My husband and I have an inside joke: he married me AND my nervous system.
Why would I talk about my nervous system as a separate entity? Well, because it dominates my experience here on this earth as a human being. I am what Elaine Aron calls a Highly Sensitive Person.
If I had to give this a visual, picture my cute little head with large antennas on it, constantly surveying my environment. This is expends a lot of energy, and the thing to know is that highly sensitive people don’t have a choice. This is how we move through the world.
I know if the person running the cash register at the grocery store is having a good day.
I used to walk in my parent’s house and say, “Mom, did you clean with Windex?” She would reply, “Yes, six hours ago” and then she would sigh. She didn’t think I would know.
I am the first to cry in a group setting and the last to stop crying. I cry for people who can’t.
I detest criticism. I mean, really, it hurts my soul.
I deal with varying levels of anxiety and depression, even when life is good.
I have a history of panic attacks.
I suffer from food sensitivities to wheat and dairy and find myself intolerant to sugar (empathic people often have food allergies: if you are sensitive on one level, you will be sensitive on others).
I have been fooled a few times by pathological liars, but for the people who are close to me, I know when I am not getting the whole story.
I think you can get the picture. I know I am not alone.
Being a sensitive woman in an insensitive world is challenging. It is a gift and a burden all in the same breath. In fact, many of my health challenges actually stem from a pattern of wanting to prove myself. “Hey, I’m not sensitive. Look at what I can do!”
Having to prove yourself = burnout. And that is why I am writing about this topic today. Highly sensitive people need permission to care for themselves. Well, here you go. You’re not being selfish when you do something to care for yourself. Selfish people are greedy and out for themselves. This is not that.
I have had to learn to love my sensitivities and see them as strengths, instead of character flaws. In that love for myself, I have also had to learn how to care for my nervous system, so I want to share my practices with you:
~Sleep. The closer to 9PM that I can go to bed, the better off I am. The highly sensitive person already has a ramped up nervous system and going to bed late or not getting enough rest just ramps it up even more. To bed at 9PM for 9 hours is my motto. Can I live by this everyday? No, but I can give it my best shot.
~Massage. I used to get massages monthly. Then, one day my therapist said, “You know, if you can afford it, get one a week.” “Really?!” I replied. “Yes,” she said.
That is not a hard prescription to follow and has made a huge difference is my resilience. When you massage your skin, you are literally massaging your nervous system. Plus, you get a huge dose of oxytocin, which is the anti-stress hormone of love, bonding, and affection. Massage is a therapeutic event, not a luxury.
In Ayurvedic medicine, they talk about calming the vata energy, or the air element, which can dominate the experience of a highly sensitive person. Nothing calms vata better than rubbing the skin with healthy oils on a regular basis. So soothing.
~Acupuncture. When I ask people if they have ever had acupuncture, many of them say that they are not in pain, so there is no need. Yes, acupuncture is effective for pain, but it is so much more than that. It works with the energy meridians in the body, preventing disease before it settles into the physical body. It is an outstanding tool for finding comfort in the world, calming an anxious body and enlivening the depressed person. I can’t recommend it enough for caring for an over-stimulated nervous system.
~Eating a high fat diet. Fat soothes. There are two fuels that the brain can access: glucose and ketones. Glucose is sugar and it is excitatory. Ketones are a byproduct of fat metabolism and calm the brain. This is why native people would fast before hunting. Ketones create a calm, grounded presence in which you can have increased peripheral vision. This is also why a ketogenic diet is used for epilepsy. If the nervous system had a choice, it would prefer butter, coconut oil, medium chain triglycerides, olive oil, and lard for its fuel. It offers a much more stable energy source for the nervous system.
~Float tanks. This is my newest practice and actually inspired this blog post. I go to Zero Gravity once per week where I receive an amazing chair massage and then I go into a sensory deprivation chamber for one hour. Do I need to say more? NO stimulation for one hour. The last time I went there, I felt like I was in there for 5 minutes. For me, it is the ultimate meditation. Sometimes I need to relax through my body, to relax my mind. The float tank experience is extraordinary.
~A daily walk outside. (The flower photo up top was taken on one of my daily walks this week). Walking is calming and rhythmic. Exercise clears stress hormones from the bloodstream and improves wellbeing, plus spending time in Nature is wonderful for sensitive folks.
~Herbal medicine. Herbs have literally given me my life back, and I will forever be grateful for plant medicine. Kava Forte and Nervagesic from MediHerb are my two favorite remedies right now for bringing me a sense of calm and confidence. I can step into the unknown with these two formulas, and can stay connected to myself. Highly sensitive people can become consumed by their environment. These herbs help me keep my feet on the ground.
~Intention matters. When I engage in these practices, I make it a point to talk to my nervous system. I thank it for alerting me to danger (in any form), and I also remind it that it is safe.
~Gratitude. I stay grateful for the richness of my existence. I feel deeply. I taste layers of complexity. And if I trust myself, my nervous system can effortlessly guide me to the things that are good for me and help me move away from the people, places and things that are not.
~Compassion. Above all else, I have to respect my body and understand that it is much smarter than I am. If I don’t respect the boundaries of what my nervous system can handle, I hurt and can’t make the contributions that I want to my family or greater community. To me, this is learning compassion. When I push myself, I must find compassion. I can’t do what other people can do. I detest this American notion that you can have anything you want! No, you can’t! The sooner that sensitive people can respect them selves and honor that, the sooner we will heal.
The world needs sensitive people to rise up now more than ever into leadership roles. We are the ones who can feel when something is not right. From the obvious, like Donald Trump, to the subtle, like something doesn’t taste right in this soup, we are the first to know when there is something rotten in Denmark – so to speak.
If we are like the divining rods of the universe, don’t you think we should prepare ourselves to do something divine?
Rather than thinking we are weak or selfish for nurturing ourselves, we must realize it’s our JOB to care for ourselves in ways that we haven’t, so that we can show up in a time of need and have the courage to shine a light on the truth we so clearly see.
If you want to study this topic more, Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, and her Ted Talk do an excellent job of furthering the understanding of what it means to be sensitive. No, not all highly sensitive people are stereotypical introverts. Susan Cain’s work goes way beyond these caricatures.
The bottom line is that sensitive people see the world differently and we need their perspectives. So please take care of yourself. The world is asking to change and evolve in consciousness. I know I’m up for it. How about you?
You might see things slow down on the blog for the next couple of months while I work to finish my book. Have no fear...I'll still be sending out my weekly newsletter, so be sure to SUBSCRIBE to keep getting all my top tips and tools for reclaiming your vitality.