As a naturopathic doctor, I see quite a number of patients who identify as Highly Sensitive (or HSP) – people who get easily overwhelmed by stimuli, and are more susceptible to the effects of life stress (see previous article “The Impact of Stress on the Highly Sensitive Person”) In these cases, my job is to develop a treatment plan that takes into account the highly sensitive nervous system. For example, HSPs may need a lower dose of herbs, or a shorter acupuncture treatment then the average person.
Over the years of working with this population, I have discovered several important ways that HSPs can change their lifestyles to accommodate their nervous systems. Making these changes can allow the Highly Sensitive Person to boost their resilience in the face of stress. This blog post identifies two of the biggies:
1. INCREASE TIME IN NATURE
Research clearly shows a positive physiological and psychological benefit when we increase our exposure to nature. Because HSPs have an acutely perceptive nervous system it means they are usually very deeply affected by their surroundings either negatively or positively. Spending too long in a crowded room or subway train, for example, can be enough to elevate stress hormones. But by spending more time in nature on a regular basis HSPs can achieve the opposite effect. Let’s look at the research: Roger S. Ulrich was a pioneer in the field of stress physiology and nature. In the 1980’s, he and his research team found that being in nature increased serotonin (a feel-good neurotransmitter) in his test subjects and offset the effects of stress. More recently, a 2004 Japanese study showed that the presence of green plants lowers blood pressure and heart rate and increased serotonin production in patients with mental illness.
Another Japanese study from Chiba University found lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in subjects after 40 minute walks in the forest compared to those who took laboratory walks.
Researchers from Nippon Medical School – also in Japan – measured the impact of “forest bathing” – spending a whole day in the forest – on immune system function. The results showed that forest bathers had a significant increase in the number and functional activity of certain immune cells for a full week after the trip compared to those who took an urban trip who experienced no such increase.
So in recent years I have been enjoying prescribing “time in nature” to my patients, especially the HSPs. Our clinic actually is nature themed and we have tried to incorporate nature in the design as a reminder of its importance to overall health. “Nature, time and patience are three great physicians.”— H. G. Bohn
2. REDUCE SCREEN TIME
Unfortunately, as the health benefits of nature become clear, we are spending less and less time out of doors, and more time in front of a screen. Young people spend, on average, a staggering 7 hours and 38 minutes each day using entertainment media. Half of them have a video game player in their bedroom and seven out of ten have a TV in their room. An Ipsos Reid poll says 59% of Canadian teens “can’t live without” the internet. And a survey reported in the Chicago Tribune showed that 40% of iPhone users would rather give up brushing their teeth for a week than go without their phone!
It’s no secret that the internet, texting and social media have an almost addictive quality; but this trend is occurring at the expense of our mental health. Long term studies are showing screen media consumption is associated with more depression, social anxiety, psychological difficulties and less sleep. And this is certainly congruent with what I’m seeing in my practice.
So as screen time increases for most people, time in nature decreases and stress and anxiety rates rise. Because of the HSP tendency to get overwhelmed, HSPs are more at risk for these effects. So I strongly encourage my HSP patients to consider limiting screen time. Here are some ways of doing this:
- Turning off the TV and the computer at least 1 hr before bed can vastly improve sleep quality which allows your nervous system to regenerate.
- Keeping your phone out of your bedroom can help you resist the temptation to check for messages when you take that 4 am pee break.
- Not watching scary movies and even the news. The negative images can be too much for some people, causing sleep disturbances or increasing anxiety about problems that we have no control over.
- And taking a social media holiday for even a week can work on breaking the addiction cycle.
Stay tuned for more practical tips … Learn to Thrive as a Highly Sensitive Person (Part 2)