I used to believe that being strong meant being stoic and being able to bear immense stress or illness without batting an eyelash.
I used to think I was weak because no one else seemed to be calling in sick or experiencing burnout or having to bolt out of meetings because they thought they were about to have a meltdown.
This was before I knew what it meant to be an introvert, empath, and highly sensitive person - and I therefore had not yet found the types of environments or situations that could help me to feel and function at my best.
I've got it pretty figured out now, and hopefully you can learn from my trial-and-errors.
But first, there's a couple "background" things you should know about stress, chronic illness, and being a highly sensitive person.
Stress exacerbates chronic illness.
In my experience as a healthcare professional and someone who has lived with depression and anxiety, I can bear witness to the fact that stress tends to make chronic conditions worse. For our purposes here, I'm mainly talking about conditions like mental health, high blood pressure, inflammatory diseases, and adrenal fatigue.
It can be hard sometimes to tease things out when we're talking about health. The human brain loves oversimplifying complex ideas into stark cause-and-effect relationships.
Did insomnia exacerbate my depression, or did the depression cause my insomnia? Did anxiety make me lose my appetite for a week or was it my poor eating habits that made me so on edge? Who the hell knows? And honestly, that's kinda beside the point right now.
What I want you to understand is that stress is a crucial factor in your overall well-being, and while experiencing some degree of stress is a key ingredient to growing as a resilient person, the kind of chronic stress we're talking about is toxic.
Like when you're in a relationship with a narcissist AND working through the side effects of antidepressants AND dealing with vicarious trauma in your job working with families that have experienced intergenerational abuse.
Or when you've left home for the first time and struggling to survive in an unfamiliar, overwhelming city and the only people you know around here are "frenemies".
Or maybe you've never felt totally safe in your life, having grown up without any secure attachments or in a conflict-laden environment.
This kind of ongoing stress is counterproductive to our physical and cognitive well-being because it floods our bodies with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to a degree that is totally unnatural for the effective functioning of our body systems. Our bodies were not built to release these chemicals 24/7.
Our muscles and vessels end up constricting for long periods of time, promoting high blood pressure and headaches and chronic pain. Our mental energy goes towards simple survival, and our creativity, problem-solving skills, and self control is blunted. We become more susceptible to infection and inflammation.
Sometimes, exposure to this type of chronic stress is out of our control. Life happens. Shit happens.
However, it's healthy to at least be aware of the VERY REAL effects that stress has on our well-being so that we can make more intentional choices every day to stay resilient, wherever we are and whatever we're going through.
Highly sensitive people experience stress more deeply in their bodies than other people do.
If you're a highly sensitive person, intuitive, or an empath, you probably know what I mean when I say that I can literally feel people's moods and the "vibe" of certain places on a physiological level. This is a gift, plain and simple.
Highly sensitive people can feel both positive and hurtful experiences on a deeper level than most other people, and can therefore be affected by them more strongly.
This is not to say that I dissolve into a puddle of tears and wailing every time I get a boo-boo. While highly sensitive folks can definitely experience stress on a heightened emotional level, what may be just as (or more) influential on our health is how our bodies experience stress on a physiological level.
What people often forget is that being highly sensitive is not merely a personality thing; it's primarily the way your body and brain is physically wired.
Manage stress by building resilience.
Some have claimed that people who feel deeply are more susceptible to chronic illnesses like mental health issues or adrenal fatigue.
I'm not going to argue one way or the other, but it's safe to say that even though highly sensitive people can experience chronic health issues and stress more intensely than others, we also benefit more intensely from health- and happiness-boosting experiences.
Through my trials and errors and learnings as someone who both provided and received wellness services, I'm a huge fan of contemplative practices like meditation, yoga, and journaling.
Hell, meditation is LITERALLY the practice of thoroughly feeling intense emotions or sensations in the body, and then letting that shit GO. Letting go of the stress is what prevents the stress from becoming chronic. Duh!
I've also realized that cathartic music, small meals paced throughout the day, and rhythmic movement are all daily ingredients that help me tolerate ongoing stressful situations. These down-to-earth tools are especially indispensable when I'm dealing with big scary life transitions that aren't gonna get resolved anytime soon.
This is my invitation to you to be proactive about building resilience against stress, so that you can stay healthy.
This can be done through ordinary but strategically-chosen daily activities, like the ones I just mentioned.
Staying well is one of the ways you can leverage your gift of sensitivity. Sensitivity in your body or mind can become a liability if you don't know how to celebrate and channel it in a way that matches your needs. But it becomes a powerful tool for helping others if you know how to keep your insides resilient and respond to stress in a productive way.
Because life is a journey, it's a process, it's a constant evolution and all that. And as you experience the intensity of it all, why suffer when you can bloom?