The chapter titled, Do Your Nervous Systems Play Well?, in marriage therapist, Stan Tatkin’s book, Wired for Dating: How Understanding Neurobiology and Attachment Style Can Help You Find Your Ideal Mate, grabbed my attention as a highly sensitive person.
I’ve known for seven years that my nervous system is more easily aroused than about 80% of the population. I startle more often. I can only handle groups of people for so long before I need quiet time to myself. I am highly attuned to other’s energy — positive or negative. Anything from emotions to lighting can feel over-stimulating to me.
I haven’t always felt highly sensitive
Growing up, I did not generally feel overstimulated. It was not until I found myself married with three children living in the successful suburbs that I started to feel overwhelmed frequently. The complexity of our lifestyle hit the tipping point of my ability to manage it in a composed manner.
During the marriage, and especially toward the end of it, there was not a lot of soothing going on between my husband and me. We both did our best to heal our own wounds, but that took us farther away from each other, and ultimately to divorce.
We need more than self-soothing
I’ve written in the past about self-soothing. I still believe it is a valuable skill, but my current view is that it is most effective if done within a secure and supportive relationship.
The ability to soothe your partner and vice versa leads to relationship sustainability.
Your nervous system regulates how calm or excited you are at any given moment. This is your state of arousal. Highly sensitive persons live with a naturally higher state of arousal.
Most of the time, our brain and nervous system respond automatically, without a lot of conscious thought, particularly if we are under stress. Our nervous systems are especially wired to notice any threats in our environment. For our survival, threats register stronger in our nervous systems than positive or loving behavior. Originally, our nervous systems focused on protecting us from dangerous predators, but since we have evolved to the point of minimal danger of being eaten by a tiger, our brains can now focus on stress and even our loved ones as potential threats.
Wouldn’t it be better if our partners were soothers of our arousal system versus threats to it?
What triggers me and how I respond
I know I’ve been triggered into over-arousal by others from such things as tone of voice, too fast driving and too much negativity. Now those aren’t exactly life threatening (well maybe the driving was), but my nervous system reacted as if I’d been physically hurt. My fight or flight response kicked in. My heart raced, my mouth dried, I spoke slower, I perspired.
Once in a calmer state of mind, I tried to explain how the perceived threatening behaviors affected me, but my words triggered my partner into a state of alert. Instead of soothing each other and helping each other relax, we escalated our threat responses.
What I did not know then, was how to not take my lover’s threat reactions personally. I did not understand his responses were wired into him long before me (perhaps from childhood or previous relationships). I did not recognize his elevated stimulation as an automatic response. It simply felt like danger and discomfort to me. I protected myself instead of working harder to soothe him.
How to soothe your partner
The first thing to do is notice when your loved one exhibits a high negative state of arousal (there are positive states such as excitement). Become familiar with the behavior or perceived threats that make your partner’s nervous system sound the alarms. Are there experiences from her past that make her uneasy? Does questioning his judgement set your lover off?
If you see your partner begin to struggle — talk in a clipped manner, breathe faster, sweat, fidget, get tongue-tied — move in quickly to help. According to Stan Tatkin, we perceive threats very quickly and automatic reactions transpire just as quickly.
Two ways to soothe your loved one are nonverbal calming and verbal reassurance. Examples of non-verbal calming are reaching out and taking your partner’s hand, rubbing their shoulders or giving them a wink across the table when a discussion gets heated. Different people respond better or worse to different methods. A verbal reassurance could be as simple as starting a discussion with “I love you and I want to work this out” or verbally expressing gratitude for something you love about your relationship. In any case Dr. Tatkin says, the partner who feels most secure at the time sets aside his or her issues and cares for the other.
If we learn how to recognize and regulate our partner’s nervous systems and do it consistently, the future holds fewer and fewer instances of survival mode and knee-jerk reactions.
How good are you at soothing your partner? Who soothes you? What calms you down?
Check out my online course – Attachment: Moving from Insecurity to Security in Partnership. If distance in a relationship makes you feel comfortable OR greatly upset, this course is for you and your relationship. Check it out at brendaknowles.teachable.com.