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Highly sensitive people

Sensory Processing Sensitivity (a.k.a. Highly Sensitive People)

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.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Aurora, S. K., & Wilkinson, F. (2007). The brain is hyperexcitable in migraine. Cephalalgia, 27(12), 1442-1453.
  2. Coppola, G., Pierelli, F., & Schoenen, J. (2007). Is the cerebral cortex hyperexcitable or hyperresponsive in migraine?. Cephalalgia, 27(12), 1427-1439.
  3. Aron, E. (1997). The highly sensitive person: How to thrive when the world overwhelms you. Random House LLC.
  4. Elaine Aron's Highly Sensitive Person website: http://www.hsperson.com/

Comments

  • Sandy
    3 years ago

    Thank u for this article. Been this way all my life, just more intense and affects me in a more negative way since mI grain bacme chronic.

  • TracyM09
    5 years ago

    I am so glad that my sensitivities are the norm for people with Migraines! I live in Hawaii so I’m bombarded with bright Sunny days and bright cloudy days!! My prescription sunglasses are what I wear 90% of the time, sometimes even indoors!!

    Thanks for the insight!!
    Be Well!!

  • GrayceAnn
    5 years ago

    This describes me perfectly! Every single one!! Thank you for writing this!

  • headacheslayer
    5 years ago

    Omg YES!!! Every. Single. One. I’m so glad you write here, I always gained so much insight from your blog. In fact I’m about to observe the 10th calibrated of my chronic daily headache and complex migraine disease that began after two rides on a roller coaster in Oct of 2004. And while I got my migraine glasses elsewhere, I’m happy they help you and that you are helping others! I NEVER leave home without mine!

    Both my kids have migraine, but my son has more of the symptoms than my daughter. I think hers is more due to being more introverted than to hsp. My son, otoh, has been a 😛 since birth! I’ve got several of the books you mention.

  • Teresa M.
    5 years ago

    I am so happy to see a post about this issue. I have SPD but didn’t know what it was until I was an adult. It is different from being a highly sensitive person.

    With SPD I have issues with bright lights, loud noises, and clothing. I only wear soft cotton clothing as I find other types of fabric to be irritating. I wear seamless socks and I remove tags from all of my clothing.

    I wear sunglasses whenever I am outside and I have learned to wear earplugs when I am in large crowds. It makes being in crowds of people bearable.

    A good book about SPD is Too Loud Too Bright Too Fast Too Tight by Sharon Heller.

  • rhonda shumway-luna
    5 years ago

    Helps explain why I wear your glasses all the time. Sure helps with the eye strain.

  • thisisendless
    5 years ago

    Funny you are writing this now. I just read the book The Highly Sensitive Person about 2 weeks ago and felt like there must be a connection between HSP and migraine. Thanks for the article!

  • Rita
    5 years ago

    Technically, it would seem that those with fibromyalgia might fit into this type of discription. The medical world is now looking at this as more of a over reactive central nervous system disorder. So calling this a sensory processesing disorder is really not too far off track. Kind of like dyspraxia, ADD, ADHD, etc. It seems that the medical field may one day catch up with those of us who deal with “invisible” conditions. In the mean time keep calm and enjoy life!

  • headacheslayer
    5 years ago

    I’ve got fibro as well….and ironically my son, who has frequent headaches was diagnosed with sensory processing issues as a learning disability.

    I just had a huge aha moment….he’s been wearing sunglasses in class…and I have an extra pair of indoor migraine glasses. WHY did I not think of it before?? I’d smack my forehead but I’m running low on migraine meds lol.

  • Beth
    5 years ago

    WOW!! This describes me!! While as a child I wasn’t really shy, but now I can’t handle crowds, flashing lights, loud noises. I find that I actually enjoy having the time to myself. I was diagnosed for the first time about a month ago with migraines. I’m still learning…like the fact that somedays just a cross look can make me cry. Nice to know I’m not alone!

  • aero1
    5 years ago

    I have no argument with the significance of sensory sensitivities for those with migraines but this article and Dr. Aron totally overlook the large body of research on what is already in the literature as sensory processing disorder (http://spdfoundation.net/about-sensory-processing-disorder.html — this foundation summarizes what is known and gives references). We do not need new terms for already known conditions. We DO need more awareness and the article here is great for that!

  • headacheslayer
    5 years ago

    Yes, this, what thisisendless said. My son, now 12, was finally dx with SPD, along with other things, but it’d say he’s also a HSP like me. I didn’t struggle in school the way he does. But acronyms make me crazy too!

  • thisisendless
    5 years ago

    It would seem to me that the difference is that HSP is framed as an ability and an asset, where as SDP is framed as a disability.

    When I read the Highly Sensitive Person, she described HSP people as having an ability to be sensitive and notice things that other people don’t, and that they may help the species to have a certain percentage of a group be extra aware of potential danger, or when “something is not right.” She describes them as the “scholar adviser” to the warrior king types. So it serves a purpose.

    What I am reading on the SPD page is that this is a “disorder” and is a “traffic jam” where people are not able to interpret sensory messages correctly. “A person with SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses, which creates challenges in performing countless everyday tasks.” Essentially framing it as “here is what’s wrong with you.”

  • Rita
    5 years ago

    Thanks for the reference. I work in a hospital, I have gotten tired of acronyms…almost hostile. So I agree, why put a new spin or a new name on already known conditions/disorders?

  • marti
    5 years ago

    WOW!!! Every one of these things describes me exactly. It’s nice to know it’s a real thing – makes me feel a little less crazy.

  • Shea
    5 years ago

    Wow. I’m most of these things. I can’t say I was ever shy, but always sensitive. You’ve given me some food for thought, thanks.

  • Meggietye
    5 years ago

    Wowsers this is me all over! I just thought I was an introvert, and perhaps I am, but this is much more specific. I watch tv and turn off the commercials because of the confusion/noise/lights/flashing and found out from friends they thought it was highly unusual..but they are clearly not sensitive ;). I just cannot handle confusion in my home..even workmen here in the evening throws me off. I would just love to go to a workshop of sensitive people and gather some / any coping mechanisms to add to my life. This article was soothing to me..I am not bonkers, I am just me!lol I will google HSP and appreciate the heads up. Thank you.

  • Anna H.
    5 years ago

    Yep! I’m an HSP…hesitant to use the term SPS too much because it’s too easily confused with Sensory Processing Disorder, which is much harder to deal with. I also have a rare form of synesthesia so I always wonder if those two things are often tied together as well.

    The same things that make me want to hide somewhere dark and quiet as an HSP are the same things that can bring on a migraine: stress, conflict, large crowds, bright lights and loud noise, but I was like that before my migraines ever manifested. I think the tactics for self-preservation are about the same for both: don’t take on more than you can handle, set boundaries, and learn to love yourself enough to say “no, sorry, I can’t do x today” without beating yourself up for it.

  • Jules2dl
    5 years ago

    Your article describes me as well. Even as a kid I needed quiet in order to concentrate on homework or fall asleep (too bad for me that I married a man who needs the tv on to fall asleep!). I’ve also always needed to know that I’d have some alone time at some point to de-stress.
    Large crowds, loud noise, and bright lights all at the same time are confusing to me and make me anxious. I’ll look into this further.
    Also, I think Raven is an awesome name! Just sayin’…

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