Fibromyalgia and Highly Sensitive Persons: “Orchid Children”

“The flourishing orchid spreads out its fragrance”, Confucius

In the January 1, 2011 edition of The Globe and Mail A4 an article has resonated with me that is tied in to the issues I wrote about in my book. Based upon the work of Elaine Aron and The Highly Sensitive Person I developed a theory about the cause of fibromyalgia. In my view this condition resonates with those of us with an easily aroused nervous system and we are those  ‘highly sensitive persons’. Nothing I have read to date nor speculated about has changed my opinion, in fact the opposite has occurred. I am now more convinced from learning more and more regarding the revolutionary new brain research and my own observations from decades of living with fibromyalgia.

The article written by Anne McIlroy is entitled How to raise an ‘orchid child’ to blossom. I love the new term ‘orchid child’ as it is indicative of the sensitive child who is like a hot house plant. This term was described to me by one of the women I interviewed in the book as she described her younger years, and how her mother had used that language to describe her. Aron “now calls the trait sensory-processing sensitivity “, writes McIlroy. I have read this article with great interest and remembering my own childhood I am listing here certain criteria for the orchid child, all of which describe me as a child. I invite others to see the extent to which they too also describe themselves in this way. Did you/do you: “Notice the slightest unusual odour? Prefer quiet play? Complain about scratching clothing, tags in clothes or seams in socks? Startle easily? Perform best when strangers aren’t around? Feel things deeply? Notice when others are in distress? Have trouble falling asleep after an exciting day? “. Are you: Sensitive to pain? A perfectionist? Bothered by noisy places? Without doubt these are the ways in which most people with fibromyalgia would describe themselves. Were those of us with fibromyalgia orchid children? Often used as a symbol for spring and associated with the beauty of women, an orchid is a lovely image to embrace. It has been written that an orchid is a “flower of noble character”. This image is of a fragile plant that needs just the exact amount of light and nourishment in order to blossom, but not wilt.

While much of the research on orchid children seems to be focused around the genetic code, and also on the role of poverty and other environmental vulnerabilities, nothing has been written about these personality characteristics and fibromyalgia. I have a hunch that will soon change as the prevalence of fibromyalgia accelerates in these difficult social and economic times and there are more demands for answers to this perplexing condition.


24 thoughts on “Fibromyalgia and Highly Sensitive Persons: “Orchid Children”

  1. Krista


    I am so happy to find this site and your articles. I am 80,000 words in to completing my own book on healing fibromyalgia and you are the first person – other than myself – that I have found who believes the same as I do. I wrote almost word for word what you wrote – I believe that my fibro is caused by an overstimulated nervous system and it was the traumatic birth of my daughter by emergency c-section that was my ‘trigger’ event. But, when I look over my life, and now realize I am an indigo, and highly sensitive, energetically it makes perfect sense that I developed this illness. I also have autoimmune disease, as does my father, and have had many triggers in my life – leading to a final last straw that brought it on.

    I am relieved to read you feel the same way, and think we can support each other in that sharing. : )

    Thanks for sharing!


  2. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Hi Krista: I hope you will buy my book as it sets the stage for all I have written since then and it will be helpful for you. Good luck with yours!
    Regards, Barbara

  3. Carolyn Thomas

    Hello Barbara and thanks for this piece on “orchid children”. I did a bit of a double-take when I read:

    “Notice the slightest unusual odour? Prefer quiet play? Complain about scratching clothing, tags in clothes or seams in socks? Startle easily? Perform best when strangers aren’t around? Feel things deeply? Notice when others are in distress? Have trouble falling asleep after an exciting day? “

    That is the exact description of a darling little girl, now age 4 (daughter of family friends). I have spent every Friday morning with her since she was a newborn. I call her my “pretend grandchild” and I love her to bits. For many months now, she’s been refusing to wear her panties because she says they feel “too bunchy” and she now lives in her soft stretchy sweatpants instead – with all the tags cut out!! While she is sociable and friendly with me and her family members, whenever I take her to playschool or library story time or any other public outing where strangers are present, she becomes a very quiet child, preferring to hang back at the perimeter of the room, rarely wanting to participate in ‘circle time’ for songs or games. She started preschool last fall but was clearly unhappy coping with the noise and so many people, so was pulled out.

    Do you have any tips on how best to treat such an “orchid child” ?


