Highly Sensitive People and Chronic Pain

Liesel Teversham

Liesel helps HSP introverts to embrace their sensitivity as a superpower, and overcome obstacles so they can thrive. She also works with clients to solve their health issues, and has authored 2 books. More here.

Published on 2021/10/22

I’ve started noticing how often people with chronic pain and anxiety about it, could also fall into the group that we call ‘Highly Sensitive People’ or HSP’s.

What is an HSP?

30% of the population are born with a more sensitive nervous system and they’re known as Highly Sensitive People. Read the research on sensitive nervous systems .

(Side Note: an HSP is ‘not‘ someone who became more sensitive over time, due to traumatic experiences. It is a nervous system that was born with this trait, just like introversion. No amount of tapping, meditation, trauma processing or any other work will change this trait. like we cannot change the colour of our eyes.)

Our nervous systems are more sensitive to external stimuli (light, sound, temperature etc) and internal sensations (pain, tingles and so on). A 4 out of 10 headache to a non-sensitive person is quite manageable. Yet that same level of pain might feel like an 8 out of 10 to a sensitive person. It can completely take over our day and make us unable to function.

It’s a big conundrum I’ve noticed in the sensitive community.

Our nervous systems are sensitive to start with, therefore pain and discomfort affect us quicker and more often. The interesting extra part happens afterward:

Because we’re affected more easily, we become even more sensitive to pain or discomfort.

Why does that happen?

Certain parts of our brain are designed to keep us safe. When it detects something ‘unsafe’, it keeps a record of it, and tries to warn us next time to steer away from it. It uses alarm signals to warn us – like fear, panic, anxiety. Basically, the fight or flight system.

The more sensitive our nervous systems are, to begin with, the more we’ll feel pain or discomfort. And, unfortunately, the more heightened our senses will likely become. And therefore the more pain we might experience.

It’s a nice old loop we have here.

Sensitive people can become increasingly sensitive and over-reactive to sensations in the body. This is a trauma response. And that’s the part we can do something about.

Personal Experience

In my own recovery journey from falling down a flight of stairs, I learned some important things that have helped me manage panic and anxiety about pain.

I’ve lived with medical anxiety for many years, and am so familiar with the awful cycle: I feel a slight sensation in a tooth, and instantly feel the adrenaline rush, shallow breathing, panic mode…. And the next moment the pain is worse, and my mind zooms to the awful future of how much pain I’m going to be in by next week. The instant I see myself in the grave with my bereft family next to it.

#funnynotfunny – and true.

I can probably fill a book with what I’ve learned in this recovery journey. But since excellent books and podcasts already exist, I’m going to point to those and highlight a few things.

Pain Education

From the excellent book “The Way Out” by Alan Gordon (2021):

“Fear helps us identify danger, so it magnifies potential threats in order to protect us. Noises seem louder when we’re afraid. And people are more sensitive to smell when they’re on high alert. But fear doesn’t just magnify our senses. Fear also magnifies danger signals like pain.”

(Sidenote: Does that not already sound like a person with a highly sensitive nervous system? Noises are louder, smells are more vivid, light is brighter…)

A few paragraphs later:

“Being in a state of high alert can change the way we perceive signals from our body. Fear can create pain.”

It’s worth pausing here. Just the fact that we experience some kind of fear can cause pain to start, or increase. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a sudden big fear (like a pandemic or a loved one’s health that’s declined), or little niggly worries that keep festering in the background, 24/7, underneath our conscious awareness. Feeling unsafe (fear) can create pain.

The Missing Piece: EFT

This book is a brilliant resource if you’re a highly sensitive person wanting to get out of pain. It will help you gain an excellent understanding of pain, anxiety, and fear.

The Way Out provides fantastic resources (education and exercises) to help retrain the brain to be less reactive to danger signals in the body and environment. It’s helped me enormously to understand my own body’s reactions and to know what to do to calm it.

The part that I still think this book is missing, is EFT (good ol’ tapping) to help us manage the fear, anxiety, and panic, and work with (and clear) some of the root causes.

If a Highly Sensitive Person had a rough childhood, these fear > danger > pain signals are even stronger. EFT tapping is an excellent tool to use to help minimise or even eliminate an over-active fear response.

Are you an HSP with pain, and anxiety about it? How do you manage it? Does it work for you?


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