As the culture of excess increases, nondescript immune system disorders are on the rise. Symptoms manifesting as an overwhelmed immune system, one that occasionally seems to attack healthy cells while also letting harmful pathogens through, are effecting the most sensitive among us. Roughly 3/4 of people with this symptom complex identify as women. This article explores the link between sensitivity, immunity, and the culture of excess.
Micro Mirrors Macro
Why would an immune system seemingly attack healthy cells, essentially attack itself? If we zoom out from the micro to the macro, there are many clues that present themselves. Most contemporary people are bombarded on a daily basis with stories that induce self-hate and self-blame. Advertising both online and in the physical world is sculpted by highly-trained professionals to make consumers feel as though they are not good enough, damaged, lesser-than, etc. Beyond advertising, the dominant education system and economic system reflect a puritan work ethic, heavy on guilt, self-hatred, and fear. If a highly sensitive person, a person more prone to absorbing/receiving their environment than others, is embedded in such things, it stands to reason that they could internalize these messages of self-hate, not just psychologically but also on a cellular level. It's not surprising that some people's cells, particularly the cells of people that are more yin and therefore less valued by the excess yang culture, seemingly turn on themselves. It's also not surprising that the majority of those suffering from such a symptom complex self-identify as women, or persons with more yin in their constitutions.
Why would an immune system misinterpret dangerous pathogens as being safe and nourishing? Again, if we zoom out from the micro to the macro, we don't have to look very far to see how unhealthy lifestyles, relationships, and consumption are held up by dominant cultural forces as being nourishing. If bowing to malevolent forces is the status quo then it's no surprise that people's immune systems, especially people that are socialized to submit, are becoming confused about what to let in and what to not let in. Have you ever had the experience of working for someone that didn't treat you well but you needed the paycheque? How about living in substandard housing or in an abusive relationship? Having limited or perceived limited options and submitting to the best worst option could influence one's immune system to be permissive to pathogens.
Low Immunity - A TCM Perspective
Chinese medicine treats symptoms according to the patient's constitution. Some patients naturally have more yang or active essence in their constitution and some naturally have more yin or receptive essence. Those with more yin in their constitution are much more vulnerable to suffer from weak or low immunity, as well as, migraine headaches. Because of this, Chinese medicine states that they require more protection from the harsher elements of the environment, and that they are the least served by the dominant, excess-yang culture that is spreading across the globe.
Mary Shutan, Doctor of Chinese Medicine and CranioSacral Therapist, writes about the myriad of health conditions sensitive people deal with in the age of excess - migraines, chronic fatigue, immune disorders, as well as, mood disorders. She has discovered that often these conditions develop when sensitives hold or accumulate more stimuli from the external environment than their bodies can effectively process. If adequate methods of filtering, limiting and processing stimuli are not cultivated, the person often becomes increasingly debilitated over time. She recommends lifestyle adjustments, as well as, daily energy hygiene practices in order for sensitives to avoid getting clogged with stimuli.
Sensitives as a Cultural Messengers
Sensitives can act as beacons, messengers, and warning systems to the culture at large - highlighting overarching disharmonies that society would benefit from addressing sooner rather than later. This doesn't absolve sensitives from taking responsibility for their healing, but it moves their symptom complex out of the realm of perceived personal weakness and into a realm that lends value to their suffering. Many profound works of art and innovation have been created by sensitives, exhibiting prophetic depth and universal applicability. Far from an over-reaction, their symptom complexes could be acting as a red flag, something requiring the attention of the larger culture.
Sensitives as purifiers
Trees take in carbon dioxide, purify it, and return it to the atmosphere as oxygen. Many sensitives have the ability to do the same with psychic stimuli. Highly attuned to discordance and harmony, sensitives have the potential to take in difficult stimuli, digest it, and return it to the atmosphere in a purified form. This is why sensitives make ideal healers and artists. They have the ability to transform illness into health, and to transform difficult experiences/observations into beauty. Unfortunately, this gift of purification is often underdeveloped due to the sensitive lacking tools and/or support and/or being in a state of overwhelm or ill-health.
I have been fascinated with immunity ever since I was hit with my first completely debilitating "mystery illness" many years ago. There is a liminal space that is entered into when nobody - holistic and allopathic practitioners alike - knows what is happening to your body or why. Over time, my response has been to engage in a dance of surrender and instinct - surrendering to the unknown until my instinct guides me towards the next step. Engaging with life on these terms has broadened my horizons and focused my priorities. It has definitely served to connect me with the non-human worlds and to notice the subtle patterns that those worlds speak. There's something exceptionally rich about uncomfortable experiences that cannot be ignored, denied or walked away from.
