9 Ways I Manage My Chronic Illness as a Highly Sensitive Person

A highly sensitive woman relaxes

Writing daily gratitude lists and creating a therapeutic environment I can retreat to are just two ways I soothe my highly sensitive side.

When my fibromyalgia symptoms first began four years ago, I legitimately thought I was dying.  It’s a chronic disorder that causes widespread pain, fatigue, and other neurological symptoms. Debilitating pain struck through my entire body like lightning, and exhaustion found me everywhere I went. At 26 years old and a life-long “go-getter,”  it was unnerving — to say the least. 

As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I’ve always had a fairly low tolerance for pain. I remember feeling traumatized as a child after falling one day while riding my bicycle. I had only scraped my knees, but the pain felt so overwhelming that I was afraid to ride again for months afterward. So to be an adult and have this sudden onset of new symptoms that caused acute pain all over my body was especially petrifying for me.

Combating a chronic illness can be burdensome for anyone. But as an HSP, my struggle contains a unique twist. Highly sensitive people not only tend to have a higher sensitivity to pain, but we’re also very attached to our safe routines in life. So, making a change — i.e., having to adapt to having a sudden chronic illness — feels similar to driving a train that has just been derailed. Additionally, highly sensitive people can often become overwhelmed by their emotions, making even day-to-day life seem daunting (before you even add a chronic illness into the mix).

Thankfully, I soon learned that fibromyalgia is not lethal, it only feels that way sometimes.  Although my journey since my diagnosis has been arduous, I have found ways to help manage my symptoms and continue living the best life I can. Below are nine steps that have helped me, as a highly sensitive person, effectively process my diagnosis and manage my chronic condition. You can apply the tips to your life, too, no matter what chronic illness you may be suffering from.

9 Ways to Manage Your Chronic Illness as a Highly Sensitive Person 

1. Find a therapist you trust and who “gets” you.

Research shows that psychotherapy offers an abundance of benefits for those needing support. However, sitting in a therapist’s office revealing intimate details of my life initially felt unnatural to me — and even frightening. This is especially common for highly sensitive people, since starting therapy can be a nightmare: it is a huge change of its own (have I mentioned that HSPs loathe change?). Plus, seeing any kind of doctor can be stressful for HSPs.

I realized that I just needed time to adapt, which meant I needed a therapist I could trust to be patient with me during that process. In her book, Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb explains that therapists and patients must establish a feeling of mutual trust in order for change to occur; a process that can often take multiple sessions. 

Forming this bond with my therapist took months, but eventually she helped me take the steps I needed to accept not only my illness, but myself, as well. 

2. Establish an effective bedtime routine, like avoiding screens for an hour or two before bed.

HSPs typically need more sleep than others due to their overactive senses. For me personally, nine hours per night is the “sweet spot.” Any less sleep and I feel overwhelmed, moody, and unproductive. And my fibromyalgia symptoms? Unbearable

Ensuring you get a proper night’s rest requires intention and discipline. I became mindful about my decisions throughout the day that could harm my chances of getting enough zzz’s at night. This meant creating a helpful “wind down” routine before bed each evening to prepare my mind for sleep. Experts, too, stress the importance of practicing good sleep hygiene.

Here is my current ritual I’ve adopted over the years, which I typically begin one to two hours before bed: 

  • Spend at least 10 minutes meditating (Headspace, Calm, and Sanvello are my go-tos).
  • Turn off all screens (phone, television, and laptop).
  • Dim bedroom lights.
  • Take a relaxing hot shower or bath.
  • Lights out! 

3. Avoid foods that exacerbate your symptoms; creating a food diary can help.   

I’ve always been a “selective eater” when it comes to certain foods (some HSPs are known for their picky eating). So about a year after my symptoms appeared, I began paying even closer  attention to how particular foods affected me: I created a food diary, taking note of specific foods or ingredients that aggravated my symptoms. 

As a result, I eliminated refined sugar, artificial ingredients, and dairy — foods that have been shown to cause inflammation — from my diet completely. Since HSPs often feel the effects of caffeine more strongly, I felt additional relief whenever I replaced my morning coffee with herbal tea. 

4. Set clear, kind boundaries and put you and your needs first, like if you only have energy to video chat for a half-hour.

