I came down with a bug last week. I felt queasy and I ached all over. But please don’t say, “Oh, poor thing,” before you’ve heard my guilty secret: I was happy to be sick. Thrilled, even.

Why? Because I have been desperately tired. With our recent skunk adventure, I’ve been run ragged for a month. It was super-stressful and time-consuming: I’m still dragging in bags of skunk-scented stuff from the garage to be laundered. (Now you can say, “Oh, poor thing”!)

Now I had an honorable, bulletproof excuse to go sleep.

HSPs are more vulnerable

Everybody is more likely to get sick under stress. But there’s an additional risk for sensitive people. If we haven’t learned to validate our own need for rest and “alone time,” getting sick may be our only socially acceptable way to take a break when we feel overwhelmed. As a kid, did you ever get queasy thinking of going to school?  An HSP child picks up the cues that overwhelm isn’t a valid excuse for missing school, so she develops a stomach ache.

This pattern shows up for us in the adult world of work, too. In Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine Aron writes,

Work often exacerbates [HSP’s] swings between feeling unusually gifted and unusually impaired socially and emotionally….having physically sensitive bodies anyway, these patients often develop more intense symptoms under stress…Finally, there is no doubt that since work is something every adult must do, if one feels unable, an adequate excuse is physical infirmity.*

Working towards a performance degree in oboe, I studied with a teacher who could be as brutal as he was brilliant. In one lesson he said caustically, “What is this pathetic Mickey Mouse tone you are making?” I was a hard-working student and there was no call to speak to me that way. Today, I’d have the self-respect to be outraged by such a comment, or at least irritated. But at the time, my reaction was to feel mortified. I never dreamed of responding.

My body had different ideas, however. As the hour of my lesson approached,  I developed a large lump in my throat, as if I had tried to swallow a golf ball and it had gotten stuck half way down. I couldn’t possibly play. So I called and cancelled the lesson…and the mysterious “golf ball” melted away.

Did I make myself sick?

No. Elaine says “I have never seen a case of malingering—a true choice to feign illness—in highly sensitive patients. I have no doubt, however, that the body can cooperate when this is the only solution to a terrible problem.”* In this case, my refused to let the incident pass without comment. The lump was a kind of protective protest. It worked, too: he never spoke harshly to me again.

My achey illness this week was form physical protest, too: my body was insisting on a more sustained period of rest than I had been able to allow myself.

This is a really, really important for us as HSPs to understand this pattern. It can be expensive, risky, and painful to get rest or relief by subconsciously invoking illness or injury. My mother, a psychologist herself, explained to me that stress comes from a collision between “I can’t!” and “I have to!” The irresistible force meets the immovable object and the body takes the blow.

Back when I was devoting all my time to taking orchestra auditions, I was scheduled to take one in Boston. It was way too much on top of everything else I had going on, but I felt strongly I should do it. The “I can’t do this….” voice and the “But I have to do it!” voice were colliding in my body, but I did not have the inner relationship skills to bring the conflict to a conscious level. Instead, as I stood chopping onions for dinner, the knife slipped and I sliced deep into the forefinger of my left hand.

I had been feeling like a balloon overinflated to the bursting point, but the moment I cut myself, the tension drained out of me. That finger operates a really touchy key on the oboe, so I had an indisputable excuse to cancel the audition trip.  My finger hurt a lot but as I bandaged it up and prepared to drive to the ER,  I felt nothing but relief.

Beware of your conscientious HSP nature

I haven’t had a lethal encounter with a kitchen knife for many years now, and I rarely get sick because I’ve learned to take seriously my HSP needs for physical and mental rest. But the Skunk Invasion Incident put unprecedented pressure on my external and internal infrastructures. All my routines-meals, exercise, sleep, work (I work from home)—were utterly disrupted. The constant stress pushed my inner relationship to its limit.

I often say to clients, “Your infrastructure works until it doesn’t.” I knew I was tired, and I had taken a half day here, or a night there to rest. But I was overriding increasingly desperate messages from my body. It was saying, “I need to go to a cabin in the woods for a week and do nothing but sleep.” I was saying, “I have to wash these skunky clothes! We’ll rest tomorrow.”

Here’s where your wonderful HSP quality of conscientiousness can get you in trouble. We labor to a fault to be sure to fulfill our obligations, even if we are on death’s door. We are empathetic and keenly aware of the effects on others of our actions (or non-actions.) We hate to disappoint others or inconvenience them or let them down and dread the criticism or disapproval we may endure as a result.  And on top of all that, we may feel ashamed to be exhausted. Our inner critic says, “What’s wrong with you?! Everyone else is carrying on just fine!”

Three questions to head illness off at the pass

Given this tendency to self-denying conscientiousness, I’ve adopted a deliberate bias in favor or rest. Specifically, if any thought of needing rest crosses my mind, I pounce on it and take it seriously. If you, like me,  have a history of getting sick or injured and feeling secretly relieved, ask yourself:

  1. Is there something I need to pay attention to here? Is this a sign of some ongoing imbalance in my life?
  2. Is there an irresistible force meeting an immovable object here? Is there something I’m telling myself I have to do but feel I can’t do? How can I resolve this?
  3. Were there warning signs I missed or ignored in the past days or weeks that I needed rest? Did I know I needed rest, but discounted the knowing?

In addition to asking yourself these questions, take a look at the Holmes-Rahe Scale and familiarize yourself with the 43 stressful life events that trigger illness (some of the things on the list might surprise you.)  Illness and injury are an inevitable part of the human condition. But with self-awareness, an understanding of your HSP tendencies, and a proactive approach, you can drastically reduce the frequency.

*Aron, E. (2010). Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person, p. 182. New York: Routledge.

Thank you Kaitlyn for the beautiful photo! (kaity.wyenberg@gmail.com)