The Stew of Pain:
The Highly Sensitive Person, Chronic Stress, C-PTSD and Central Pain Sensitization
guest post by Jade Bald
I am part of a subgroup of people who make up 15-20 percent of the world’s population I’m a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). I discovered I had the trait about a year and a half ago and it partly explained why I had fibromyalgia. It was the only logical explanation.
I was a pretty healthy kid, except for a sprained ankle when I was four, and tubes put in my ears when I was six. I got scrapes, flus and colds, just like every other kid but always bounced back. I got braces like any teenager and that didn’t seem too bad. A few slips and falls in the winter, but nothing to require casts or bed rest.
I wasn’t into parties, drugs, booze, or smoking as a teenager. As a teenager and young adult, I was verging on orthorexia (or the obsession with clean eating) and went to the gym religiously. There’s no family history of chronic pain or anything of that sort. There were no car accidents or bad infections either, thankfully.
It kind of made sense. A formerly healthy person, with no known childhood or family history of long-term illness, doesn’t fall ill in a vacuum. There are a number of factors at work and being an HSP is one of them, in this case.
The Highly Sensitive Person
This innate trait occurs in both men and women and seventy percent are introverted and thirty percent are extroverted. Even a hundred different species of animals have it. We are highly affected by our environments as children, compared to non-HS children. For this reason we are called ‘orchid’ children.
Give us a warm, nurturing, safe family and we will thrive as adults. Place us in a family with violence, abuse, neglect and trauma of any kind and there will be later problems. There will be a higher risk of depression, suicide, addiction, and chronic illness.
My Early Life Stressors
I had a very stressful early life that involved the loss of my father to a heart attack, weirdly a period of time after my mom divorced him. Then a series of relocations after my mom went back to school for criminal law (after working in geology for a decade).
It meant a new house, new neighborhood, and new school. I was bullied lots on top of this. I’m now discovering that I experienced something called Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) due to having an Emotionally Immature (EI) mother (but that’s not her fault, being an adult child of an alcoholic father). ACOAs are more at risk of becoming emotionally immature.
I suspect she has narcissistic tendencies too, as this usually goes hand in hand when a parent has EI. If you’re emotionally immature, you’re likely to be more narcissistic. Having a narcissistic parent is often the cause of chronic stress and chronic health issues.
This is because you become a people pleaser, catering to everyone’s needs, whether emotional or physical (and denying your own). You are constantly invalidated, projected onto, compared in a negative light to peers, and rarely praised. Not to mention, you repress emotions and the expression of said emotions to make the parent comfortable.
HSPs and Empaths are highly empathetic, conscientious, self-reflective, perfectionistic, warm, compassionate, flexible, and cooperative.
Narcissists and Emotionally Immature people are the opposite; they lack empathy, are rigid, blame everyone else for their problems, lack self-reflection, seek external validation, have poor emotional regulation, have trust issues, disregard emotions and relationships, and love conditionally.
You end up having this toxic dynamic of a chronic over-giver in the HS child and a chronic over-taker in the narcissistic/ EI parent. In other words, the HS child is parentified by the EI/ narcissistic parent.
The child takes on the emotional responsibility of soothing the parent’s emotions and dealing with their problems. It places great stress on the child, who not only isn’t getting their own emotional needs met but has to deal with adult stuff without the developmental capacity or tools to deal with it.
Unlike having this toxic relationship with a friend or co-worker, who you can flee from, a parental relationship is not so easily dealt with. Due to the fact that long-term abuse is subtle and insidious -done to make the target feel totally helpless and lack agency. Complex- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) can develop.
As it’s known in the medical and psychology fields, C-PTSD is a catalyst that begins a variety of mysterious symptoms, like chronic pain, fatigue, digestive issues, and a general sense of feeling off. If the toxic relationship involved not only narcissism, but parental emotional immaturity, and childhood emotional neglect because of this, it will no doubt have drained the individual mentally, emotionally, and physically.
Narcissistic/EI parents are not likely to teach or model to their children boundaries, self-care, and balance in life. All of which will help them have a healthy life as adults. Narcissistic/EI parents usually live life in a constant state of flux or live a life that’s overly busy (to distract themselves from feeling negative feelings). This is an unideal environment for highly sensitive children.
Being an HSP means we’re more ‘sensitive’ to physical feelings (stress, hunger, pain, and feeling tired). It also means we’re ‘sensitive’ to our environments and the people in them. If our caregivers were anxious, stressed out folks, we felt it and took it on. Conversely, if our caregivers were relaxed, we felt it and copied it. We’re also ‘sensitive’ in the emotional sense, where we ‘feel’ things more deeply than non-HSPs. Due to this, we’re more likely to experience ‘social’ pain, in the form of rejection.
If our sensitivities are invalidated, especially by our own parents, we are seen as ‘too much’ or we’re told one too many times not to be ‘so sensitive’, we can get the message we’re ‘broken’. Mental health issues arise if we go through life thinking we need to be ‘fixed’ to fit into this feeling-phobic western society. We must unlearn we are ‘too much’ and realize it was our caregivers who had issues with emotions, not us.
There’s also a concept called central sensitization syndrome that occurs in the brain of HSPs. This is when a change occurs-brought about by a number of factors but stress is the main one-that trips brain circuitry into a constant state of all over pain. It also affects the gut (as seen in IBS), causes sleep disturbances, and it could be what’s behind headaches, as well as fibromyalgia.
Of course, not all HSPs get fibro or some other chronic health issue. Not all fibro patients are HSPs. However, one individual, a Canadian Ph. D nurse with fibro, Barbara Keddy, theorizes that to have fibro you must be an HSP. However, DR. Elaine Aron, the pioneer psychologist who discovered the trait, does not want to give the impression that to be an HSP means you’re more likely to get a chronic health condition. As it has been said above, this only happens if an HSP has a less than ideal upbringing.
Sources to check out:
About the author:
Jade is a fibro patient from Ontario, Canada. She is a history graduate, cat mom, and freelance writer. Her website is jadebaldwriter.weebly.com.