Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sense and Sensitivities

As a child I was frequently told that I was 'too sensitive' or 'too shy'.  My young mind interpreted this well-intended advice as something bad - that I was defective. But even I could see that I was different from other kids. Loud noisy environments upset me, I startled easily and cried often. I noticed little details that escaped other children. The tags in the backs of clothes itched me, I wouldn't eat foods if I didn't like its texture. The normal childhood fascination with all things dirty and messy held no appeal. I was anal about neatness by the age of eight.

Today,  I look back and see a sensitive child floundering in a not-so-sensitive world. The phrase highly sensitive would not be coined until 1996 by Elaine Aron, Ph.D,  (a research psychologist, author and a 'highly sensitive' or HSP person herself) wrote a book entitled 'The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.  It became a national bestseller and she went on to write a series of  'highly sensitive' books  including the 'Highly Sensitive Child' and the 'Highly Sensitive Person in Love' among others.  Studies have shown HSP is an inherited trait, likely present from birth. This trait occurs in approximately 15-20% of the population and that includes the human and animal world and is observed in all higher life forms.

Canadian pain specialist, Dr. Andre Lalonde,  suggested at a recent review talk on fibromyalgia that the condition would be better named Abnormal Sensitivity Syndrome.  He suggested that people can have abnormal sensitivity from birth.  Even in the hospital nursery these individuals can act different than the other babies.  They may startle more easily and be harder to settle. They go through life reacting to noises, smells, temperature changes, etc. that would not bother most people.  Sounds a lot like HSPs.  When exposed to a trigger or set of triggers, later in life this may bring on the development of fibromyalgia. The main triggers are:  sleep disturbances, emotional distress and physical deconditioning.  Interestingly,  physical trauma does not seem to be a trigger.  These triggers can easily cause a vicious cycle to develop that can go on to lead to the development of fibromyalgia.  HSPs with their highly sensitive nervous systems would seem to be at a higher risk of developing fibromyalgia.

Animals:   A highly-sensitive nervous system means that one is keenly aware of subtleties and nuance in their surroundings.  In the animal world it can be a great advantage in many situations, making the difference between life and death. One theory suggests this trait survives in higher life forms because it is useful to have a least a few animals around that are watching their environment for subtle changes.  An example would be a  gazelle that senses danger in the form of a hungry lioness nearby while the herd drinks from a pond, unaware. The highly-attuned gazelle can alert the pack to danger, providing those few, vital seconds to escape. But, animal herds also need the explorers, the fighters to claim new territory and hunt for food. So, the human and animal world need members with both types of traits (sensitive and non-sensitive) for survival.

Closer to home, people with abnormal sensitivity syndrome ( or ASS, for short) can experience up to 600 micro awakenings in one night. Possessing such a highly-attuned nervous system can have both advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, it can alert one to danger such as smelling smoke in the house before the smoke detector goes off.  Or hearing an intruder in your home before anyone else does. The obvious downside to having this highly-attuned nervous system is that you are unlikely to experience a deep, restful sleep and will wake up feeling tired and unrefreshed.

Misunderstood:   What seems ordinary to others - loud music, sirens, crowds - can lead to an unpleasant 'over-arousal' for HSP's.  Most people can ignore glaring lights, noise, clutter and chaos, but HSP'S are truly disturbed by them. "This difference in the levels of 'over-arousability' in HSP's seems to lie somewhere on the way to the brain or in the brain, that results in a more careful processing of information. We (HSP's) reflect more on everything. And we sort things into finer distinctions.  Like those machines that grade fruit by size - we sort into ten sizes while others sort into two or three." *

It's interesting to note that while HSP's make up 15-20% of the population world-wide, this trait is not treated the same in all cultures. In Western culture, shy and sensitive children are the least popular among their peers while in Sweden and Japan, this trait is valued, sought after and rewarded.

Sensitivities in Humans:  People with fibromyalgia and interestingly, people labelled as HSP's experience more pain in their lives and are more sensitive to pain-relieving medications. In general, people with fibro have a lower pain threshold and a greater sensitivity to pain stimuli. They also feel pain significantly longer after a painful event than people who don't have fibromyalgia. Unfortunately, they feel the pain faster, longer and worse.

Some people with fibromyalgia are overly-sensitive to many chemicals in their environment.  Most people living in industrialized countries are constantly bombarded with chemicals, but their bodies seem to cope with them.  Others go into a kind of 'system-overload.'  Their bodies react so strongly it's possible that the overload of chemicals in their environment may lead to chronic pain, sleep difficulties, joint stiffness and other problems.  Possible triggers include cigarette smoke, perfumes and industrial cleaners, cosmetics and many more.

Many people with fibromyalgia feel they are 'weather and temperature-sensitive.' They say they can feel or sense changes in weather coming on because the pain intensifies in their bodies. More often than not, their bodies are correct in predicting the weather.

Good food/Bad food:  Common foods that trigger flare-ups are: chocolate, MSG (a food additive), aspartame, caffeine, coffee, high-sugar foods and citrus fruits. Why does it have to be all the good stuff? I'd have no problem with pointing the finger at brussel sprouts as the culprit.

Finally, there is some good news. Further studies have shown that while people with fibro feel pain more acutely, the opposite may hold true as well. Those feel-good, oh-so-nice sensations can be experienced with more intensity.  So let the good times roll!

* from "The Highly Sensitive Person''  by Elaine N. Aron, Ph. D  page 7.


  1. Very much enjoyed this post...and can relate oh so much!Good post!!Jodi

  2. Glad you enjoyed it, Jodi and thanks for reading.

  3. An excellent study of Dr. Lalonde, I think that it is important for science and for patients this type of result. Fibromyalgia is according to online reports, a disease to millions of patients in United States treated with prescription medications - vicodin, lortab, or hydrocodone - because doctors recommend without considering the consequences of the effects.

  4. Been catching up on your well written blogs, Cathy. This one totally describes me and how I too evolved into having FFMS/CFS, chronic pain, etc...
    (we could be twins separated @ birth:-))
    I also call myself an HSP, and have followed Elaine Aron...
    Thanks for your wonderful blog !!!!!

  5. Hi Cathy. I have enjoyed reading your blog. I was diagnosed with fibro about a year ago at the age of 37. A loooooooooooooooooong overdue diagnosis. I have been bounced from doctor to doctor since the age of 18. I am also diagnosed with degenerative disc disease and osteoarthritis. I have a positive ANA. My dermatologist ordered the test when he looked at the rash on my face, which looks very much like the butterfly rash that people with Lupus get. I have thought of starting my own blog...I am so much better at writing than talking...and this is definitely true when it comes to living with fibromyalgia. Thanks for sharing your experiences and day to day's comforting :)

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