Have you heard of the term “highly sensitive person” or do you consider yourself one? Highly sensitive people are extra sensitive to external stimuli, and often experience a greater depth of cognitive processing and emotional understanding.
In other words, you “feel it all”. Highly sensitive people take in more stimuli than the average person and may often feel drained, overwhelmed, overworked, tired, and need to take time away to “shut off” their brain from the heavy task of processing so much that is going on around them. If your brain and senses are working extra hard, you probably feel like you need more time off than others — and rightfully so!
Being extra sensitive will also affect your physical health. Many highly sensitive people end up coming to me for help with complaints such as headaches, stomach troubles, allergies, muscle tightness, brain fog, adrenal and thyroid problems, but mostly — chronic fatigue.
Chronic fatigue syndrome, now medically known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), is being studied by researchers who hope to find medical solutions for the symptoms. In my practice where I teach clients how to use evidence-based nutrition, however, I know there are already many tools available to naturally raise your energy levels without relying on medications or risky procedures.
If you deal with feelings of constant fatigue, first consider that you may be a highly sensitive person. How many from this list describe your personality?
- You are overwhelmed by strong or chaotic sensory input.
- You are aware of subtleties in your environment that others overlook.
- Other people’s moods affect you.
- You are extra sensitive to pain or like to rely on natural, over-the-counter or prescribed painkillers whenever possible.
- You like to withdraw after busy days so you can have privacy and relief from stimulation.
- You are sensitive to stimulants, such as caffeine.
- Bright lights, strong scents, and loud noises upset you.
- You have a rich, complex inner life that you share only with a few chosen friends or family members.
- Your nervous system is prone to feeling over-worked or you have a poor stress response.
- You get frequent colds or infections.
- You are considerate of other people’s needs and often place them above your own.
- Sudden noises or changes startle you.
- Being rushed or having too many expectations on a timeline make you feel anxious.
- You aim for perfection to avoid being judged by others.
- You don’t like violent movies or TV shows.
- You get symptoms of low blood sugar, such as weakness, shakiness, frustration, nausea easily if you do not eat as soon as you feel hungry.
- You do not like sudden life changes and go out of your way to feel comfortable.
- People may often ask you “what’s wrong” even when nothing is wrong.
If you feel many of the above describe you, you could be a highly sensitive person. Highly sensitive people can experience more health challenges than the average person because your nervous system tends to be more reactive than others’, which creates a cascade of health concerns after years of living a stressed-out life. Chronic fatigue is a chief complaint among sensitive souls, but there are solutions to help stop the cycles of tiredness associated with processing more of the world than other people.
4 ways highly sensitive people can defeat chronic fatigue:
- Avoid stimulants such as caffeine. Instead choose natural options to boost your energy, including:
- Methyl, Adenosyl, or Hydroxy B12. These are “active” forms of vitamin B12 and easily get into the cells for use. Avoid synthetic B12, also called cyanocobalamin. B12 shots are likely to be synthetic as well. Believe it or not, synthetic B vitamins can actually prevent the nutrient from getting into your cells due to common gene mutations that affect a large portion of humans.
- DLPA: This is a natural stimulant that raises catecholamine levels which keep you feeling energized. It is very different from caffeine, however and won’t give you the same highs and lows.
- Eliminate your unique food intolerances. Gluten and dairy are the big two food intolerances that can cause fatigue for many people because they inhibit thyroid function, but also because they require lots of digestive energy for breaking them down in the gut. Ever eaten a meal and felt so tired afterwards? It could be that you’re reacting to a food in the meal you just ate. There are other food intolerances, though, that you may not have heard of that can also make you feel very tired — even disoriented after a meal. These include oxalates, salicylates, histamine, sulfur, and ammonia. A leaky gut (which is where the tight junctions in your intestines become permeable and allow food particles into the bloodstream) as well as common gene mutations can cause people to not break down or eliminate these food compounds properly which can end up making you feel tired after eating them.
- Begin breathing properly. This one sounds simple but many tired, stressed people are simply not breathing well. They take shallow breaths, or quicken their breathing when feeling anxious. Breathing properly involves long, deep inhalations and exhalations. Inadequate airflow to the brain and muscles will make you feel tired. As soon as you feel fatigued, start deep breathing for a few minutes at a time.
