“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 have begun to think of fibromyalgia as an extreme case of prolonged anxiety that began in early life, perhaps in utero, or even as an inherited gene. In addition to this epiphany of mine, the concept of a ‘highly sensitive person’ (HSP) has changed for me to mean the ‘highly anxious person’. Having just read both Smith’s (Monkey Mind)and Stossel’s (My Age of Anxiety) memoirs (and Stossels’ science and historical account of anxiety) I have become convinced that fibromyalgia is another word for heightened anxiety. Since I am not a therapist, I can only speculate about the definition/cause of fibromyalgia, but to this date my proposed theory is that anxiety, hypersensitivity and fibromyalgia are identical triplets. I have just within the past year ‘come out’ (as Stossel has) as a highly anxious person, rather than one who has the fuzzy label of fibromyalgia.
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- tough 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 thinking “hypochondriasis”. Now shift 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, little self. However, try admitting you have a great deal of anxiety and immediately anyone can relate to your situation. Aha! The person hearing this begins to tell you about medications or relaxation strategies there are for this mental problem. Of the three terms obviously the highly sensitive person label is the least derogatory.
I have explored and compared the ‘symptoms’ of fibromyalgia from the hundreds of comments on this site, my own experiences and the research I have undertaken, with the ‘symptoms’ (or to be more positive regarding the HSP- the characteristics) of both the highly sensitive person and the anxiety prone individual and they are basically the same! They include such symptomatologies as insomnia, enhanced startle reflex, sensitivities to weather changes, social anxiety, muscular pain, tingling of arms and hands, restless legs, shortness of breath, gastric distress, depression, phobias, hyper-vigilance, fatigue, fainting, panic, loud noise and bright light intolerance, overly empathetic, easily overwhelmed, cautious, reflective, low self esteem, overly concerned about health, highly intuitive, easily over stimulated, prone to catastrophic thinking, constant worriers, 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 considered shy and insecure. Not all of these three 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? Many women are and some men as well, but it is when these traits are above average that they become problematic. Sometimes though for those of us with the three 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, 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 for all three conditions, 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 which is sometimes too stressful for readers who are overly empathetic. Nonetheless, his scientific and historical analysis of anxiety is one which everyone with fibromyalgia should read. It is almost an exaggerated 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 despair 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.
Like those of us calling 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 struggles of every day living. Through a non- judgemental acceptance of our strengths, rather than our weaknesses there is hope for a better quality of life.