How My Autoimmune System Changed My Approach to Being an HSP

A woman has her eyes closed and inhales the scent of flowers

Even though being an HSP is not the same as having a chronic illness, it is something that is a preset deep within your body and cannot just be ignored.

Being a highly sensitive person (HSP), it has always been hard to say “no” to things, even when I knew it wouldn’t be good for me. I have always had this dichotomy, like many HSPs, with a people-pleasing, socialite angel on one shoulder, and my highly sensitive, introverted self on the other. One side wants me to do everything, never say no, and never disappoint anyone. The other wants a clean room, soft clothes, and my own music, thank-you-very-much. 

You can guess which side normally wins.

That is, until March 2022, when I began to realize something was very wrong in my body, and I began seeking answers. After all, we HSPs are very in tune with our bodies and know when something feels “off.” 

After a wild ride of two months, I received an autoimmune diagnosis, but was able to get my illness under control. Since then, I have needed to adjust my life to adapt, and care for myself, well. Now, I opt for a nap and a night in instead of going out to dinner with friends. When I am hot or my clothes are itchy, I cool off and change my outfit. If my mind is overwhelmed, I go to my room and rest for a bit until I feel recalibrated. This is because I have learned from experience that when I do not do these things, I might have an autoimmune flare.

Does this sound familiar? As I began doing each of these, I realized that they correlated with my HSP needs, but I had not been doing them before. So why was I willing to do this for my autoimmune system, but not my HSP nature?

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I Hear What You’re Saying, “But ‘HSPism’ Is Not a Disease!”

You are completely right. Being an HSP is not a disorder or disease; it is a complete gift, 100 percent of the time, 365 days a year. It gives you more empathy and creativity than the typical person. It makes you a deeper thinker and makes you more attuned to small details. Being an HSP is much more akin to being a superhero than being sick. 

However, your HSP nature is a proven difference in your nervous system from a “typical” brain. Your body responds differently to dopamine. Mirror neurons for HSPs are more acutely attuned to everything, making you much more empathetic than a typical person. In short, this means that even though being an HSP is not the same as having a chronic illness, it is something that is a preset deep within your body and cannot just be ignored.

Think of it this way. Many people, including Gretchen Rubin at Psychology Today (also famed for her book, The Happiness Project), have suggested that it can be helpful to think of yourself in third-person, or to care for yourself as you would care for a toddler. It makes you more cognizant of what you would do if this were someone else, rather than letting your needs be swept under the rug. 

So if your toddler — (let’s call them Frankie) — was overwhelmed, how would you take care of that? Would you push sweet little Frankie to stay busy until they were fine again? Or would you send Frankie for a nap, snack, and some alone time

Being overwhelmed is not an illness, but it is something that happens in every human’s brain and something that should not just be ignored. While psychologist Kelly McGonigal shares in her TEDTalk on stress that it is only as dangerous as you perceive it to be, that does not diminish the effects of long-term, intense stress that are shared in doctor/scientist’s Sharon Horesh Bergquist’s talk. Plus, there is an endless amount of research out there on the 

impact of stress on the body, as well as its psychological and behavioral effects. Plus, this just goes to show that if your brain and body are more highly attuned to everything else as an HSP, they will be more aware of, and sensitive to, stress, as well.

So, What Does That Have to Do With You?

You ask the best questions! 

It means that you need to take better care of yourself! Remember the dichotomy I talked about earlier? Flick that little people-pleasing angel off your shoulder. It’s an angel in disguise, and an ugly one at that. You were never meant to live your life to please others. Here are three practical things you can do to plan your life better, stop giving in to the people-pleaser, and take better care of yourself, first and foremost. 

3 Ways to Take Better Care of Yourself as an HSP

1. Pre-plan everything — this will reduce the day-to-day overwhelm.

The biggest thing I have learned in the past year is that when I pre-plan things a week in advance, my life feels less overwhelming. There are fewer surprises in my week, and I have a preview to know what is going on before I am surprised by it. This gives me the freedom to adjust things early, so I don’t need to cancel plans last-minute with my friends. Plus, it gives me some freedom to be spontaneous. 

Plus, I like to give myself bonus points if I block out my calendar for a couple days or time slots each week. My Tuesday and Thursday afternoons are completely free almost every single week and I could not be happier with this whole set-up. I see a big difference in how my week goes when I am intentional about keeping those slots blocked off.

Use those times to invest in your deep, meaningful relationships. Or maybe you can go listen to an audiobook, podcast, or music while you get groceries. Take a nap. Journal. Make that time be what you need it to be, and don’t let your people-pleasing side try to take it away from you.

And, speaking of planning, meal-prep regularly, too (especially if you have to follow doctors’ orders and eat certain kinds of foods). Preparing meals ahead of time, particularly snacks for the week ahead, is one of the best things I’ve started to do. Whether that’s once a week or every few days, I have found that I am less overwhelmed, busy, and decision-fatigued when I have a meal already prepared and ready to throw in the microwave. Plus, meal-prepping gives me time to withdraw for a little while and sort through any thoughts that are taking over my overthinking HSP brain.

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2. Pick your outfit(s) and accessories the night before.

Of all the specifics listed above, this has been the biggest game-changer. Picking my outfit the night before allows me to think through the particulars of certain items. These are a few of the considerations I like to make the night before.

  • What will the weather be the next day? This is yet one more easy thing to predict ahead of time, so I’m not surprised the day-of and have more capacity for other things. In the mornings, I often don’t want to bother worrying about the weather if I need to be preparing myself for other big events in the day, so this saves me a lot of energy.
  • Choose your fabric wisely. Yes, I mean the texture. If it’s going to be an overwhelming day, there is no way I’m wearing something scratchy that will set my nerves on fire! I always make sure to look at my calendar and know if I need comfy clothes or if I can risk it a bit with (slightly) tighter, scratchier attire. Making this a habit has worked wonders!
  • Have costume changes ready, too. Not every day can fit into one outfit. I like to plan for any weather changes, workout clothes, and any other changes I may need as I move through my day.
  • Choose fun bling, too. Will these earrings be hitting against that vest all day, making noise? Do I need to wear makeup tomorrow? These are important considerations when I look at my jewelry, makeup, hairdos, and more. 

Overall, the point of this ritual is simply to know what the next day will look like and remove a few extra decisions for my mornings. Sometimes, if I’m particularly exhausted, I make it even easier and just grab my best sweatshirt and favorite leggings. Bing, bang, boom — my outfit is planned. 

3. Surround yourself with the right people, then be honest with your people.

Most importantly of all, make sure you surround yourself with the right people. It’s a game-changer when you have deep, meaningful friendships with people who understand you and love you. 

My mom is my champion for knowing what I can (and cannot) handle when we watch movies or TV together. My roommates know I’m jumpy and make extra noise when they go up and down the stairs. My besties know I’m perceptive and ask me for my honest opinion, knowing that I will always give it (and I know that they won’t get angry on the off chance they don’t agree).

Having people around me who know and understand me well is empowering. Find your people, explain your sensitivities, and then live life empowered in being a highly sensitive superhero

In Short, Don’t Shrink Your HSP Self to Fit the World. Instead, Make It Your World.

It took my being diagnosed with a lifelong, chronic autoimmune issue to finally live how I need to and be the healthiest version of me. Ironic, right? 

But I learned a valuable lesson: Taking care of yourself should be your priority. Life is so much sweeter when you aren’t adapting to hide your HSP-ness. It’s a superpower and it should be nurtured. So instead of shrinking your HSP self to fit the world, make it your world. 

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