- Let go of unhealthy people in your life. From a young age, many highly sensitive people adapt by becoming people-pleasers. This helps to prevent some of the chaos and tension that stimulates you beyond a comfortable capacity. Unfortunately this can make you feel more tired in the long run because while you are looking out for others, there is no one to care for you and ensure you are happy and healthy. Also, often highly sensitive people find themselves in relationships in which there are lots of rules you have to follow to avoid the punishment of others. Being scared of others’ judgments and punishments can leave you feeling extremely drained because you never truly get a break and the flow of love is one-sided. Let go of relationships where you have to please others or are constantly walking on eggshells. If you can’t get these people out of your inner circle, at least put up boundaries and begin asserting your needs and caring for yourself first. You can’t pour from an empty cup. Watch how your energy levels soar once you start caring about what is best for you.
As always, find a natural health practitioner to help you determine which diet changes and supplements are necessary for you. Being tired the rest of your life isn’t worth it and there are tons of solutions to the problem.
In my work with women over the years, I’ve noticed a few trends. Even though clients come to me for nutritional needs, they inevitably start talking about the stressors in their lives. I can’t tell you how many women have sat in my office, and upon me merely asking how they’re doing that day (and REALLY listening to their answer), they start crying, start divulging their stresses, fears, insecurities, and after a few minutes of being truly heard, take a big breath, a deep sigh of relief and apologize for crying or “talking too much”. I always make sure to tell them “it’s okay. Crying is good” because usually when someone cries, they get shushed and “comforted” by people telling them, “it’s okay, don’t cry!”. In truth, they get told to stop crying so the observers aren’t uncomfortable or have to process emotions. Crying is a better medicine than learning to not cry.
What I see in my clients is similar to what I have also noticed and experienced through out my life — very often, women have been taught to trivialize their thoughts, feelings, and emotions, because it makes other people uncomfortable when they express their true thoughts. Other people may not know how to process their own emotions so they feel very uncomfortable being asked to experience someone else’s. We are expected to be stoic or appear to have it all together because it makes people uncomfortable at the thought that we could be “dependent” or “needy” or “hysterical”. So we learn to suppress. And suppress and suppress and suppress because we definitely don’t want our mental health to be in question — ever.
Think of stress like a body of water. The sand, shore and blue-green water are a beautiful scene but take a closer look and you’ll notice that every now and then the surface current picks up. We’re suddenly aware of the passing temperament of the water. We often judge our stress level by the “surface current” in our lives — those major stresses like finances, relationships, work, children, an uncleaned house, making sure to get to important meetings on time, unexpected circumstances like a broke down car or water heater, or the unexpected environmental events we can’t control like fires, floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes. And addressing those fears and anxieties is important. But the work I prefer to do with my clients is the work of beginning to recognize and address the UNDERCURRENT.
The “undercurrent” in our lives is the subconscious behaviors and thoughts we have been taught and that cause us intense stress by trying to live up to certain standards, or meet certain expectations, or be a certain way to keep towing the line and being what others demand. The undercurrent is the power play in our relationships that we are scared to upset. It is the way we get subconsciously punished when we don’t stay inside another person’s expectations. It is the pressure we put on ourselves to look and act a certain way in order to get the affirmation we desire. It is the way we walk, hold ourselves, speak, and dress to get positive feedback. Most of the time, we do not even think about doing these things — it is all subconscious choices that we have become accustomed to. It is an inauthentic way to live. And the undercurrent is ultimately what hurts people the most.
Here are “undercurrent” themes I see affecting my clients:
- feeling pressure to look a certain way to keep their spouse’s attention and getting hurt feelings when they don’t receive their husband’s full sexual attention visually
- fears that their spouse will leave — for various reasons — all because of false perceptions of ourselves — “If only I did this better”, “If only I looked more like that”, “He’s going to find someone better”, “I’ll never be good enough”.
- letting others (often a father figure or other strong figure, like a stern mother or grandmother) take the lead on decisions and daily activities, suppressing your natural desire to lead
- diluting your opinions so you don’t rock the boat; minimizing and sugarcoating how you really feel so you don’t face consequences, or straight-up lying so you don’t get “in trouble”.
- agonizing over your wardrobe choices so you don’t upset anyone or receive unsolicited comments — both sexual attention from strangers or disapproval from friends/family
- feeling ashamed of certain body parts
- feeling ashamed of eating in front of people, no matter what you are eating or how much
- trying to hyper-feminize your voice to appear less aggressive or assertive
- speaking in passive sentences or writing in passive sentences to appear less assertive
- apologizing and saying sorry for normal requests so you are not perceived as aggressive or rude
- over-thinking your choice of specific clothing or make-up colors so you will be taken seriously in business encounters
- feminizing ourselves so we don’t emasculate fathers, spouses, and friends because of the anger we anticipate
- and so many more!
