My colleague Mary wrote to me about recent bout with the ‘flu, complete with strained intercostal muscles from coughing and a doctor’s check for pleurisy and pneumonia. Here’s what she asked:
“Have you found that we HSPers are hypersensitive to our physical sensations so we complain about symptoms that other people don’t even notice? Sometimes it almost seems like being hypochondriacal, but at the same time I think maybe I tolerate more discomfort because of it and don’t seek medical help as soon as maybe I should. It’s a paradox. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.”
Thank you for asking this very important question. There are three parts to it, each deserving a thoughtful answer.
1. “Are we HSPs hypersensitive to our physical sensations so that we complain about symptoms that other people don’t even notice?”
Yes, we are more aware than non-HSPs of subtle feelings, sensations, and symptoms in the body.
But does that make us hypersensitive? No. Hypersensitive is not a description: it is a judgment. If someone calls me “hypersensitive,” she doesn’t mean “more sensitive than the average bear.” She means “too sensitive,” as in, “What is wrong with you?! You are TOO SENSITIVE.”
Feeling “more than the average bear” is not innately problematic. But it becomes a problem when we internalize other’s judgmental responses to our level of sensitivity.
This typically happen early in life. My family used to address me as “The Princess and the Pea.” I learned to perceive my body sensations through a layer of judgment. Over the years this mental habit became so ingrained, I didn’t even realize I was doing it.
Paradoxically, my internalized judgments made me dwell on my sensory sensitivity even more, because I monitored myself to pre-empt criticism from others. Anxious monitoring of one’s body almost sounds like hypochondria, doesn’t it. So, let’s turn to the second part of your question:
2. “Are HSPs hypochondriacs?”
Hypochondria is defined as “abnormal anxiety about one’s health, especially with an unwarranted fear that one has a serious disease.” (Merriam-Webster) And, like the term “hypersensitive,” the label “hypochondriac” is used mainly to judge. It conjures an image of pathetic weakness, fearfulness, unreasonableness, and irrationality.
This attitude is neither compassionate nor helpful. Sensing subtle feelings, sensations and symptoms in the body does not make one a hypochondriac. But a key truth is buried in these judgments:
HSP “hypochondria” happens when we turn our characteristic sensory sensitivity inward and let it run riot without adult supervision and discernment.
To put it another way, we HSPs experience an unpleasant and unnecessary level of anxiety when we observe and judge our aches and pains through the eyes of a scared younger part of ourselves.
What’s worse, when we merge with our old fears like this, we leave our inner kids “home alone” and we lose access to the spiritual connection from which our inner knowing flows. Then we become even more anxious, because an HSP cut off from his or her spiritual knowing is like a pilot flying blind.
When we “fly blind,” the only guidance we are left with is our learned ideas about what is “normal” or abnormal.” But as we’ve seen, learned ideas can be an iffy resource for HSPs. If we grew up with comments like, “Stop whining, don’t be a crybaby!”…”What?! That couldn’t possibly have hurt!”… “You can’t be cold! It’s hot in here!” then we learned not to trust our own sense of our body. We may find ourselves asking, as Mary did,
3. “Should I tolerate this discomfort? Or seek medical help? How do I tell?”
When we are merged with something in us that fears our sensations, feelings, and symptoms, we experience confusion, indecision, and anxiety. We struggle to evaluate whether action is needed in the face of our symptoms: are we ignoring the body’s cry for help? Or are we “crying wolf”?
The way out of this suffering is to cultivate Loving Adult Presence. From Presence you can develop curiosity and compassion for your inner experiences. Instead of being merged with them, you have a relationship with them. This is what you did, Mary. You wrote later in the same email,
“What helped me the most was a Focusing session in which I felt that all the fear and suffering was in my physical head and when I felt into my body itself, it was OK. Sounds so obvious and simple, but it was profound. Everything changed after that 20-minute session! It still took a while to get completely well, but the fear about the future was gone.”
You sat in Presence with something in your head that was scared and suffering. And when you did that, you could feel that the body itself was OK. How wonderful to discover that your body knew the truth!
Even better, we can all learn to recognize the distinctive quality of this intuitive knowing. Mary described it precisely: obvious and simple, but profound. This embodied knowing is deep. It melds past experience and future implications into present-moment embodied awareness. You instinctively know you can trust it.
To access this intuitive knowing, you need to separate your physical feelings and sensations from your inner reactions to them—the judgment, the fear, the stories. This skill takes practice. But working at it is the best possible investment you can make in your HSP well-being. Instead of being a constant source of anxiety, your body becomes a trusted source of guidance.