You may have been told it’s all in your head. But what if HSPs really do feel pain more intensely?
I remember the look on my dentist’s face when I asked for yet another round of Novocain as he dug into my tooth, performing a long overdue root canal (thank you, COVID-19 lockdown!). He remarked that most people he treated never asked for the amount I needed.
He was probably right — because most people he treated, around 70 percent of the population, are not highly sensitive people (HSPs). I, on the other hand, am part of the nearly 30 percent who do feel pain more intensely. This is likely due to the fact that we sensitive people feel things more deeply and extensively than non-HSPs. (In fact, our brains are still busy processing even when we’re resting!)
But what exactly does it mean to have a poor pain tolerance? What it does not mean is that someone cannot “handle” pain. Quite the contrary: When it comes to HSPs, many of us have been trained to “deal” with our pain by grinning and bearing it.
At the risk of being called “dramatic” or labeled a “hypochondriac” — something you should never say to a highly sensitive person — some HSPs experience medical gaslighting, which happens when a medical provider downplays symptoms or ignores concerns as being emotion-driven (i.e., all in your head) or based on misinformation.
This can be quite frustrating for the HSP who just wants to be heard — and believed. To this end, doctors’ visits are often different for highly sensitive people and it may help to tell doctors you’re an HSP.
Speaking of which, before we go any further, let’s look at what it means to be a highly sensitive person.
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The Science Behind Highly Sensitive People
We’re all sensitive to a degree, but some of us are more sensitive than others. Nearly 30 percent of people are born more sensitive than average — emotionally and physically. (About 40 percent of people are average in sensitivity while 20 percent are low in sensitivity.) Researchers refer to this trait as environmental sensitivity, or Sensory Processing Sensitivity. And don’t worry — all three levels of environmental sensitivity are considered to be completely normal and healthy.
Those who fall near the high end of the sensitivity continuum are called highly sensitive people, or HSPs. Some trademark characteristics include: they will often notice subtle details that other people miss; they’re deeply in touch with their physical environment and to others’ feelings and emotions; they are more sensitive to noises, smells, textures, and other factors in the environment that other people may not be affected by; they’re deep thinkers; they value deep connections and relationships with others; and they’re highly creative and empathetic. In addition, some researchers believe high sensitivity is linked to giftedness.
If you are wondering how one “becomes” highly sensitive, they’re likely born that way, and the sensitivity trait continues to develop through the years. So even though they will remain sensitive for life, they can learn to manage their often-overwhelming thoughts and feelings, better manage the overstimulation they experience, and use their powerful, sensitive mind to their advantage by embracing it to the fullest.
And, because HSPs feel things so deeply, pain is no exception.
HSPs and Their Pain Tolerance
Instead of ignoring an HSP’s experiences with pain, there is a lot to learn from it. In fact, in early research, so many highly sensitive people revealed their increased pain response that it became one of the factors used to make up the HSP scale.
Stress impacts pain threshold, and HSPs experience everything, including stress, more intensely. The reason for this could be attributed to genetic mutations found in HSPs in three neurotransmitters directly connected to stress and pain tolerance: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Because dopamine and norepinephrine specifically enhance our ability to process, and modulate, pain, it is crucial for these neurotransmitters to be well-balanced, research shows.
In an HSP who is under stress, these neuro-chemicals become dysregulated, deteriorating the nervous system’s ability to cope with pain both in the short-term and long-term. Knowing there is a reason HSPs experience pain longer, and more intensely, is important for validating our experience. And knowing how to handle it is the next important step…
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How to Master Pain as an HSP
Much of what the research points to is that HSPs experience longer, and more intense, pain because stress related to pain more negatively affects our ability to cope. The good thing is, there are practical ways to circumvent the issue by empowering HSPs in the face of pain.
1. Prioritize stress management through breathing exercises and mindfulness.
In my therapy practice, an HSP client once told me the most tolerable part of childbirth was when they put an oxygen mask on her. It was not the medication or the epidural, but rather the focused breathing and oxygen that truly helped.
When trying to manage stress, it is sometimes more important to focus on it than managing pain. One way to do this is with Mindfulness Meditation Training, which has been found to effectively improve pain tolerance after just one session.
Furthermore, breathing in general, especially the exhalation — which triggers our parasympathetic nervous system (think rest and digest) — has an immediate impact on our perception of pain. Diaphragmatic breathing (deep belly breathing) has also been found to reduce inflammation and regulate the production of the stress hormone cortisol. And the less stress, the better (especially since we HSPs are overstimulated enough as it is!).
2. Be aware of medication tolerance, which can lead to being improperly medicated or overmedicated, and seek out alternative healthcare methods and providers.
Just as highly sensitive people have lower threshold for pain, they may also have a lower tolerance to medication, which can result in a more intense effect, according to Judith Orloff, M.D., author of The Empath’s Survival Guide.
This can result in HSPs not finding the right balance of pain management, as there is a risk of being improperly medicated, or overmedicated, which can lead to side effects that can cause further stress in the body.
Julie Bjelland, a psychotherapist specializing in high sensitivity, seconds this point, adding that HSPs tend to be more sensitive to medications than 80 percent of the population.
And medication management greatly impacts sensitive people with autoimmune diseases, and other chronic illnesses, wherein there is no clear path for treatment — but, rather, consistent trial and error with treatment methods.
One option is to seek out providers experienced with HSPs who understand your complex nervous system. Or you can find providers who use integrative, and functional, techniques.
3. Validate your pain as being real and remind yourself that you deserve effective care.
Validating your pain can be a game-changer for HSPs. Because sensitive types are more aware of the mood and emotions of others, they can also sense when someone is invalidating their personal pain. Research shows that this can create a sense of isolation that further increases it.
Research has also found that chronic pain, such as a stress state, is critical in determining depression. In other words, that feeling isolated or invalidated can increase the perception of pain.
Getting the Treatment You Deserve as an HSP in Pain
The need for validation and support is evolutionarily-driven, as we feel less stress — and a greater sense of peace — when we feel like part of a group or that we belong. What this means is that if a medical provider is gaslighting you, or invalidating you, you have the right to seek another provider. We seek pain validation from both medical providers, and other people, in our lives.
Similarly, if you are in a relationship with someone (whether it’s romantic or platonic) who does not validate your experience of pain as an HSP, you might find your pain improves when you spend less time with this person. There are people who understand where you are coming from, and who will be less judgmental and more supportive, which is exactly what you deserve.
You might like:
- Why Doctor Visits Really Are Different for Highly Sensitive People
- 10 Things You Should Never Say to a Highly Sensitive Person
- HSPs, You Might Be Suffering From Chronic Invalidation — and Not Even Know It
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