Now here’s how those undercurrent themes stress you out physically:
- shallow breathing, which can lead to dizziness, panic attacks, and acidosis
- resentment that causes adrenaline rushes and high cortisol
- tensed stomach which causes improper digestion, gas, bloating, heavy full feeling, ulcers, stomach acid problems. Inhibitory responses also cause low thyroid function.
- painful lump in throat when suppressing tears or words
- strained vocal cords and muscles
- tense neck, shoulder, and back muscles
- tense jaw muscles and TMJ
- racing thoughts, fear, anger, resentment, and shame
- inability to fall asleep due to racing anxious thoughts and unexpressed desires
- low thyroid function. A lifetime of inhibitory responses can cause this. When we inhibit normal breathing, muscle function, and digestive function, it slows thyroid hormone release.
- adrenal fatigue — low or high cortisol problems
- and more!
Once you begin to identify and work through these stressors, your health will improve. The goal is to identify every single stressor and work through it so that it no longer has power over you.
How stress affects your thyroid and immune system
Your stress response affects your hormones and immune system. It can cause thyroid and cortisol imbalances, as well as immunosuppression, leaving your susceptible to infections that cause Leaky Gut.
Stress hormone release is affected by the patterns of tension in the body — trouble breathing, which can lead to anxiety, which can cause the brain to not receive enough oxygen, which can prevent muscles and glands from receiving adequate blood flow, over-production of stomach acid, muscle pain and more. It’s a domino affect.
Sometimes stress comes in the form of our daily life experiences — difficult relationships, difficult decisions to be made, feeling sick from a diagnosed illness, financial troubles, and more. But I want to challenge you to also recognize that GENERATIONAL WOUNDS can keep us sick.
What is a generational wound?
Generational wounds are the patterns of thoughts and behavior that we inherit from our family members. We learn how to think about the world and how to behave from our parents (or caregivers). And they learned how to think about the world and how to behave from their parents, and their parents learned from their parents, and so on and on and on.
The problems is that most often, generational patterns are never broken and we inadvertently inherit them from our family. So the way that your grandmother always worried herself sick (literally), or the fact that your great-great grandfather was an alcoholic, or that your great grandmother was ashamed of her figure and was always putting herself on unreasonable crash diets, or that your father never learned positive communication and instead only knew how to yell, or that your great-great-great grandmother suffered in poverty, are likely all still reflected in your thoughts, actions, and how you feel about yourself, even if you don’t know their stories.
The sum total of the lessons we have learned from our caregivers is a direct result of what they have learned over the course of their lifetime — and what their caregivers taught them. The anger, shame, frustration, poor communication, anxieties, fears get passed down. So although you are not living in poverty, you still feel shame that you are not in a better place financially. Even though you are not an unhealthy weight, you still impose strict calorie restrictions on yourself because no woman in your family has ever been happy with her appearance so what gives you the right? Or, although you don’t want to fight with people, you never learned how to communicate in a clear and healthy way so you aren’t sure why your conversations always end in anger. And, even though you aren’t in an abusive relationship, you still feel like you are always walking on eggshells because you learned that anyone can become angry at you at any moment and for anything.
Think of generational wounds as the memories we subconsciously pass down to others. And because life can be painful, pain is very often what we pass down and our brains and nervous systems choose to remember most. Remembering pain is a survival technique, after all. It’s the brain’s attempt at avoiding anything that can jeopardize our safety.
Unfortunately, these wounds also keep us locked in figurative cages. We hold ourselves back, don’t allow ourselves happiness, choose pain and suffering over joy, recreate our own cycles of shame and anger, and live our lives to please people who are no longer even alive.
How to break the cycle
To break this cycle, start by recognizing your own generational wounds. What is the behavior you recognize in your parents that isn’t/wasn’t healthy? Now think back to their parents and try to recognize the wounds and unhealthy patterns that were passed down to them and how it must have affected them as people.
We want to have empathy for our ancestors, instead of blaming any one person for how they may have acted in this life. The idea isn’t to point blame, but to see the struggles and events that led up to the dysfunctional behavior. Then we can distance ourselves from the pain of the generational wounds, instead of being triggered by them.
We can recognize problems in our own lives that we inherited and work to change them. We can stop the stress patterns and stress hormone release. We also need to identify where in the body we store tension from these generational wounds.
Is it a tensed stomach? Tensed muscle or shoulders from fear and stress? Clenched jaw? Shallow breathing? Everyone will have different wounds and different patterns of tension in the body. Identifying them is the best way to start to heal.