Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, looking utterly exhausted.

The Link Between Highly Sensitive People and Chronic Fatigue

HSPs tend to do more mental work than others — one of the key causes of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).

Chronic fatigue is one way that our body expresses what we’ve been unable to. As a highly sensitive person (HSP) — someone who feels deeply and easily gets overwhelmed — I tried to push past these traits for years. I pretended to be less affected by time pressure, (emotionally) stressful situations and loud, crowded environments than I was. I simply adapted while doing my best to not expose how rattled or upset such circumstances actually made me feel.

I didn’t realize it, but pushing myself to be something I wasn’t, forced my body to speak up. Thanks to the demands I put on it, my energy levels began plummeting drastically, and I experienced different symptoms, including weight loss and brain fog. 

At first, I thought it was because my digestive system was out of whack, but blood tests didn’t show anything wrong, and the changes I made to my diet seemed to help only a bit. But I couldn’t shake feeling totally wiped out, and that level of exhaustion often came with muscle aches, poor sleep, and even feeling as though I was coming down with the flu. 

The Road to Chronic Fatigue

I decided to visit the doctor’s office to see what was going on, and it was unsettling. The doctor was new at the clinic — a peculiar old guy with a dry sense of humor. Initially, he didn’t show much empathy, exclaiming, “Well, there certainly isn’t much meat-juice left in you!” Despite his demeanor, though, he actually said a few spot-on things. I thought my thyroid might be overactive — the symptoms seemed to match — but he brought up another possibility: chronic fatigue. 

“We won’t take any more blood tests since it’ll only repeat your feeling of not being seen,” the doctor wisely said, sharing insights gained from a lifetime of experience. “Focus on building yourself back up again.” His secretary, who afterward kindly comforted me, stated that “I looked like something the cat had dragged in.” And while I could’ve taken offense at her words, it felt more like a breath of relief. Finally, someone was taking my anguish seriously and acknowledging how sick I felt! 

The Connection Between Sensitivity and Fatigue

HSPs, like introverts, tend to reflect deeply on the world around them, and do lots of ”inner labor” that remains invisible to those around them, and therefore isn’t considered valuable. 

We’re constantly trying to adapt to a pace not aligned with our natural tendencies — and a value system that prizes achievements and accomplishments rather than internal developments — all of which takes a toll on us, as many HSPs can attest. Whether it is habitually tightening our muscles to keep ourselves together or clenching our jaws to ”power through” something, our bodies take the hit.

Too much and our bodies will start speaking up, as mine did. Chronic fatigue doesn’t have a known cause (though depression and overwork are associated with it) and rest won’t make it go away. But I believe that several high-stress incidents — like taking on limiting familial beliefs, or unwittingly absorbing and feeling trapped in loved ones’ crises and stresses — impacted me as a highly sensitive person, and by ignoring them or trying to respond in a way that wasn’t true to my sensitivity, I developed the condition. 

Repressed anger played a role as well for me. Anger can be a scary emotion and HSPs are often softhearted empaths who struggle with expressing it constructively, if at all. Unfortunately, we tend to suppress it or turn it towards ourselves in destructive ways, all to our detriment. Instead, we could use this vital life-force energy for healthy boundary setting, especially for shielding our sensitivity and for building a sense of personal power and agency. 

I have a suspicion that my illness is linked with forcefully pushing myself in an attempt to live up to the norms and ideals of society. On top of absorbing emotions and repressing anger, I come from a place inhabited by mostly practical-minded people with a traditional work ethic. Beyond a certain age, they frown upon behavior that seems lazy (because it’s not as productive as they think it should be), so being a deep-processing, quietly-observing, and emotionally-responsive person isn’t always understood or appreciated, let alone celebrated. 

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Recovering from Fatigue as a Highly Sensitive Person

My recovery hasn’t been easy. I still feel physically sick if I go into negative thought loops. And I don’t seem to be able to cope with pressure, from outside or inside. Recovery almost resembles taking care of an infant. 

I suppose I must accept it and learn how to become a responsible, loving caretaker of my physical, mental, and emotional needs by giving my body sufficient rest, plenty and proper nourishment, and living as free from stress as possible. To use mere willpower to make my body do something or push myself doesn’t work. I can’t do it anymore.

I have to be in tune with my needs and make appropriate decisions, moment by moment, based on my body’s signals. If I don’t, I reap painful consequences almost immediately. My body is a strict teacher, speaking in capital letters if I don’t treat it exactly how it needs, now. 

Channeling My Experience into a Creative Project

My exhaustion took a very serious toll on my body. But it had one upside: it made me put pen to paper. I felt an acute urge to express myself, to explore inner workings and themes. 

Last year, I wrote a novel titled What’s the Matter with Maria? It’s a tender tale about a sensitive and introverted little girl, Maria. And although my book is fictitious, it‘s inspired by my personal experience pushing myself to adapt to the kinds of outer demands which often produce some degree of internal agony.  

Thinking about the inspiration for the book takes me back to that taxing time when I first fell ill. The memory is palpable — I can’t help recalling how awful I felt both physically and emotionally. I know my little protagonist Maria’s anxious alertness well, her feeling of not being enough, falling short, and that her highly sensitive traits are wrong or inferior.

My wish for all highly sensitive people — both children and adults — is that they understand and respect the language of their finely-sensing bodies from an early age. A proper education in how best to preserve, protect, and nourish our precious energy is crucial to prevent steady energy drains and leaks. With its advanced capacity for sensing subtleties and fine distinction, let your highly sensitive body be your primary guide in life — allow it to be your personal compass.

Please don’t ignore or downplay the symptoms and sensations your body so generously provides. Even if nobody else seems to understand or see good reason for them, the warnings will turn up the volume to catch your attention. Instead, honor your innate sensitivity by being responsible, which means being responsive and making every adjustment to maintaining your health that you possibly can. After all, you are the only one who knows exactly how you feel. 

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