  4. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Hi Carolyn: Isn’t that amazing? So many of the women I have interviewed over the years said they were that way when they were young. Strangely enough although ‘sensitive’ children wish they could be part of the gang they automatically hang back because noise and stimulation is just too much to cope with. So much is being written about highly sensitive persons with self tests etc that it might be interesting to look into that. I wonder what her parents, mother in particular, but not necessarily, are like? Is this nature or nurture? That issue bothers me a great deal. I wish I had answers for you. By the time one is 7 or 8 it seems to me the brain will be wired in such a way that it becomes difficult to change one’s personalty characteristics.
    There is the upside which Aron writes about and she says it is not a liability but a gift.
    My view all along (and of course I could easily be wrong) is that ‘orchid’ children take on the feelings of others (too intensely) and consequently have a difficult time separating from the emotions of others. Is she very empathetic?
    I would advise you to read the entire article from the G & M and contacting the physician at UBC about his research!
    Keep me posted. This is extremely interesting!
    Regards, Barbara

  5. Jackie

    I found your blog about 6 months ago and have to say I love it! This entry is especially interesting because I had discovered not long ago that I am an HSP myself. Realizing that I am highly sensitive and have been all my life has really helped with my fibromyalgia. No, pain isn’t gone but I understand it more and tend to fight it less. I am betting that most if not all fibromyaglia people are in fact hyper sensitive and probably from birth.
    I also think it might be the key that will help with treatment someday.
    One of the areas I absolutely love about your writing~encouraging “movement.” My muscles hurt when I don’t move them and I am sure I could be almost pain free if I moved constantly lol, sadly that isn’t gonna happen anytime soon. I don’t know if you have heard of it but I did find something that helps me, at least for a few hours at a time. I have absolutely no affiliation to this product, am just curious if anyone else has tried it. It is a vibration machine. I use it for 10 minutes at a time and it shakes the heck out of you. In a way I feel as if it breaks the tightness of my muscles from the constant high arousal, so afterwards the aches seems a lot less.
    Keep writing, you make my day better.

  6. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Thank you so much Jackie: I hope you read my book as it sets the stage for the reason that fibromyalgia develops in HSP! I have a friend who has one of those vibration machines. I have tried it and it shakes too much for me and makes me uncomfortable. However, she says it is wonderful for her! Your comments make MY day better!:-) Barbara

  7. Jamie McMahan

    I enjoyed this article and think it’s a fascinating connection. I read Elaine Aron’s book regarding myself when I was younger to try and understand and then I bought it again when I had a son who appears in all ways to be exceptional and highly sensitive. I know what I have been through and am terrified for him. I love being the way that I am and wouldn’t change it for the world but it has been hard and painful and I don’t want that pain for him. I certainly don’t want fibro for him. I worked most of my life in the military and civilian worlds in nuclear power which is the epitome of stress. I know that and personal stressors were what brought fibro to me. I am working on teaching him stress management now so that he has a leg up on all of this. We are born gifted but no gift is free and if this be the curse than I will teach him how to live so that he never knows this pain. That and of course… prayer.

  8. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Thanks Jamie: I understand your concern for your child; although Aron makes the point that being highly sensitive is a gift, it is sometimes a burden! you are ahead of the game though as you recognize this in yourself and your son as well. Best wishes to you, Barbara

  9. Mira

    This is so interesting…. My mother used to call me her “fragile flower,” and I definitely identified with the concept of “highly sensitive.” I never thought of it as being related to fibro.

  10. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Hi Mira: It is highly likely that there is a link! One of the women I quote in my book said she was thought of as a ‘hot house flower’! regards, Barbara

  11. Valerie

    I have had a diagnosis of fibromyalgia since 1990. I made the connection a few years later to being a highly sensitive person. My mother thinks ‘there is something wrong with me’ because I don’t react the same way she does to things. I remember even as a kid relating to the ‘Princess and the Pea’ story because I would often feel discomfort due to different tactile sensations. I have accepted that I will never be pain free but have learned to ignore some of the symptoms of fibro and to not expect to have the same endurance as other people. I know that am different, but aren’t we all in some ways?

