Do Highly Sensitive People Get Sick More?
One of the things I like most about running Solutions To All Your Problems is that I get to connect with lots of fellow introverts and highly sensitive people (HSPs). I love it when readers email me to share their stories and experiences.
But at one point I started noticing a pattern. More often than not, the HSPs who write to me mention struggles with health problems. And not just the mental health problems that are almost inevitable when you’re faced with constant overstimulation and have a hard time fitting in with the ways of the non-sensitive world we live in. But physical health problems as well. Anything from severe migraines to life-threatening illness like cancer.
Obviously, reading all these stories has made me feel sad. But it has also made me go “well, I guess I wasn’t alone.” I guess I wasn’t the only girl in her twenties or thirties who seemed perfectly healthy, but then was struck by weird chronic health problems out of the blue. Maybe there are many of us?
Which brings us to the topic of today’s article.
Is all this illness I’ve been hearing about REALLY out of the blue and random? Is it all just coincidence?
Or does being highly sensitive make you more vulnerable to illness? Do HSPs get sick more than non-HSPs?
What’s The Deal? Do Highly Sensitive People Really Get Sick More?
Here’s what we know:
Highly Sensitive People Have A More Reactive Stress Response System
HSPs have a more reactive stress response system than non-HSPs. In other words, it takes less to trigger an HSP’s body to produce stress hormones and go into a fight-or-flight reaction than it takes to trigger a non-HSP’s body. The research evidence for this is nicely summarized by Dr. W. Thomas Boyce in The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive.
Uncontrolled Stress Makes You Vulnerable To Illness
Stress is a physical phenomenon. Whenever your stress response is activated, it impacts your blood sugar levels, hormones, heart rate, blood pressure, and immune system. And when this happens too often or for too long, your body can buckle under the pressure and fall ill. To give you a sampling of illnesses potentially caused by or exacerbated by stress, this article from WebMD lists 10 stress-related health problems.
Highly Sensitive People Are More Vulnerable To Stress, And Therefore, More Vulnerable To Illness
Because HSPs’ bodies are more likely to be triggered into the stress response, they are also more likely to get sick.
Dr. Boyce, for example, found in his research that children who had higher stress reactivity (ie. highly sensitive children) and who lived in a stressful family environment had more frequent and more severe illnesses than children with lower stress reactivity who also lived in a stressful family environment.
So same level of stress in the environment, but the highly sensitive children would get sick more. It makes sense when you think about the fact that the highly sensitive children’s bodies would be more easily impacted by the stressful environment.
What Can You Do About It?
So this sucks, right?
But let me share with you two pieces of good news.
First of all, Dr. Boyce found that in a secure environment, the children with higher stress reactivity got sick less than the children with lower stress reactivity. So even though they did worse than other kids in a “bad” environment, they did better than other kids in a “good” environment. So put HSPs in the right setting and expect us to thrive. 🙂
The second piece of good news is that if stress is either partially or wholly contributing to your health problems, then there’s a whole host of things that can be done to improve the situation. Stress is a beast that CAN be tamed.
Now, I want to be clear that a) I’m not a doctor and b) human bodies are complicated machines. Sometimes we need more than stress reduction to keep those machines running, and if you have concerns about your health, you should consult a qualified professional.
But I do want you to know that HSPs are more vulnerable to stress than the average person and excess stress can have health consequences. Taking action to keep your stress levels down will certainly not hurt.
And to give you a real-world example of how reducing stress can have a positive impact on an HSP’s health, I’m going to go all TMI on you next week and share some of my own battles with you.