Updated: May 31, 2020
I have seen many similarities between Hashimoto’s symptoms and with the traits of being either a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) or Empath, or both. I wonder whether being a HSP/Empath makes us more susceptible to manifesting an autoimmune disease like Hashimoto’s?
When we take a look at Hashimoto’s - it is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system begins attacking its own tissue (in this case, the thyroid). We know that environmental triggers play a HUGE part in developing autoimmune disease. We also know that removing these triggers improves symptoms and in some cases, even puts the disease into remission. Now, you could say that the immune system is ‘over-reactive’ or ‘sensitive’ to its environment. But the signals from the external environment are communicated to the body through our nervous system. And you will see I go on to explain, that a over-reactive nervous system is exactly what is going on in HSPs. Psychoneuroimmunology tells us that the brain talks to the immune system through the nervous system. So surely an over-reactive nervous system also leads to an over-reactive immune system?
This had made me wonder about myself - as I identify with being a HSP - whether perhaps I was more susceptible to Hashimoto's because of this heightened ability of processing my external environment via a very excitable nervous system...!
My experience of being a HSP and Empath
The more I do inner-work, the more I am beginning to understand myself more and more. I am beginning to accept parts of myself which I had previously suppressed or rejected. In particular, the sensitive part of me. I didn’t know that there was even such a term as ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ or ‘Empath’. I just thought everyone was really good at suppressing their feelings down, so I did the same. Day after day I suppressed, suppressed, numbed and numbed. I didn’t know how to handle this. I thought something was wrong with me. I hated this part of me. I thought to myself: Why am I so sensitive? Why can I FEEL so much? Why am I taking on that other person’s feelings? My experience of sensitivity was actually FEELING someone else’s feelings.
You know when someone is in a bad mood and people say ‘there’s a bad vibe in this room’? It was like this, accept I felt my body resonating with their emotional vibration. I could literally FEEL the tension from them in my own body. I would suddenly ‘take on’ their emotions. So if they were feeling anxiety, I would start to feel anxious - even when I didn’t have any reason to feel anxious! I just thought this happened to everyone else - and thought they were just ‘handling’ it much more than me!!
I would also notice everything about a person - not just their words. In fact, quite often, their words didn’t mirror the feeling I got from them. For example, I could tell when someone was being genuine - not from their words, but from their energy. This was a feeling that was coming from my body and not my mind. I suppose it's similar to that ‘gut feeling’ that everyone talks about.
I have now learned that these experiences of feeling deeply and having a strong intuition are traits of being an Empath - which is very common trait of HSPs.
In addition to being an Empath, I have always had a strong sensitivity to smells such as household cleaning products and perfumes, as well as loud sounds and bright lights. And I have always had a love-hate relationship with going to music concerts… I love to see my favourite bands play and loovve admiring the staging, graphics and lighting… BUT about halfway through it seems to get too much for me … I find it a sensory overload!
So, what does it mean to be a HSP?
HSPs are frequently misunderstood because the word ‘sensitive’ is seen as negative in our culture and looked down upon. How many times have you heard the words ‘stop being so sensitive’, or ‘toughen up’?
Being a HSP does not mean that there is something wrong with you - it is not a ‘condition’. It doesn’t mean you are weak or stupid. In fact, it is estimated 20% of the population is a HSP.
Being a Highly Sensitive Person simply means that you process more information about the world around you than anyone else. Your nervous system picks up on and reacts more to your external environment. This is why many HSP’s get easily fatigued at large gatherings or in crowded places and need time alone to re-charge. This is why many HSP’s are especially sensitive to smells, bright lights, loud noises and textures - in addition to other people’s emotions.
Some common traits of a HSP:
Processing situations and your environment very deeply
Noticing subtle things others wouldn't notice (such as very faint sounds or a flickering light)
Feeling overwhelmed in highly stimulating environments (such as crowds, concerts etc)
Feeling fatigued and need plenty of ‘down time’ to recover from highly stimulating environments
Being an Empath - picking up on emotional cues, feeling empathy for others, and sometimes find themselves absorbing other people’s emotions
Being deeply moved by art, nature, music, etc.
Enjoying deep conversations over smalltalk
Often thinks deeply (such as our place in the world, why are we here, our purpose etc)
Most likely has a vivid imagination and has highly creative abilities
Very intuitive and may be more likely to develop psychic abilities
May be more likely to go into professions that involve helping people or expressing their art in some way (such as coaches, healers, artists, creators etc)
There is a free HSP self-test I found online that you can do here
Therefore, the reason why HSP’s can get easily overwhelmed in highly stimulating environments is because the brain is processing so much information! Way more information than anyone else around them is even noticing! So if you thought this was just you being ‘too much’, it is certainly not! In fact, as much as it has it’s flaws, if this trait is embraced and used in the right way, it can become a huge gift. For example, HSPs are usually much more creative and imaginative and can make great thought-leaders and visionaries. I sometimes feel that I have - as Spiderman says - ‘spidey senses’ and now see it as a super-power! ;)
In an article about HSPs in Psychology Today (Bartz, A, 2011), it focused on what HSPs have to offer: ‘They make compassionate friends who truly care about others; they channel beauty from the world into art and music; they notice things others miss’.
I’ve decided to stop fighting my sensitivity. I’ve decided to accept it and fully embrace it. Accepting our sensitivity will allow us to work with it rather than against it. Part of the acceptance is realising that we may have to live life a bit differently from the majority and prioritise our wellbeing so we can show up as the best versions of ourselves. For example, carving out lots of time for re-charging, creating boundaries in our relationships and being mindful of what we are consuming (through food, self-care products, what we read, listen to, people we surround ourselves with).
‘I truly believe that Highly Sensitive People are the medicine our world needs. We are the lovers, the dreamers, the artists & the healers.’ - Tahlee Rouillon
I think that if we fully accept our sensitive nature, there won’t be so much of an inner battle going on inside our heads. If we are constantly fighting with parts of ourself, then, as Dr Gabor Mate suggests in his book ‘When the body says no’, we won’t have a sense of what is us and what is not - there is no boundary between our inside and the outside - so where is the threat? Is the threat coming from something external or is it coming from something internal? Since the mind and body are connected, could this confusion be why the body attacks itself? If we are attacking ourselves with our mind, then it seems to make sense that the body would then do the same. After all, the field of Epigenetics tells us our thoughts directly impact our gene expression and the field of Psychoneuroimmunology tells us that the brain, nervous system and immune system are all in constant communication with each other...
For more information on Psychoneuroimmunology, check out this journal: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/psychoneuroimmunology
For more information on Epigenetics, check out Dr Bruce Lipton's website: https://www.brucelipton.com/what-epigenetics