  12. Lois Wilkes

    hi barb i realy dont know were to start, i have a 31 yr old daughter who would complain about her legs when growing i aas her mother just rubbed her down as growing pain.
    she last year was diagnosised with fib she lives in constant pain. to the point that her children cant be climbing up on her it hurts, in a result she had moved 5 hrs away from me to our home town she has been calling me very upset most every day. It has come to the point that she asked me to take her youngest son who just turned 5 in aug he is very difficult for her to handle she was told by a rp nurse when he was 2 that she suspected he was autistic no way i dont see that in him a friend of mine just said to me last nite that he may very well be orchid child due to the fact her son was tested, my grandson i find does play on others emotions if mom is upset or mad or may even talk loudly he is beside himself covers his ears, or will even act out badly will yell back. I find that in my house as long as things are calm quiet and things going smooth he is a great kid yes when meeting new people he to is very shy till he is comfortable could he have this and is there more chances to have fib as he gets older p.s i have talked to the school they are going to be getting him help to deal with his temper and find out why he gets so mad at his mom at times and will not listen to her. thank you so much this page is helpful, Lois concerned mother and grandmother

  13. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Oh! Lois: It sounds as though you have your hands full. Life can be so complicated and often there isn’t any advice as to where to turn. Just hanging in there and taking care of yourself is all you can do. Unfortunately (or fortunately) we cannot live another person’s life for them and it is too much empathy that has been responsible for fibromyalgia in the first place. Very best wishes…keep meditating and lightly exercising, Regards, Barbara

  14. Kylie

    So many of your comments really resonate with me – as a former “orchid child” myself, indigo personality, highly sensitive person and person with fibromyalgia. I always hated noisy, crowded places as a child and after a long day out would have to cocoon myself in my room, while my nervous system seemed to be “buzzing”.

    I have often wondered about the FMS – highly sensitive trait link and would love to see research done into this. Perhaps if we can understand the links better, today’s orchid children might learn how to manage their over-sensitive nervous systems before a major trigger or a virus plunge them into fibromyalgia. Last time I googled the two terms together, it didn’t come up with much (this would have been a couple of years back) and I am so pleased to see that my thinking has been along the same track as others.

    Barbara and Krista, I look forward to reading both of your books. Regards, Kylie

  15. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Hi Kylie: The research is slowing evolving and the work of the neuroscientists is encouraging. It takes hard work and discipline to meditate daily, do light exercise and avoid caffeine and sugar while avoiding highly stimulating social circumstances. I wish I could follow my own advice more diligently, but I am working at it! I believe my book would help you set the scene for a better understanding of how this came to be…best wishes, Barbara

  16. Elaine Aron

    This is an interesting subject, that HSPs suffer more from fibromyalgia or similar disorders (autoimmune diseases, etc.) than others. Alas, there is no research data on this. It is certainly not the main feature of being highly sensitive and not true of ever HSP, so I would like to clarify that point.

    First, my research on sensitivity has found that it is not mainly about sensory sensitivity. After all, many HSPs wear glasses and hearing aids! It is a survival strategy found in over 100 species, but always in a minority. These individuals take the approach of surviving (in an evolutionary sense) by processing everything more thoroughly than others do before acting. They reflect on their experiences, consciously or unconsciously, and see more subtleties (they are not just being bothered by strong stimuli). They also have stronger emotional reactions, which is part of what motivates them to process more deeply. In many ways, from sensitivity to caffeine and pain to sensitivity to beautiful music and other’s moods, HSPs are more sensitive or “responsive,” as some biologists are calling it. They are slower at making decisions, but more often right than others. Why doesn’t everyone adopt this strategy? One reason is that it does have its costs.

    The research indicates that if HSPs had a stressful past, especially in childhood, they are more prone to depression and anxiety as adults, and probably to more bodily illnesses than others. This is probably true if they are chronically “stressed out” in the present as well. They are also definitely more sensitive to pain. But with a good-enough life, past and present, HSPs are less prone to depression and anxiety than others, and probably less prone to illnesses and injuries than others are—there is research showing this in children, but not yet with adults.

    Thus I really don’t want to give the impression, or have others give it, that being highly sensitive creates a vulnerability to fibromyalgia or anything else in every HSP. To say that would not only be untrue, but could give the impression to all HSPs, as well as those who are not but are forming ideas about HSPs, that they all have this vulnerability. I am almost positive this is NOT the case. But again, we do not yet have data on the question.

    I think it is clear, however, that for HSPs to avoid being susceptible to illnesses such as these, they do need to live in a way that helps them avoid becoming over stimulated and stressed. That will happen often, of course, no matter how hard one tries to avoid it. So they also need to have ways to manage during stressful times and after. Generally I recommend something like meditation, that develops a quiet, restful, state of mind you can return to during stressful periods.

