Sensory Processing Sensitivity (a.k.a. Highly Sensitive People)
Last updated: March 2021
Migraineurs are more sensitive to sensory stimuli than non-migraineurs, certainly during a migraine, but also between migraine attacks. It is also said that the migraine brain is hyper-reactive (or hypersensitive) to stimuli.1,2 While the word “sensitive” often conjures up thoughts of the “hysterical woman” migraine stereotype, many migraineurs identify as being emotionally sensitive as well. Combined, these attributes point to something called sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS), which is often referred to as being a highly sensitive person (HSP).
SPS is an innate trait that is found in 15% to 20% of the human population (it has also been identified in more than 100 species). The brains of people who have SPS process more information and reflect on it more deeply than those without SPS, according to Elain Aron, PhD, a leading researcher on the topic. Basically, people with SPS notice more around them than other people do and are easily over-stimulated.
People with SPS tend to:
- Be easily rattled when rushed or have a tight deadline
- Avoid violence on movies and TV
- Need to withdraw to a quiet, private space on busy days to regroup
- Arrange their lives to avoid overwhelming or upsetting situations
- Be deeply moved by art or music
- Have a “rich and complex inner life”
- Were called sensitive or shy as a child
- Find other people’s moods to be contagious
- Have high levels of empathy for others
- Be emotionally reactive
- Cry easily
Although research hasn’t connected SPS to migraine, Dr. Aron believes that, based on the symptoms of migraine, migraineurs are highly likely to also have sensory-processing sensitivity.3,4 Learning about SPS and HSPs was an “aha!” moment for me; several of my friends with chronic migraine also identify with this research. Perhaps this is coincidence, but maybe not.
Here are some helpful books to learn more about the attributes of highly sensitive people and get tips on coping when the world seems overwhelming. Even if you don’t consider yourself highly sensitive, but are easily overwhelmed during a migraine, you might find some useful strategies in these books.
- The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms you, by Elaine Aron
- The Highly Sensitive Person's Survival Guide: Essential Skills for Living Well in an Overstimulating World, by Ted Zeff
- For Highly Sensitive Persons: How to Manage Your Sensitivity, Bolster Your Coping Skills and Stay Sane in a Provocative and Noisy World, by Raven Heidrich
You can also find tons of information online by searching for “highly sensitive people,” “Elain Aron” or “Ted Zeff.” There are even retreats and support groups for HSPs.
Do you have a migraine toolbox for when an attack hits?
Join the conversation