Calm, cool, collected: Saybrook alum assists highly sensitive people find inner joy

By Saybrook University

Saybrook University alumna Julie Bjelland is on a mission to help highly sensitive people (HSPs) find inner joy and self-acceptance with the help of her 2017 book, Brain Training for the Highly Sensitive Person, and her eight-week online global course on the topic of HSPs.

Julie Bjelland

Bjelland’s initial interest in psychology came trotting out on four legs. The 2012 MFT psychology graduate and then-guide dog trainer learned that a person’s behavior doesn’t just affect him or herself. It also reflects those around them, including family pets.

“I used to think about being a veterinarian when I was in my 20s,” says Bjelland, who earned a master’s in Psychology with Marriage and Family Therapy. “I got a job as a vet tech in my early 20s and later applied for a job to be a trainer at Guide Dogs for the Blind. I ended up starting my own business to train people’s pet dogs. This is where my interest in psychology was heightened. Most of the time while I was training dogs, it was about what the human was doing.”

Using one client as an example of why this theory still holds strong, Bjelland received a call that a dog was uncharacteristically barking “all the time” when the pet was previously never this loud.

“I would find myself asking questions like, ‘What’s changed in your life?’,” Bjelland says. “And the owner would say something like, ‘Oh, I just got this new job. I’m totally stressed out.’ It became so apparent that the dog was reacting to the guardian’s behavior. I started loving the human psychology part of the work and instances like this were part of what made me decide to become a psychotherapist.”

These findings were used as inspiration for her first book Imagine Life with a Well-Behaved Dog: A 3-Step Positive Dog-Training Program.



We have two parts of our brain: the emotional/irrational brain (limbic system) and the thinking/rational brain (cognitive brain). … Research shows that most HSPs spend more time in the limbic system (emotional brain) than non-HSPs. … When our stress levels are very high on a daily basis, we are too close to activating our limbic system so it becomes nearly impossible to bypass it.  Fortunately there are tools that can teach us how to lessen our daily stress and therefore be more successful at getting out of and bypassing the limbic system.

— excerpt from Brain Training for the Highly Sensitive Person



Another major influencer in Bjelland’s psychotherapy work

The author chose to further her education at Saybrook because of the school’s “humanistic, client-centered approach.” And there was another Saybrook talk that left a mark in her higher education degree—a discussion with a student about Elaine Aron, the author of “The Highly Sensitive Person.”

“I had come across her book before,” Bjelland says. “But there was something about the conversation that I had with some of the students who were familiar with her work that really lit a light bulb inside of me and made me think that was my calling. That’s where I started to really get into the research about the sensitivity trait.”

As the kind of reader who would read a neuroscience book for fun, it made sense that Aron would intrigue her. But in Bjelland’s case, there was also a personal connection that linked her to psychotherapy and her future clients.

“HSPs tend to be some of the most successful people at their jobs,” Bjelland says. “On the flip side of that, HSPs like myself also have some of the highest levels of stress and anxiety. The training in my book and my HSP course is a practice of being able to lift that overwhelming feeling and have more access to all those great cognitive gifts that come along with the trait. But it requires a lot of self-care. And that is something that a lot of HSPs need more of.”



The brain has what is called a “negativity bias.” Once we understand why our brain responds the way it does, we are able to find compassion for ourselves and compassion is the key that opens the door to be able to make changes. … It’s interesting to note that negative messages tend to go directly into our long-term memory, but positive ones require several more seconds of awareness to be deposited into our memory. This means that if you start to focus more on positive things longer, your brain will finally store more positives than negatives. That’s why we generally learn from pain faster than we learn from pleasure.

— excerpt from Brain Training for the Highly Sensitive Person



The 8-week course to combat anxiety, help HSPs

So far, Bjelland has taught the eight-week “Techniques to Reduce Anxiety and Overwhelming Emotions: An Eight-Week Online Course” three times. The next eight-week course will start in September 2017, with a goal of teaching the course on a seasonal basis.

“When I put a group of HSPs together, I knew it was going to be a beautiful experience ,” Bjelland says. “This course is a space to go ‘Wow. Other people are like me and have some of the same challenges and some of the same beautiful traits as well.’ It’s really a beautiful experience to share.”



If you are among the 70% of us that are introverted HSPs, you will have limited social energy, so you want to be sure you are prioritizing where that energy goes. If you have people in your life that drain your energy too much, you might want to limit your interactions with them. Teach your closest friends and family that when you are invited to things, you will need to determine how full or empty your energy tank is before you can say yes to going. Good friends will want to understand you and do things that support your well-being.

— excerpt from Brain Training for the Highly Sensitive Person



In addition to teaching the eight-week course, next up for Bjelland is to write a third book on HSPs and intimacy in relationships. Bjelland also loves working with HSPs individually all over the world.

“One of my biggest goals is to be able to help HSPs connect to their super strengths, live their best lives and thrive.”