of a few kids who dressed up like them in his high school yearbook. I felt so terrible when he told me that these classmates of his had a condition that made them look that way. I could not believe I had made fun of anyone who had the terrible misfortune of having a head shaped like a cone! So I went into my room, bawled, and wrote in my journal about how badly I felt.

There have been many times both as a child and as an adult where my determined tears, my uncanny ability to blush at the worst timing possible, and my empathetic reaction to others’ pain has been so uncomfortable, I have wanted to jump out of my body.

And there have been times when no matter how hard I have worked at happiness, I still feel glum. There are days when I am plagued by worry and stubborn sadness that make normal daily activities feel like steep challenges.

I hoped these intense feelings would get better as I got older, but they haven’t. However, I have learned what I need in order to feel safe, healthy and whole, and that it probably looks different than the needs of my friends and family members. I now can identify these intense emotions knowing they are just like passing weather. What I once saw as a flaw doesn’t feel like one anymore.

As a highly sensitive person, I have had moments when I walked around in a state of constant hyper-arousal, feeling jumpy, jittery, and waiting for something terrible and unexpected to happen.

After reading the Highly Sensitive Person I understood what happens to our bodies when we reside in this kind of survival mode all of the time. This physiological reaction, also known as the “fight or flight” response, can have sobering effects. While this response serves an important function, not being able to bounce back to our center point of homeostasis, is a problem.

The cumulative impact of operating from this stressed out place can cause more stress hormones to surface and further deplete happy neurotransmitters resulting in insomnia, anxiety, and depression.

I have experienced how hugely beneficial deep breathing, seated and mindful meditation, yoga, nature, walking, and psychotherapy can be. A change in diet or adding supplements such as Vitamin B can also help enormously as can acupuncture and bio-feedback. I have tried many natural solutions because I believe very much in holistic medicine.

But I also believe in western medicine and sometimes natural options are just not enough. And trust me, as a yoga teacher I have judged myself harshly thinking silently, “If I can't take care of myself with holistic measures, then I must really have a problem, and who am I to be giving advice to others about their emotional health when I may need the assistance of pharmaceuticals to keep me going?"

But a couple of years ago, after having a panic attack, and with the help of a doctor, I decided to try an anti-depressant. It was not the first time I tried them, but it had been a long time.

The results were positive and helped immensely. This decision came at a time when medication felt like the kindest and most humane way to help myself.

I tell this story not because I am a drug pusher; in fact, I believe it should be the last resort. There are side effects and risks with any drugs, and natural remedies are always my first choice.

But I want to share this truth because I don’t think any of us should suffer unnecessarily, and I also don’t want to feel shame for how I was made. There are way too many stigmas associated with mental health in our society, and there is nothing wrong with needing medication whether it is for our physical or mental well being.

And we have too much to risk as a society if we continue to ignore, be embarrassed, and fall silent about our mental, emotional and spiritual health.

A friend and therapist explained to me (in a way that made a great deal of sense) that anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication is not something we need forever, but can serve as a way to rewire our brain by restoring balance to our nervous system.  If the time comes to go off of medication, and with the guidance of a professional, we can actually begin to remember how we reacted to similar situations and triggers when we were on medication.

I have realized our unique challenges as human beings, whatever they may be, also present opportunities to learn more about how we are wired, what makes us tick, when we need to rest, and how we can best serve others. Experts across the field of psychology agree that altruism is one of the surest ways to increase our happiness.

Maybe our struggles remind us, too, that we are all dealing with different issues, and more times than not, we are in fact doing the best we can.

And last but not least, perhaps our unique challenges such as living life sensitively may indeed be one of our greatest gifts. Parker Palmer writes that the  great wisdom traditions teach us, "When we receive a gift, we keep it alive not by clinging to it but by passing it along."

If you would like more information on sensitivity, check out the aforementioned book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D. And I highly recommend anything written by Parker Palmer!