An overloaded nervous system can cause many symptoms that practitioners might misinterpret and misdiagnose — so it’s important to be open about being an HSP.
“I think it might be in your head,” my new gastroenterologist said to me as he pressed on my stomach. I winced in pain. “Are you sure you aren’t just stressed out?” he asked.
Tears started welling up in my eyes. He was the second gastroenterologist who’d told me this. “No, I know there’s something wrong with me. I’m sick every day,” I said quietly.
Unable to find the issue, he sent me home that day without a diagnosis. I remember calling my mom that night in tears. “No one knows what’s wrong with me,” I cried. “I’m starting to think I’ll never feel normal again.”
This exchange with the gastroenterologist took place before I learned I was a highly sensitive person (HSP). It was before I discovered, months later, that my mysterious stomach issues were very real and caused by SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). It was before I understood the impact a sensitive nervous system can have on a person’s health.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet learned how to advocate for my needs. In fact, I didn’t really know what my needs were, so I’d gone to many doctors who didn’t quite know how to help me either.
Julie Bjelland, a psychotherapist and sensitivity expert, is passionate about empowering highly sensitive people. She believes one of the most important ways we HSPs can do that is by learning to advocate for our needs. Bjelland told me that she’s seen too many HSPs go through situations similar to mine, or worse, as a result of their medical team not understanding their sensitivity.
Believe it or not, many medical professionals are unfamiliar with the trait of high sensitivity — so, as a result, doctors’ visits are different for highly sensitive people.That’s why Bjelland created a form letter for HSPs to share with their medical practitioners as a way to explain the trait to them.
Otherwise, this disconnect can result in HSPs being misunderstood, misdiagnosed, or even improperly medicated. That’s why, when we HSPs take our needs into our own hands, we not only feel more empowered, but we also receive the treatment that’s best for us. And telling our medical practitioners — doctors, therapists, you name it — that we’re HSPs is the first step.
What Exactly Is High Sensitivity and How Does It Make Medical Care Different?
High Sensitivity is also scientifically known as sensory processing sensitivity. People with the trait of high sensitivity have highly sensitive nervous systems and are deeply affected by subtleties in their environment. Due to their highly sensitive nervous systems, they have a tendency to get overstimulated by things like bright lights, itchy clothing tags, or loud noises, to name a few.
Most highly sensitive people will probably tell you they’ve always felt different than their less sensitive counterparts. HSPs tend to shy away from small talk, preferring deep, meaningful conversations. They also find themselves needing more sleep, alone time, and space between social engagements.
In our daily lives, most of us HSPs understand what we need. We know we enjoy more downtime, space, and quiet than most people. But, what about when it comes to our medical care? Speaking from my own experience, at least, I didn’t understand that being an HSP affected the type of medical care I needed, too.
Bjelland explains how the HSP brain is different and why this affects us. “We even have brain differences that impact us in different ways,” she says. “For example, there is more activation in the amygdala that can activate the fight/flight part of the brain, causing anxiety and even panic attacks for some. There is more depth of processing and more data input into the entire system.”
She says this is also a sensory processing sensitivity; in other words, that an overloaded nervous system can cause many symptoms that practitioners might misinterpret and misdiagnose. “If a practitioner understands this and can teach their patients/clients ways of reducing this overload naturally, they will have better outcomes,” she says.
Can you imagine how this would change medical appointments for us HSPs for the better?
A natural method Bjelland uses with HSP clients to help get rid of their anxiety is brain training. She teaches them how to activate calming centers that deactivate their stress centers and has seen improvement within just 1-2 weeks. “Many clients have come to me suffering years of issues,” she says. “Within weeks, they feel better using these methods and understanding why they are the way they are.”
Highly Sensitive People Are Often Misunderstood by Their Medical Practitioners
If you’re a highly sensitive person, you know that we tend to be more sensitive to pain (both emotional and physical) than non-HSPs. This comes with the territory of being highly sensitive, right? We seem to feel everything more deeply than others — which is both a blessing and a curse. Because of this, we may feel misunderstood, or even judged, when we react strongly to pain that may be “not that bad” for someone else.
In the same way that many HSPs try to mask their sensitive nature to fit in at social situations, we may try to hide our sensitivity when it comes to our health, as well.
In her book, The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Elaine Aron explains that because we HSPs are extraordinarily aware of subtle physical changes, this may sound off “false alarms” when it comes to our health. Many of us can relate to going to the doctor when we’ve noticed something off in our bodies, only to hear that it’s “all in our head.”
