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Vibrant Days…
Flourishing with Sensory Processing Sensitivity
November 2020

Why Doctor Visits Really Are Different for Highly Sensitive People

By Lauren Valko

“Wait, let me check that again,” the nurse said with a concerned look on her face.I watched as she re-checked my abnormally high blood pressure — and I could feel my heart racing even harder than before. My mind began to spin, trying and failing to calm down as I worried about what this meant for my future.

Soon after, I would discover my high blood pressure reading was actually “white coat hypertension” — a condition where you have higher blood pressure readings at the doctor brought on by stress or anxiety. When the doctor took my pulse minutes later, she asked if I was nervous because my heart rate was over 100 beats per minute, which is also not normal.

Needless to say, I worry a lot about my health. I’ve had x-rays, ultrasounds, and other tests for various concerns that have turned out to be something benign (I understand not everyone is so lucky, and I’m grateful for my health, if no less worried about next time). I also have a chronic skin condition called hidradenitis suppurativa that, when it flares up, can mean a lot of pain and scary trips to urgent care.

Why are my doctor visits so fraught? Well, along with having pretty severe health anxiety, I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP) — and, for me, the two are closely linked. In fact, I think my high sensitivity makes me more prone to anxious thoughts about my health.

As a highly sensitive person, I’m easily receptive to pain — both physical and emotional — which can make doctor visits and health concerns really difficult. Because I am highly in tune with the sensations in my body, my mind starts spinning whenever anything feels “off,” trying to make sense of it immediately. This can cause a lot of anxiety around health situations.

It’s become harder as I’ve gotten older, too. Turning 30 this year, my body has started to have random aches or pains I didn’t experience in my teens and twenties. So, I’ve had to learn ways to work with my anxiety around going to the doctor or dealing with health concerns as an HSP.Why are doctor visits different for HSPs — and what can we do about it? Let’s take a closer look, starting with the science.

Why Doctor Visits Really Are Different for HSPs

Although I can only speak to my experience, I suspect some other HSPs may struggle with health concerns in a similar way. Even if you don’t worry about having a terminal illness or something serious, being highly sensitive can lead to more nervousness around doctors or health-related issues.

  • The reason starts with our nervous system: For highly sensitive people, it’s like the dial on our senses has been turned way up. Evidence suggests that we feel things more deeply and extensively than other people, and we are no strangers to overstimulation from how deeply we process things. This means we are more sensitive to pain and anxiety:
    If you’re an HSP and you think you’re especially sensitive to pain, you’re probably right. In early research, so many highly sensitive people shared this increased pain response that it was one of the factors used to make the HSP scale.
  • You can be an HSP without ever having an anxiety disorder. But, since HSPs are designed to go over and over issues in our heads, we may have trouble not worrying about something health-related. It’s easy for us to ruminate on a worry until it becomes much bigger, especially if we don’t have any immediate answers about what’s going on.

Obviously, pain and anxiety are two big factors in many trips to the doctor.But HSPs are also very receptive to others’ feelings and emotions, which can make a difference in dealing with healthcare professionals. I specifically remember being more at ease during visits where the nurse or doctor had a calming energy. On the other hand, a less-than-sympathetic healthcare provider may leave HSPs feeling hurt or misunderstood at an already-vulnerable time.

Thankfully, learning that I am an HSP (and prone to health anxiety) has made things easier. I used to judge myself harshly for not being able to “toughen up” or handle pain better, but now I remind myself there’s only so much I can control — and find things that help make health situations more manageable.

4 Ways to Address Health Concerns When You’re Highly Sensitive

Even though I still struggle with health anxiety as an HSP, I have found things that have really helped me work through it:

1. Learn to “reframe” anxious thinking about your health.For me, nothing was more useful than taking time to understand — and unravel — the source of my anxiety. This takes some time and effort, but it is worth it.Anxious thoughts about our health are often caused by cognitive distortions: irrational or exaggerated thoughts that our mind convinces us are true. According to Dr. David Byrne, author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, there are ten common cognitive distortions:

  • All-or-nothing thinking, or seeing things in absolute, black-and-white categories.
  • Over-generalization, which is viewing a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
  • A “mental filter” where you dwell on the negatives of a situation.
  • Discounting the positives by believing that your positive qualities or things you have accomplished “don’t count.”
  • Jumping to conclusions, which can include “mind reading” (assuming other people are reacting negatively to you, even though there is no absolute evidence of it), or “fortune-telling” (predicting that things will turn out badly without definite evidence).
  • Magnification or minimization, which is blowing something way out of proportion or shrinking its importance.
  • Emotional reasoning, or deciding something based on how you feel, such as, “I feel like I’ll be diagnosed with something bad, so it must be true.”
  • “Should” statements, like criticizing yourself (or others) with “must,” “should,” “have to,” etc.
  • Labeling, or telling yourself you’re a “loser,” “fool,” or other smears instead of simply saying, “I made a mistake.”
  • Personalization and blame, or blaming yourself for something you weren’t fully responsible for (or blaming others for something they weren’t fully responsible for).

While these sneaky thoughts can be hard to catch in the moment, it’s surprisingly easy to work through them intentionally. Here’s how:

  • Make three columns, from left to right labeled: “Negative Thoughts,” “Cognitive Distortions,” and “Positive Thoughts.”
  • In the first column, write down the anxious thought(s) you are having about seeing the doctor or your health. It could be something like, “I will find out I have something serious” or “My doctor will think I’m ridiculous.”
  • Then, write any of the cognitive distortions above that are associated with each thought. You could have one or many per thought.
  • Lastly, write down a more positive, realistic thought that could replace the anxious, irrational one. The key here is to make sure the positive thought is something you actually believe. So, for example, telling yourself you’ll be totally fine probably won’t do it. Instead, maybe try, “I’m worried, but I have no proof it’s anything serious. And going to the doctor will give me more answers.”

Doing this can help you recognize the irrationality in your thoughts and reframe them to be more realistic — helping to reduce your anxiety.2. Tell your doctor if you have anxiety about your health — or that you’re an HSP.While I know it isn’t the case for everyone, my hope is that you have a doctor you can feel comfortable voicing your concerns to. It can help to actually tell them you are sensitive to pain and overly anxious about your health (when either of those apply), or that you need more time to process things and would like to follow up with questions.

I’ve seen my doctor for a variety of concerns — some of which look very small in hindsight, but at the time, caused me a lot of stress. She has ordered imaging tests “just to be sure” while also telling me she doesn’t think I need to worry. It helped a lot to have that reassurance without having my worry be dismissed.

3. Stay away from Google.What’s the first thing most of us do when we have a health question? Open up our phone browser and do an internet search. While this might seem harmless, it can quickly lead you down a rabbit hole of panic and scary conditions that seem to contain all your symptoms.Plus, a lot of online resources will tell you to see a doctor immediately if you have those symptoms, which can cause more panic.When I am dealing with health concerns, I try to actively avoid Google as much as I can and wait to see my doctor first. Doctors are not infallible either, but I have to remember they have far more knowledge about health conditions than me.4. Pause, breathe, and think of what you’d tell a friend.When I’m worried about my health, I can become paralyzed thinking I need to take action right away — but not knowing what to do. Instead, I try to do the following:

  • Pause and recognize that it’s entirely possible that everything will be fine. Everything passes with time. Plus, seeing a healthcare professional for your concerns is a good thing, because you are being proactive about your health.
  • Take some deep breaths to help your body physically calm down. I like to use the Calm app on my phone and set it to one-minute of breathing at a time.
  • Take yourself outside the situation a little bit. Pretend you are a kind friend sitting beside you, looking at the situation from your point of view. What would they say to calm you down? How would they support you during this moment of worry or anxiety? Then, say those things to yourself.

Highly sensitive people, you are normal. It’s okay to experience health issues differently than other people — and maybe, differently from other HSPs.

Lauren Valko is an author and highly sensitive person certified as a Health Coach and Intuitive Eating Coach.

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What I’m listening to while I hike:

His voice alone is substantial! His themes are honest and endearing and wonderfully deep! I feel like I have a new friend.

Somatic intervention for the month. So simple and easy to remember.

Ponder this:

Each morning,
more and more
I listen

to the birds
as if my life
depended on it

because, more
and more,
it does.

– Liam Bowler

In this together,