Being sick as an HSP, you get to put it all down. The trick is to learn to do that without getting sick.

Three and a half years into the pandemic (do we still call it a pandemic anymore?), I finally came down with COVID-19. Perhaps I’ve had it before and didn’t know. This time, I definitely knew.

I give thanks to the COVID gods: this felt no worse than a bad flu. During three days of fever and extreme congestion, I lay happily in bed, alternating between sleep and wakefulness. I had a lot of time to think.

As I pondered, I realized something wonderful. I no longer require the motivation of an illness to give myself time to rest. Yes, this particular stint of rest was illness-motivated, but that’s unusual: I hardly ever get sick anymore. In the past, by contrast, getting sick was typically the only way I could get myself to stop.

I also noticed how much my body appreciated the way I was taking care of it. It has taken me a long time to amass an HSP-friendly collection of self-care tools. I knew they were powerful, but it still amazed me to feel the tangible way they supported me this week.

Strengthening the body: coherent breathing, tai chi, qigong

In particular, I noticed the deep benefits of coherent breathing. When I calmed my body and created brain coherence with coherent breathing, I could feel my body healing faster. When I rested, I rested more deeply.

Practiced over time, coherent breathing dramatically increases your body’s ability to metabolize oxygen. In fact, this has been a concrete way I’ve addressed my COVID fears over the past three years: I might experience shortness of breath, but at least I’d make sure I could get the most out of each breath I took.

This time, as soon as I could clear my airways (I used a neti pot frequently), I began doing 20-minute sessions of coherent breathing multiple times a day. What a relief to be able to breathe deeply.

In addition, when you practice coherent breathing over a period of months and years, it increases your body’s ability to build strength rapidly. Even though I knew this, I was surprised how quickly I regained strength after this illness. I had none of the lightheadedness or weakness I’ve noticed in the past when I resumed exercising after having had a fever. On the contrary: it felt great to move.

To my surprise, I also found myself willingly doing short stints of tai chi and qigong each day, even when I had a fever and felt truly lousy. My body loved this. Western medicine doesn’t talk about energy, but it makes so much sense that keeping the energy moving through the body and keeping the channels clear would be intensely health supportive.

Listening to the body: Focusing

I think being highly sensitive can be a gift when I’m sick. I can sense with great subtlety and accuracy what is and isn’t helping me get better. I can honor my body’s needs.

This gift comes with a caveat, however.  I must firmly establish myself behind the wheel of my own mind. If a scared part gets in the driver’s seat, I struggle to keep perspective and to be present with what is happening.

Being in the driver’s seat doesn’t have to be a big deal. It just means I am aware and present, paying attention to what is happening and making room for all the guests in the inner guest house of my mind and body.

Specifically, I must make room for the “guests” of discomfort, pain, and fear. I do this by practicing Focusing. I begin by describing what I am sensing, and by also acknowledging any aversion to what I am sensing.

Here’s an example from my own inner dialogue this week:

I’m noticing my head feels horribly congested…

I’m acknowledging my body, especially my head, for all it is holding for me right now…

I’m describing what that feels like…it’s like an intense pressure behind my face, like a balloon pressing out…

I’m checking if I’m OK letting this pressure feeling be as it is, for as long as it needs to be [This is how I check to see if I’m truly welcoming all the guests. I had a big hint something in me did NOT want this to be as it was–that is, the part of me that described the congestion as “horrible.”]

I’m sensing something in me that really hates that congested feeling…I’m acknowledging it, too….

I could tell when I had finally acknowledged and “heard” or described all the different sides, because my body noticeably relaxed. After this conversation, I fell into a peaceful sleep.

Transcending the body: illness as spiritual practice

I’ve always worried about getting some awful diagnosis like cancer. I’m scared I won’t be able to handle it—that I’ll be freaked out with fear, or that I will feel so physically wretched that I won’t be able to focus my mind to stay present.

The reality is, I could get cancer, or be injured in an accident, or suffer some other kind of bodily harm. There’s no way around that. I live in a body, after all.

On the other hand, I’m not doomed to sit idly by, allowing that worry to fester. I can, and do, control the things I can control—my thoughts, my choices, and my actions. I do all I can to be healthy.  I eat healthy food. I exercise. I rest. I have fun. I keep my stress level down.

I used to believe that illness represented a catastrophe, or a failure of self-care. At the same time, though, getting sick was my only way to get some time off to rest…so functionally, it was a form of self-care. Not a sustainable form, but at least a temporarily successful one. No wonder I’d always feel relieved to learn I was sick.

Now, I think of illness as another experience to learn from. This is a big shift. You could even say it is the big shift—from the intent to control to the intent to learn. As Inner Bonding explains, moving into the intent to learn opens you to your spiritual intuition—the most important of all resources for HSPs.

Image © 2023 Emily Agnew