As highly sensitive people, setting boundaries with those around us is crucial to maintaining our sanity and preventing overstimulation. However, saying “no” was a problem for my HSP self and something I struggled with immensely — I’d find myself apologizing profusely (out of guilt) for declining activities I knew my  sickly body couldn’t handle. 

But my mindset shifted when I discovered that setting clear boundaries is actually an act of kindness. As researcher Brené Brown explained in her book Dare to Lead, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” Being clear with someone about your feelings may seem awkward, but it is ultimately a kind thing to do if done tenderly. Soon, I felt empowered to unapologetically put myself first, even if that meant saying no to others. 

Setting kind boundaries can look like saying things such as “It’s been wonderful catching up with you over video chat, but I have to get going now” or “I would love to meet you for a hike. However, I will need to head home at six o’clock sharp.” 

5. Find a strong support system you can lean on. 

In a Psychology Today article, Emma Seppälä, Ph.D., explained that being truly connected to others has been shown to strengthen our immune systems and — believe it or not — actually increases life expectancy. 

Being a highly sensitive person can be a blessing and a curse, so in difficult times, having people around me who truly see and support me has been crucial to persevering. I joined an online support group for my illness, confided in dear friends, and found a mentor who has walked in familiar shoes. In terms of relationships, it’s quality over quantity for HSPs. So even having one or two people in my life who I can consistently turn to for support has been highly beneficial. 

6. Adopt a pet — they’ll be a comforting presence and remind you that you’re not alone.

Highly sensitive people are known to adore animals of all kinds, as they can be a comforting presence in the midst of quiet solitude. Although I’ve always been especially fond of the canine species (I grew up with several beloved dogs as a child), some have proven to be too high-energy for me as a chronically ill HSP.  

Luckily, cats offer the same loving companionship of dogs, but are far more independent as pets. After I became a cat parent, I discovered that, although felines often need their peaceful solitude (just like their HSP owners), some will still curl up next to you on the couch for a while, subtly reminding you that you’re not alone.  

No matter what kind of pet you get — even a smaller one, like goldfish or rabbit — they can prove to be a comforting presence for your highly sensitive soul.

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7. Invest in a comfy wardrobe. Elastic-waisted pants? Yes, please!

Because HSPs are more sensitive to certain stimuli, tight clothing or harsh fabric can quickly become intolerable for us. 

Combined with the fatigue from my chronic illness, I soon found that comfort triumphs over fashion most days of the week. I began investing in clothing I can feel cozy in: cotton and silk tops, loose-fitting sweaters, and elastic-waisted pants are some of my favorite essentials. I avoid, avoid, avoid heavy or scratchy materials, such as denim, wool, or polyester. I also select bras without wiring or bulky padding (or at times opt to go braless altogether). Also, a few (or twenty) pairs of fuzzy socks never hurt anybody! 

8. Create a therapeutic environment you can retreat to — your very own HSP sanctuary. 

Because highly sensitive people tend to have the inherent need to retreat in solitude, I created a restful space in my home that allows me to channel my energy into fighting my illness — my very own HSP sanctuary. I chose a soothing color scheme (deep blues, soft greens, and light pinks are calming colors that promote a tranquil environment for me) and decorated the area in accordance to things I love most — after all, the space needs to feel like it’s my own. 

Because HSPs can be sensitive to cold temperatures, I also use an electric heating blanket during the winter to help maintain a comfortable atmosphere. And since highly sensitive people are known to be weary of bright lights, dim lighting — like candles or a small lamp — helps, too. Additionally, I diffuse a small amount of lavender essential oil (which has been proven to enhance relaxation) — HSPs can be sensitive to strong smells — and voilà: I have a harmonious retreat my senses thank me for. 

9. Cultivate gratitude: be grateful for everything from your daily coffee to the sunny day.

Former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt famously said that “comparison is the thief of joy.”  Similarly, writer Elaine S. Marshall has stated that “gratitude is the gateway to joy.” And in her book, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, American professor Sonya Lyubomirsky described gratitude as an “antidote to negative emotions.”  

Because highly sensitive people are deep thinkers and often spend time reflecting on their lives, they must be mindful of the direction of their thoughts. I started a gratitude journal where I write down five things I am grateful for each day. When I focus my thoughts on being grateful for what I have — everything from my morning coffee to a sunny day to a friend who really helped me out — rather than worrying about what I do not, I often find myself cultivating gratitude. And, therefore, this automatically translates to a feeling of great joy. 

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