    The theory that stress is stored up in the muscles and leads to fibromyalgia in some people may very well prove true. If you have been extremely stressed in the past, perhaps to the point that it seemed unbearable at the time (that is, traumatic), this can cause dissociation, or the splitting off of different parts of the experience. For example, you may remember the event but have no feeling about it, or have strange feelings in certain situations without knowing the cause. Meanwhile, the whole of the trauma has been stored in the body. In such cases you may need to work on that with someone who is skillful at working on that particular type of trauma, and includes the goal of reaching the bodily aspect of it.

    However, I have met people with fibromyalgia who are definitely not HSPs. Thus even to say that fibromyalgia is a product of the interaction of being an HSP and stress or trauma would not be true. Hence we have to be careful about what we say so as not to confuse those who are the exceptions to the pattern we have observed. Just adding qualifiers such as “probably” or “maybe” or “often but not always” helps a lot.

    At the same time, for the individual person who has fibromyalgia and is also highly sensitive in the way I am describing, I am sure it is a huge help to understand this piece of it and to meet others through this website who are highly sensitive in the same way. I’m so glad to see this happening.

    Elaine Aron

  17. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Thank you for clarifying your views on this, Elaine! I would never suggest that everyone who is a HSP will develop or has fibromyalgia. In my experience however, I have never met, nor interviewed, nor read about anyone who has fibromyalgia who is not a HSP (however we want to define the term, that is, overly sensitive or highly sensitive), does not have an easily aroused nervous system, and is not hyper-vigilant. There may of course be many out there who have fibromyalgia and are not HSPs, I have just never heard of any. I also don’t want to imply that all HSPs have suffered from childhood trauma/abuse.
    Of course at the same time I recognize that labelling someone can sometimes be a less than helpful practice and may be stigmatizing. Often the medicalizing of the individual occurs, in particular with fibromyalgia where many health care providers dispute its very existence as a syndrome, and attribute negative connotations to the sufferer. Nonetheless, I have found the term to be very useful when describing the personality of the person with fibromyalgia that I cannot find another term that is so useful. You are right, we need to be careful about how we use that term and not imply that all HSPs have fibromyalgia, nor other so called invisible ailments. It is likely that their susceptibility to these ( or any) conditions depends on their (our) bio-psycho-social environments, as no doubt many medical conditions do in everyone, not only those we term HSPs.
    Thank you once again for taking the time to make your ideas known about this important topic! I greatly respect your work and continue to learn from your writings!

  18. Maryellen Bradley-Gilbert

    Hello Barbara,

    I just love the image of an orchid as a ”flower of noble character.” It reminds me so much of the rose St. Exupery’s The Little Prince, which needed very precise care and attention from the Prince due to her sensitivities. Of course the Prince could be considered an ‘orchid’ child as well, in that he certainly tended to “take on the feelings of others (too intensely) and consequently (had) ‘a difficult time separating from the emotions of others”.

    There’s no doubt in my mind that I was and am a ‘highly sensitive person.’ I was terribly shy as a child and could sense other’s emotions keenly, especially when they appeared completely unaware of the effect their emotions had on those around them. I do consider this sensitivity to be key to my understanding of the students with whom I work today, as a special education teacher. I work with children who hide under tables. or cover their ears, when the environment becomes too stimulating. Some spin in circles, or chant sing-song phrases, as a way to drown out the world around them that seems so intense and intrusive. These children have autism spectrum disorder. The word spectrum is key here, in that I believe we all live along a spectrum of sensitivity. I was called “thin skinned,” as a child and told I, “thought too much,” or was “too serious.” I found these epithets infuriating on the part of the adults around me, much as the Little Prince cannot understand why adults do not see the “hat” as the “elephant whose so obviously being. swallowed by a boa constrictor.”

    As you may have guessed, St. Exupery’s book has been an inspiration to this ‘highly sensitive person.”
    Maryellen Bradley-Gilbert

  19. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Dear Maryellen: I loved your comments so much. It isn’t any surprise that you are in this kind of work. Nurses, social workers and special ed teachers are among the most common types of professions from which I hear about being highly sensitive!
    Remember to take care of yourself first though or you won’t be able to care for anyone!
    Best wishes,

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