Redefining Fibromyalgia: Links to Anxiety and the Highly Sensitive Person

“My anxiety remains an unhealed wound that, at times, holds me back and fills me with shame-but it may also be, at the same time, a source of strength and a bestower of certain blessings”, Scott Stossel

I believe fibromyalgia is an extreme case of prolonged anxiety that began in early life, perhaps in utero, or is even genetic. Furthermore, the concept of a ‘highly sensitive person’ , Elaine Aron’s works of several decades, has changed for me to also mean the highly anxious person, that is, the two are interchangeable. Having just read both Smith’s Monkey Mind and Stossel’s  My Age of Anxiety memoirs  with his science and historical account of anxiety, I have become convinced that fibromyalgia is another word for heightened anxiety in a highly sensitive person.

What are the perceived social implications of these three terms? Telling someone about fibromyalgia is like speaking a foreign language. Most people are unclear about this dis-ease and their eyes cloud over when you tell them about it. It is difficult enough for the teller to describe, let alone the listener to understand. Inevitably they will ask if it is something like arthritis of the muscles, or even worse, they might be labeling us as hypochondriacs. Now shifting for a moment and imagine telling someone you are a highly sensitive person! There is usually a little eyebrow lifting as the listener thinks one is being rather coy, attempting to shed a positive light on one’s delicate, self. But there is a difference if admitting you have a great deal of anxiety. Inevitably the person hearing this begins to tell you about medications or other strategies there are for this ‘psychological’ problem. Of the three terms obviously anxiety is the one which is more understandable.

I have  explored and compared the ‘symptoms’ of fibromyalgia from the hundreds of blog comments on this site, my own experiences and the research I have undertaken over the years. The ‘symptoms’ (or to be more positive regarding the highly sensitive person- the characteristics) of both the HSP and  the  anxiety  prone individual are basically the same! They include such symptoms as sleep disturbances, enhanced startle reflex, sensitivities to weather changes, bright light intolerance and social anxiety. Physically there are often muscular pain, tingling of arms and hands, restless legs, shortness of breath, and gastric distress. Depression, phobias, hyper-vigilance, fatigue, fainting, panic, loud noise and , overly empathetic are common. Anxious and highly sensitive persons are often  easily overwhelmed, cautious, reflective, sometimes have low self esteem, and overly concerned about health. Often they are highly intuitive, easily over stimulated,  prone to catastrophic thinking, constant worriers, and apprehensive. These are among many of both physical and psychological states and challenges of the highly anxious, highly sensitive, hyper-aroused fibromyalgia person. Additionally most of these personality traits began in childhood when the young person was usually considered shy and insecure.

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Not all of these personality types have every one of the same symptoms or traits, but the similarities are quite astounding. Not all are negative either- who doesn’t want to be intuitive,  and empathetic? However, it is when these traits are excessive that they become problematic. Sometimes  though for those of us with the these characteristics, our weaknesses are our strengths. Elaine Aron, for example, describes the traits of the highly sensitive person as a gift, while Scott Stossel suggests that anxiety can be seen as strength,  resulting in a hard working and diligent person. So far few have written about the gifts or the strength of those of us suffering from fibromyalgia. Is it because this dis-ease is the end result of life long anxiety and hypersensitivity is not actually a clear cut condition in and of itself? It would seem that the amygdala,  the two nerve centers on either side of the thalamus in the brain that assesses danger, is in over drive, that is, it responds much more quickly to unexpected stimuli than that of most people.

I have recently read Stossel’s book from cover to cover and I experienced a visceral response to his intense pain. Nonetheless, his scientific and historical analysis of anxiety is one which everyone with fibromyalgia should read. It is almost an extreme form of fibromyalgia which he is experiencing. His inability to differentiate about whether or not anxiety is a nurture or nature phenomenon is one I have grappled with for decades regarding the highly sensitive person and fibromyalgia. My main concern about the book is that he only briefly touches on the issue of neuroplasticity which is, in my view, the main hope for us- whichever label we have attached to our challenges.  The ability of the brain to change is one of the exciting findings of the last several decades. The hope of cognitive behavioral therapy through Mindfulness Meditation and self compassion, while learning to live in the moment, without judgement is, in my view, the way out of the struggles we often face  and could have been a better ending to his work. This was the limitation to his book, otherwise I highly recommend it for those of us afflicted with anxiety/ fibromyalgia.

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As we call ourselves highly sensitive, we can see benefits of our personal characteristics- intuitive, empathetic, hardworking, often creative and the ability to thrive in spite of the challenges of every day living. Through a non- judgmental acceptance of our strengths, rather than our weaknesses there is hope for a better quality of life.

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