Being dismissed in this way can cause HSPs to feel self-conscious or embarrassed about seeing a doctor in the future. To avoid seeming like we’re “overreacting,” we may begin to wait until our symptoms become dangerous before finally getting medical attention.
I remember feeling wildly misunderstood and alone in my journey with digestive issues. I knew I had these symptoms, yet there wasn’t a doctor who could diagnose me. In understanding my sensitivity today, I can now see that I was acutely aware of the shifts taking place in my body.
Bjelland says I may have felt those shifts in my body because HSPs have more activation in the insula part of the brain, the area that gives them an incredible amount of early somatic information. “HSPs often have the gift of being aware of symptoms before they even show up on tests, and that means they can catch problems early and have better outcomes medically,” she says. “They need practitioners who believe them and know about this higher level of awareness.”
Being a highly sensitive person is a delicate dance of getting to know ourselves, trusting ourselves, and then having the wherewithal to advocate for ourselves. Things are simply a little bit different for us. And since we HSPs make up only about 20 percent of the population, the majority of people around us won’t understand our sensitivity trait, so it’s important that we tell them about it. Especially the people whose medical care we are in.
Depending on the situation, of course, natural remedies are often a great place to start for highly sensitive people seeking medical treatment. Because, as you may have guessed, HSPs tend to be more sensitive to medication, too. This means that if a doctor doesn’t understand our sensitive system, there’s a possible risk of being overmedicated.
Bjelland experienced the danger of this in her own life. She told me, “Many sensitive adults and children have been given inaccurate diagnoses and improperly and dangerously medicated,” she says. “When I was younger, before I knew about the trait, I’d been improperly medicated and suffered serious side effects that almost cost me my life.”
From a therapeutic standpoint, Bjelland has found that even the most simple, natural remedies work really well for HSPs. She says, “Simply spending more time in nature and daily quiet alone time with sensory breaks is the greatest medicine for most HSPs and natural, with no side effects! I have had countless therapists tell me they finally understand how to help their clients after they learn about the trait.”
From a personal standpoint, I can attest to the power of natural remedies for HSPs. In my journey with digestive issues, I finally found healing when I began working with a holistic practitioner who understood my sensitive needs. With his guidance, I learned the proper diet, supplements, and stress-reduction tactics to support my system in order to heal. Some of my favorite stress-reduction tactics are guided meditations, gentle yoga, and simply spending time in nature.
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How to Explain High Sensitivity to Your Medical Team
For HSPs, the thought of explaining our sensitivity trait to a well-trained medical professional might feel daunting. Who am I to tell them? we might be thinking. Remember, though, being an empowered HSP means advocating for our needs! We can also make this explanation much easier by utilizing the form letter created by Bjelland.
In addition to sharing the form letter with our medical team, Bjelland has some tips on how to best approach this conversation. “I believe that going about it as if you are educating them about something important is helpful,” she says. And the language you use is also important.
She recommends saying something like:
“Have you heard about the trait of high sensitivity that 20 percent of the population has? It’s also called Sensory Process Sensitivity. You have probably noticed about 1 out of 4 or 5 patients seem more sensitive in different areas. I wanted to give you this letter so you could understand me better, because I believe it’s essential for you to know about the trait to provide me with the best care.”
If you’re explaining your trait to your therapist — or another type of medical professional — you can share a similar sentiment. It also may be helpful to note that, according to Bjelland, at least half of the people in therapy are likely to have the trait of high sensitivity. With this in mind, your sharing about this trait may help their other clients, too!
As highly sensitive people, we have an opportunity for so much personal growth when we’re informed about the way our unique systems work. Speaking from personal experience, my years with digestive issues were some of the hardest of my life, but they also gifted me the most growth. They taught me how to listen to my body, trust myself, and advocate for my needs. I’m happy to share that, today, digestive issues are no longer a part of my life.
When we learn how to advocate for ourselves, we step into an empowered space. Learning how to speak up for ourselves not only improves our lives, but it inspires the other highly sensitive people around us to do the same.
Click here to download Julie Bjelland’s letter to medical practitioners that explains high sensitivity.
Want to learn how to reduce stress and thrive as a highly sensitive person? We recommend Julie Bjelland’s online courses for HSPs. Click here to learn more.
You might like:
- Why Doctor Visits Really Are Different for Highly Sensitive People
- 9 Ways I Manage My Chronic Illness as a Highly Sensitive Person
- Why Verbal Communication Can Be Difficult for Quiet HSPs — and How to Change That
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