stressed woman

I recently read In the Realm of “Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction” by Dr. Gabor Mate´. I’ve found Dr. Maté’s philosophies and experience regarding addiction and its origins fascinating. Essentially he says pain is the fuel of all addiction. We use substances and behavior to self-soothe. He does not believe it is primarily genetic. He believes early childhood experience and environment are the main indicators for future addiction. Keep in mind that addictive behavior includes everything from taking narcotics to shopping.

A child who is stressed early in life will be more overactive and reactive. He is triggered more easily, is more anxious and distressed.   — Dr. Bruce Perry senior fellow at the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, Texas

A later quote in the book from Dr. Maté, also says that addicts lack differentiation — the capacity to maintain emotional separateness from others. They absorb and take personally the emotional states of other people.

Both Dr. Perry’s quote and the quote about lacking differentiation reminded me of the traits I hear describe highly sensitive people, of which I am one.

Triggered more easily

Being born with a highly sensitive temperament means our nervous systems are more easily over-aroused. We often seek low stimulation to keep our system running smoothly. This definition harkens to introversion as well, but I believe high sensitivity more closely resembles the reactivity of someone who suffered from childhood distress.

Both childhood stress and high sensitivity have biological origins. A lack of attachment (interaction, nurturing, eye contact) to primary caregivers  in early childhood physiologically affects the neural connections in the brain. The child who suffers abuse or neglect or experiences the stress of a caregiver, has her brain development stymied. The tools and neural mechanisms necessary for self-regulation, do not develop to their full potential. Thus, the child is more reactive.

child crying

A child born with a highly sensitive nervous system, feels her environment with greater intensity than a child born with an average level of arousal. They may learn to self-soothe but they also find themselves having to do that more often.

Feeling others’ emotions

Both HSPs and those with traumatic childhoods take on others’ emotions. They find it difficult to maintain their own integrity.

For those with trauma in their backgrounds, a need for hyper vigilance regarding threats made them highly aware of other’s moods and presence. Their nervous systems are in essence always on the lookout for danger or the threat of loss of something they need. They can read the room well and are ready on a moment’s notice to react.

Highly sensitive people often say they feel others’ energy. They take it on. Their nervous systems tune into very subtle cues in the environment. I have been asked as a coach for help to not take on other’s energy. It is an arduous task to not only differentiate between our and other’s energy/emotions but to cut ourselves off from the other person’s needs or pain. Often we experience the emotions of those we love. It is hard to say no to them, but for our own health and well being it is necessary to say no to those who do not want to help themselves. Small children being the exception.


If we take on other’s suffering and try to fix everything, we could be fostering codependence. Codependent people get their identity and self-worth from rescuing or caring for others. codependence differs from dependence in that codependence encourages unwanted behavior. In many relationships, particularly parent/child relationships, dependence is necessary.

Finding relief

Whether we are an HSP or a sufferer of childhood stressors, we want relief. We want to feel calm and secure.

In “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts”, Dr. Perry goes on to say that if we give alcohol to someone whose baseline level of arousal is high and compare it to giving someone whose baseline level of arousal is average, we see that both experience the alcohol’s intoxication, but the person with the higher arousal will also feel pleasure and relief from the stress of the high arousal.


I wonder if HSPs have more trouble with addiction. Is it possible that seeking solitude is a form of addiction? We need it to soothe ourselves. Is too much solitude a problem, like an addiction to drugs or alcohol? Both “addictions” can leave us isolated.

These are questions piqued as I read Dr. Maté’s book. I welcome your thoughts.

Photo by Caleb George on Unsplash

Photo by Arwan Sutanto on Unsplash

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