by Nandini Maharaj
Medically Reviewed by:
Jenneh Rishe, RN
by Nandini Maharaj
Medically Reviewed by:
Jenneh Rishe, RN
Being a highly sensitive person shapes how I navigate life with chronic migraine. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.
At some point during your childhood, you might have heard the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” As the fable goes, Goldilocks comes upon three bowls of porridge belonging to the bears and remarks that the first one is “too hot,” the second is “too cold,” and the third is “just right.”
If you relate to the term, highly sensitive person (HSP), finding an environment that feels just right can seem impossible at times. Things that other people barely notice like bright lights, loud sounds, or strong odors might be overstimulating for an HSP.
But HSPs aren’t the only ones whose nervous system is easily triggered by sensory stimuli. Many people with chronic migraine know all too well how abrupt changes in the weather, too much screen time, or increased stress can make them more vulnerable to a migraine attack.
HSPs tend to be more affected by other people’s emotions and may need extra time to recover when they feel overwhelmed. Because they don’t always trust their gut, HSPs tend to seek reassurance from others when making decisions.
For an HSP, small disruptions to their routine can send them into a tailspin. The result might be avoiding situations they find unsettling and missing out on enjoyable experiences or relationships.
Taking the high sensitivity self-test can tell you if you have this trait which is found in approximately 30% of the population. The test was developed by psychologist, Elaine Aron, who began researching high sensitivity in 1991.
Being an HSP and living with migraine makes it challenging when I have to navigate situations that I have little control over. Momentary stressors like a car alarm going off when I’m trying to work can lead to hours of pain and discomfort.
When I’m hungry or low on sleep, the slightest setback can send me into a downward spiral of anger and self-doubt.
The good news is that, like Goldilocks, through trial and error you can learn how to make life with migraine more manageable, even if you are an HSP. Like any personality trait, being an HSP has positive and negative aspects.
Here are three examples of how high sensitivity impacts my day-to-day life and the things that help me cope.
If you’re like me, you might have grown up with teachers, caregivers, or peers telling you things like: “You’re very shy,” “you’re too sensitive,” or “you get flustered easily.”
As an adult, it might be your boss or partner who is telling you to “grow a thicker skin.” Even if they’re joking, words like this can hurt.
Since high sensitivity doesn’t come with an off switch, it might feel like you’re constantly on guard. This is because your nervous system tends to be more reactive to your environment.
I’ve learned that my apparent shyness or sensitivity has to do with the way my brain is wired. Being shy simply means that I’m more cautious about entering unfamiliar situations or meeting new people.
Small talk is not one of my talents. But, when I do meet someone I connect with, I enjoy having meaningful conversations with them.
The deepened relationships I am able to foster benefit my mental and physical health. I have loved ones I am able to turn to when I need support.
Like many other HSPs, I get anxious when there’s too much on my to-do list. Time pressure is a struggle for me, especially when I feel rushed to make a decision or finish a task.
What I’ve realized is that it’s not so much having a deadline looming over me but a fear of letting someone down or producing work that isn’t good enough.
As the email notifications come flooding in, all I want to do is shut my laptop and escape. I’ve had to work hard to give the perfectionist side of me grace when navigating chronic migraine.
Since I’m more likely to experience migraine when I’m overwhelmed, my high sensitivity, although unpleasant in the moment, sometimes helps me avoid getting to the point where my stress risks triggering an attack.
For example, if I have to give a presentation, I spend a lot of time preparing in advance. This way I am able to mediate the stress in the moment because I can approach the presentation feeling composed and ready.
I’ve also learned to ask for help instead of ruminating about a problem I can’t fix on my own. Advocating for myself and asking for flexibility when it comes to work projects is another strategy I use to keep my migraine symptoms at bay.
HSPs often take on the emotions of those around them. While empathy can be a strength, it can also backfire if you struggle with people-pleasing tendencies.
In my case, when I notice that someone is upset, I feel like I need to help.
For example, I might prioritize their feelings above my own, seek their approval on small decisions, apologize profusely, or express agreement to avoid conflict. My motto starts to sound like: “go along to get along.”
Low self-esteem is often at the root of people-pleasing. When you don’t trust your instincts, you’re more likely to rely on others for reassurance and validation.
I’ve learned that empathy doesn’t mean that I need to acquiesce to someone else’s needs at the expense of my own well-being. Since empathy has a limit and can be emotionally draining, it’s important to set boundaries and stick to them.
It also helps to remind myself that I can be caring without accepting responsibility for someone else’s happiness. I’m in charge of my feelings, not theirs.
With high sensitivity and chronic migraine, it can feel like you’re alone in a world where sounds are too loud, scents are too strong, conversations are too draining, and rarely does anything feel “just right.”
Being cautious and empathic may feed into a habit of overthinking situations.
Your nervous system’s reactivity to external stimuli like bright lights can leave you more vulnerable to becoming stressed which can trigger a migraine. Symptoms of being an HSP can compound with migraine sensory symptoms which may make an attack even more difficult to navigate.
On the flip side, your sensitivity often means that you appreciate things other people take for granted like the colors in a painting, the joy of solitude, and the calmness you feel while petting a dog.
High sensitivity comes with certain challenges but, despite what you might have heard from people, your sensitivity isn’t a burden you need to overcome.
For me, high sensitivity brings a lot of self-awareness including knowing when I need downtime and where to direct my limited store of energy and empathy.
High sensitivity has helped me learn how to listen to my body’s needs which helps me navigate life with chronic migraine.
Medically reviewed on January 19, 2023
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About the author
Nandini Maharaj, PhD is a freelance writer covering health, work, identity, and relationships. She holds a master’s degree in counseling and a PhD in public health. She’s committed to providing thoughtful analysis and engaging wellness content. Her work has appeared in HuffPost, American Kennel Club, Animal Wellness, Introvert, Dear, and POPSUGAR. She is a dog mom to Dally, Rusty, and Frankie. Find her on Twitter or her website.