Orchid girl: Peering into high sensitivity

orchid 2010 2

Too itchy.  Too tight.  Too breezy.  As a highly sensitive child I was keen to feelings, especially to touch.

Mom’s repetitive stroking of my ear felt irritating, not pleasant.  Kisses from Dad felt sharp because of his beard stubble.  I longed to receive love through touch, but often I recoiled from the super-stimulus.  Then I felt frustrated, unable to understand why I couldn’t accept what touch was offered.

As an adult, I have gained a greater understanding of my sensitivity.  In Susan Cain’s excellent book Quiet, she discusses how high-reactivity (or high sensitivity) appears to be an inborn trait.   She names two studies that I find intriguing and helpful, especially as an adult child of divorce.

Two theories

A study by Harvard researcher Jerome Kagan theorizes that babies who thrash and cry after a period of different sensory stimuli are the most likely group to grow into quiet young adults.  He dubbed this group “high-reactive.”  He hypothesized that babies born with an extra-sensitive amygdala, the part of the brain that serves as an emotional switchboard, feel more deeply than others within stimulating environments.  These people tend to process information more deeply and are more alert to detail.

Cain unfolds another theory called “the orchid hypothesis:”

This theory holds that many children are like dandelions, able to thrive in just about any environment.  But others, including the high-reactive types that Kagan studied, are more like orchids: they wilt easily, but under the right conditions can grow strong and magnificent.  According to Jay Belsky [professor and child care expert]…the reactivity of these kids’ nervous systems makes them quickly overwhelmed by childhood adversity, but also able to benefit from a nurturing environment more than other children do.  In other words, orchid children are more strongly affected by all experience, both positive and negative.

Cain continues:

Scientists have known for a while that high-reactive temperaments come with risk factors.  These kids are especially vulnerable to challenges like marital tension, a parent’s death, or abuse.  They’re more likely than their peers to react to these events with depression, anxiety, and shyness.

Orchid girl

I don’t know if I showed signs of high reactivity as an infant, but I do remember feeling everything deeply, even as a child.  When I had my tonsils removed as a three-year-old, the pain was overwhelming.  The emotional pain I endured as a child of divorce affected every part of my being for years.  As a teenager I dealt with several seasons of depression.  When I look back over especially stressful times as a child, I remember coping with overeating, bullying, and punishing myself.  I will write more about those stresses in future posts.

I have seen orchids growing in the Climatron at the Missouri Botanical Gardens.  They grow in the shade of large trees, and they need a delicately balanced environment of perfect humidity and filtered sunlight.  They will suffer more than hardier plants under harsh conditions like sunlight and wind.  I often use the metaphor of a sunflower for my spiritual journey, but I am also an orchid girl in other ways I will discuss in my next post.


Are you an orchid child?  How has your sensitivity shaped your childhood experience?

Related posts

The wanting, 1985

Sensitive, 1986


All content copyright 2016 Sarah Geringer