This may sound like a rare spinoff of synesthesia, but it’s actually more common than one might think. Having an overly sensitized reaction to sights, smells, sounds, touch, or taste is known as hyperesthesia. This intense awareness can be overwhelming, scary, and at times painful or debilitating.
Dr. Michael Harris is a consulting hypnotist, speaker, author, and certified hypnosis trainer who is well-versed in hyperesthesia and regularly helps people find ways to cope with their bouts of heightened sensitivity. He helped us break down possible causes of these attacks and explores ways to manage.
“Basically, [hyperesthesia] is the body’s reaction to what it perceives as an attack, and the unconscious mind’s desire to keep the body safe. When this kicks in, the body takes over and shuts down the mind, which can include introducing adrenaline into the system. The body will continue doing this until it feels safe.” The result is an overreaction to the senses, because it perceives anything sensory outside the body to be a threat.
“In general,” Dr. Harris says, “I think the problem mostly comes from the fight or flight response, and the body and/or mind just ‘forgot’ to turn it off.” In other words, it’s an extreme reaction to fight or flight, and not at naturally appropriate times. This does not mean someone who suffers from it is not normal. Again, it’s fairly common, and almost entirely chemical.
So, what causes this in some people and not others? According to Harris, it can be brought on from a wide variety of things, most of them related to trauma. “When I see this in my office with clients, it’s frequently because they had a challenging childhood or have experienced some type of recent trauma.” That can include physical trauma, like an injury or surgery.
Dr. Harris also lists other possible reasons for experiencing hyperesthesia. A negative reaction to anesthesia, a B-12 deficiency, and even perimenopause or menopause can be factors in feeling physically overcome by typical senses.
The good news is, we aren’t slaves to our past trauma. Of course, it’s important to address and work on the trauma in our lives as it can affect us on many levels, both mentally and physically. Dr. Harris has practiced many ways to cope with the symptoms as well. Hyperesthesia “can be alleviated as easily as it came on with guided visualization and hypnosis and some cognitive exercises.”
Negative self-talk can trigger a hyperesthesia response, so one of the things Dr. Harris has his clients do is wear a rubber band around their wrist and snap it against the skin when they notice that they are doing that. “It’s a very simple exercise, and it’s also extremely effective. I also have them make a gratitude list.”
Dr. Harris also has a one-minute hypnosis exercise: “Take a breath and count yourself from 5 down to 1. Imagine you’re turning off a light switch, and allow yourself to go into a light state of trance. Tell yourself that you are happy, healthy, safe, and powerful. With my help, it’s incredibly effective, and you can improve every single time you do this exercise.” You can do this exercise up to five times a day—it’s quick and easy.
Of course, these practices can be tough to initiate on your own, especially in the middle of an attack. If the effects of hyperesthesia are acute or debilitating—for example, if intensely bright light, powerful smells, or abrasive sounds are causing migraines and confusion—it’s important to seek a medical professional or doctor like Dr. Harris to walk you through the steps so that you can have a well-honed practice to rely on in the future.
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