Living with Chronic Pain?

You might be a Physical Reactor

I remember at age 10 waking up in the middle of the night gripped by intense pain in my legs. Back then, I was told it was growing pains. I know differently now.

Then age 13, laying on a table in the ER, holding my stomach tightly — what’s happening inside me? Probably female troubles, the doctors said. I think they were wrong.

For more than 20 years, daily pain along some part of my spine. Sometimes a dull ache, other days like a knife embedded. Was it because I grew up working hard on a farm or because I like to bend, dig and plant flowers?

Living with daily chronic pain is like being two different people — I’ve learned how to compartmentalize. To shove the pain off in one mental room and to exist in another.

It wasn’t until I came across an article by my dear friend Jacquelyn Strickland that I received some clarity. Through her own experiences as a highly sensitive person and counselor, she has identified various HSP ‘subcultures’.

Physical Reactor described me perfectly.

Definition: ‘HSPs who are unusually physically reactive to certain foods, noise, lights, stress. Physical reactions may include sweaty palms, allergies, nervousness, nausea, migraine headaches, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, leaky gut syndrome, etc.’

This makes complete sense to me: as a highly sensitive person I was born with a central nervous system that is more open, more tuned in to external stimuli — could it be my cells and molecules are functioning like an energetic collector?

I have come to recognize that my nervous system is always at Defcon 4, red alert, red alert!

I have to consciously invite my body to relax, reminding it that we are not in danger.

Challenges for Physical Reactors: Finding or creating supportive environments which honor our physical sensitivities.

Tasks: Determining what triggers physical reactions and what we can do to alleviate negative ones. Accepting that some people will not understand these physical reactions.

Most Physical Reactors, including myself, are very reluctant to reveal what we are experiencing.

First, we are conscientious about not dumping our problems on others. We are socialized to believe we have to be strong and push through no matter what.

We wonder, if I share this, will the other person even believe me? So we often suffer alone, walking around like everything’s fine. Other people likely don’t even know we are constantly hurting. I’ve have seen multiple doctors or practitioners, who while well meaning, simply can’t find any evidence.

If they do not experience daily pain, it can be challenging for anyone to understand how it not only wears on you physically, but also mentally and emotionally.

I’ve tried massage, chiropractic, holistic medicine, Chinese herbs, physical therapy, essential oils, pain medication, hot baths, you name it, to try to bring some relief. And they do, temporarily. Tried energy healing, raindrop therapy, a gong bath. Amazing experiences that also helped temporarily. I’ve explored meditation and deep inner work to perhaps uncover if there is a spiritual root-cause of this chronic pain.

I’m beginning to accept that it’s simply one of the challenges I was born with. And I am not hiding it anymore.

If writing and speaking about it can help other sensitive people to be free from the stigma or inspire them to create a self-care plan to manage their pain; my vulnerability will have made a difference.

How have I created supportive practices to minimize my pain?

  1. View my body as my friend, not my enemy. Be compassionate towards it instead of disassociating.
  2. Schedule down time — out in the world on one day means I schedule time at home the next. No apologies!
  3. Sleep — allow my mind, my body, my emotions to rest and recharge.
  4. Invest in a great mattress — to support #3, it’s the best thing I’ve ever spend $ on.
  5. Connect with nature — just a simple walk in the park, breathing fresh air, listening to the wind in the trees, a bird song, water trickling down a stream. Resets my nervous system to natural rhythms.
  6. Eliminate caffeine — this has been challenging for me, but if my nervous system is already overstimulated why add fuel to the fire?
  7. Be aware of emotions around me. Yesterday I attended a funeral with over 100 people in deep grief. I’m glad I was there to honor my friend, but today my body feels like it was tossed in a bag and rolled down a mountain. I have to be aware of picking up others’ emotions that shifts into physical pain.
  8. Exercise. Moving my body when it hurts seems counterintuitive, but I always feel better with light stretching, gentle yoga, a short walk. Get the blood moving, bring oxygen to my cells, knowing I am strengthening my body empowers me and lessens pain.
  9. Find someone I trust to confide in. When I’m having a painful day, I need to be able to express it. Suffering alone is much worse.
  10. Cry when I need to. Releasing the emotion and pain is cathartic, stuffing it down hurts more.
  11. I am not my pain. I am not weak or a problem. This is what’s happening to my body. I am not a victim, or helpless, or the only one. I have the power to make life choices to support my needs.

I invite you to sign up for my weekly newsletter, Vitality Toolkit — filled with tips and resources for living well as a highly sensitive person. Learn more about empowering and transformative group coaching programs at or join our local HSP Meetup community.
To find out more about Jacquelyn’s HSP subcultures, visit