On Sensitivity

Some people seem to be highly sensitive to touch and manual stimulation, others have low sensitivity. What exactly am I talking about? I’m referring to a person’s immediate responses to the work of the bodywork therapist. For the purposes of this blog post, I am not considering longer-term responses, such as how quickly the treatment begins to work, but just the person’s immediate sensations, feelings and reactions. But I will just say that the two do not necessarily relate to each other as one might expect.

There is an optimum range of sensitivity which most people show, as exhibited by their bodily and vocal reactions and the feedback they choose to give about the sensations they feel in response to being touched and treated manually. I say «optimum» because it seems to me that both heightened and low levels of sensitivity have disadvantages. Thus it is a misconception to believe that more is better.

The Highly Sensitive Person

Let us call this highly sensitive person Donna (she usually is a woman). Donna responds intensely to her sensations. She can tolerate only gentle treatment as deeper or more forceful treatment is not pleasant for her. Donna feels pain when others would feel comfortable or perhaps only experience very mild discomfort. She often signals this by her body language rather than voicing it. However, she is also eager to give vocal feedback, and uses quite descriptive language for the nuances of her sensations. Donna has good awareness of bodily position and good fine control of her voluntary movements.

Donna attaches meaning to her sensations, but the problem is that her interpretations are often shaped by her preconceptions more than by reality, or (even though she is generally well educated) limited by her knowledge of physiology. If Donna is of an «alternative» frame of mind, she interprets the bodily sensations she feels during treatment in terms of «energy flow». She is not aware that it is alright just to let a sensation be a sensation. Rather than making (quite possibly erroneous) interpretations of subjective phenomena like sensations, it is much better and more realistic in my view just to feel them and observe them dispassionately.

«At dawn my lover comes to me and tells me of her dreams // With no attempt to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means» (Bob Dylan – Gates of Eden – 1965).

Donna knows she is highly sensitive and likes to think of herself that way. But there are disadvantages. She is worried by quite normal sensations that come from her abdomen or chest, interpreting them as potential symptoms of disease. This makes her anxious, and consequently she focuses more and more on those sensations. Highly sensitive people like Donna tend to experience a lot of relatively minor but nonetheless distressing physical disorders throughout their lives.

Donna finds my treatment «powerful», but she is not aware that this feeling is unrelated to the likelihood or otherwise of long-term benefits. But she likes to come for the experience, although this can engender dependence.

The Low-Sensitivity Person

We shall call him Frank. Frank calls a spade a spade. He doesn’t call it a scoop or shovel or trowel, a banjo, a spud or a peel (he is not interested in nuances). Frank is stoic and finds my treatment very gentle; in fact he is surprised that it does seem to work. He is not very aware of his body and not able to control fine movements very well. He is unable to tell that his muscles are tense, and finds it very difficult to relax his body and let me move it instead, especially his head and neck. His bodily sensations are blunted, he does not have highs or lows, just always on the level. Frank appears to enjoy robust health until he is 60, after which he is at greater at risk from a heart attack or a stroke than is Donna.

My advice to Frank: Get yourself into a green space. It could be a forest or wood, a meadow, a park, or even just your garden. Sit on the ground, close your eyes and just let yourself experience what is going on: the breeze on your skin, the sound of the birds and the rustling of the leaves, the smell of earth or new mown-grass, whatever there is that your senses pick up. Do this often.

How do these differences come about?

Well, to a certain extent it is in the genes, but there is a lot more to it than that. My belief is that this kind of sensitivity is strongly influenced by developmental differences, that is, how the main control systems of the body – the mind, the nervous system, the hormonal system and the immune system – were shaped by the social environment during childhood and adolescence. This interacts with a person’s genetic make-up to influence the person’s sensitivity to external stimuli such as touch and movement.

Copyright © Robert Hale 2023. Robert Hale is an osteopath in Santa Eulalia del Rio, Ibiza.

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