So, what do you do when you are of a sensitive constitution, living with an overwhelmed immune system or perhaps a different chronic symptom complex? Here's a list of tips that boost immunity and overall health in sensitives…
1. Put yourself in a healthier environment. Get yourself into an environment and moving at a pace that is healthier for you. No environment is perfect, and there are limits to what can be adjusted. Adjust what you can. This might mean having some FOMO, moving, taking a pay cut, quitting a harmful job, losing friends, hustling to get on EI, investing in health insurance, asking for help, doing daily practices that other people don't have to do, accepting stigmatized forms of assistance, and/or tossing out some ill-fitting life goals.
2. Eat healthier food and drink higher quality water. I live in a rural area so I'm able to volunteer on a farm in exchange for produce. This has had an amazing impact on my health and immunity. There are CSAs and volunteer farming programs in cities too. You don't necessarily need to have lots of money to eat well. Slowly work towards cutting out or lowering intake of sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. Bring more local fresh produce into your diet, and consider investing in a water filter. Take small, manageable steps to improve your food and water quality.
3. Rest. You will probably need more rest than other people. Don't feel guilty, rest as much as you are able to. Make sure you are resting, not stagnating. Deep rest is restorative, not draining or depressing.
4. Call in community care. Surround yourself with supportive people. Invest in a caring social circle and ask them for help. Friends, family, and lovers that have the privilege of good health are most likely not going to get what you are going through. It is completely okay for them to not understand what it is like, or for them to struggle with the ways that your health impacts them. However, it is not okay for them to take your health issues personally. If you find yourself feeling guilty for your symptoms, hiding your symptoms, or constantly feeling like your loved ones will not truly love you "until you are well" then you need to retune either your perception of your social situation, or retune the situation itself.
5. Help others. Every ounce of suffering that you endure can serve to make you into a more empathetic, more helpful person. Don't let this opportunity be lost. Grow from it all, become a more loving and kind person to others. Learn from the depth of your experience and share messages you receive with others, for the benefit of all.
6. Create beauty. In whatever small ways you can, use your life essence to create beauty and to be of service to the cosmic web. I love to build little "thank-you" shrines in my cabin, as well as in the surrounding forest. It's a small way for me to contribute and express gratitude for the generous environment that I live in.
7. Get in your body. Somatic / embodiment therapies are very effective for chronic conditions. Chronic pain and illness are often coped with by dissociating from the body. This can lead to the body giving off stronger and more painful signals of distress. Find ways to experience pleasure and healing through physicality. Dance. Have sex. Swim in a lake.
8. Do not habitually push yourself beyond your limits. It happens sometimes but try not to do this on an ongoing basis. If your career, family, or social circle demand that you push beyond your limits, then they could be contributing to your symptoms.
9. Let go of what isn't yours. As a sensitive, you will pick up on emotions and physical sensations that are not yours. Just because you are picking up on something discordant doesn't mean that it is your responsibility to take it on, fix it, process it, or find a solution for it. You can acknowledge something as discordant, let it go, and trust that it will work itself out without intervention on your part.
10. Empower/Protect yourself. Even if you've been dealt a harsh set of obstacles, there is no health in making yourself vulnerable to further obstacles by not stepping into your power. Take small steps to do what you need to do for yourself to feel empowered and protected. This might mean taking medication, prioritizing finances or stable housing, attending therapy to process trauma, adhering to a daily energetic hygiene practice, limiting screen time, asking for help or assembling a healing team, or taking a martial arts class, or a balance of many things. This will not happen overnight. It will happen as a result of small steps being taken over a long period of time.
11. Let the love in and out. When you are sensitive it can be really tempting to shield or block out all stimuli - even the nourishing kind. Allow yourself to love and to be loved in whatever healthy ways are available to you. When you do this you are literally training your immune system to be a stronger filter, allowing nourishment to flow in and pathogens to be blocked out. Intimacy is the enemy of the empire.
12. Develop tools for managing overwhelm. Use these tools daily. There are many tools, practices, and practitioners that can help you manage overwhelm. Beware of tools that will increase your sensitivity - these are appropriate for people that want to become more sensitive but they are a nightmare for people that are already sensitive. Explore what is out there and figure out what works best for your constitution. Use the tools that work for you daily so they can be drawn upon when difficult situations arise.
Thanks for reading! This article was inspired by Paul Pitchford's work, Mary Shutan's work, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and the work of Christina Pratt.
Rhoneil is an experimental musician, art teacher, and therapy student, based in Sinixt territory, Winlaw, BC. She works in collaboration with the rhythms of nature and the voices of the invisibles. Her creative work is currently supported by the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Kootenay Columbia Arts Council. Rhoneil has post-secondary degrees in Environmental Studies and Arts Education. She is a life-long student of holistic cosmology, and counselling. She is currently studying somatic therapy (BCST) with the Body Intelligence Institute, and completing a private training in earth-based ritual practice.