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HSP Living: The Highly Sensitive Person and the Healing Power of Nature
The "Bible" of High Sensitivity
Dr. Elaine Aron's 1996 landmark book changed the way the world views "being highly sensitive." Instead of regarding sensitivity as a "choice" or something resulting from one's environment, Dr. Aron's research revealed that sensitivity is actually an inborn physiological trait affecting 15-20% of the population. A HIGHLY recommended book for all who believe they are particularly sensitive!
This "HSP Living" article is part of an ongoing series about the many tools and practices a highly sensitive person can use on a daily basis to remain calm and well-balanced.
If you are just now starting your journey to understanding your sensitivity, I'd also recommend that you read my introductory article about the HSP trait. I have written numerous articles on this topic-- a complete listing of my HSP-related articles can be found on my profile page. I also highly recommend reading Dr. Elaine Aron's original book on the subject, which has changed the lives of millions of HSPs around the world. ► ► ►
If you're not entirely sure whether or not you're actually an HSP, you may also wish to visit Dr. Elaine Aron's web site and take her brief "sensitivity self test" which is free and might offer you more insight.
HSPs and Nature-- Why we are Drawn to it
Most Highly Sensitive People have an uncommonly strong affinity for nature.
In part, we seem to be drawn to the intricate beauty it offers; in part we are drawn to the way it affords us a place to seek peace and solitary silence in an often chaotic world. In contrast to most human-made sounds, the sounds of nature tend to be calming and soothing for HSPs.
Many HSPs state that they feel "at home" in the natural world... in part because it is free of the "noise" of technology and modern living; in part because it is free of the "psychic noise" of groups of people. Absent that noise, we feel more able to think and simply "be." Nature offers refuge from what often feels like an "artificially constructed world."
According to Dr. Elaine Aron, HSPs are also deeply moved by nature and beauty; being outdoors often affords us a chance to fully experience our deep and strong feelings in a non-threatening environment-- whether it is brought about through watching a beautiful sunset or a leaf drifting on a stream.
Some Practical (and Scientific) Considerations
Of course, being in nature is good for almost everybody, regardless of whether or not you are an HSP. Various studies-- and science, in general-- document the value of being in nature.
For example, studies have shown that as little as 20 minutes a day in nature can help elevate people's mood. In a controlled lab study, subjects with clinical depression were divided into groups that either would talk walks for exercise in nature, or walks for exercise inside a shopping mall. 71% of the outdoor walkers experienced an improvement in their depression, while only 40% saw similar benefits from mall walking... and, what's more... over 20% of the mall walkers actually experienced a deepening of their depression.
Other studies have shown that merely being IN nature results in our bodies producing lower levels of cytokines, an enzyme that causes inflammation.
Meanwhile, being outside not only gives us the benefit of natural sunlight-- and the resultant vitamin D-- but helps those (many of whom are HSPs) afflicted with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). And, of course, most outdoor activity involves movement, so there's the benefit of exercise.
Healing... Naturally, the HSP way
So how exactly DO HSPs heal in nature? And is is necessary to have some kind of "conscious practice," in order to gain healing benefits from nature?
A good starting point is to remember that it is an essential part of general well-being for an HSP to have ample "alone time" to recover from overstimulation. And there are few better places to "find quiet" than nature.
It's a common misconception that we need to be "doing" something to benefit from nature's healing effects. Actually, we don't-- as long as we seek out a quiet space and give ourselves permission to "let go" of the worries and thoughts that may be swirling around inside our heads, and simply "be," in the moment. In fact, if we place too much attention on "doing" while in nature, we may actually lose some of the relaxation benefits because our minds stay excessively preoccupied.
Some may find it difficult to stop thinking and just BE, so there are also some simple techniques you can employ to get yourself more grounded and centered.
Most commonly, I use a "walking meditation," which allows the benefit of movement (also very beneficial to HSPs) while quieting the mind.
A Beautiful Guide to Walking Meditations
This is not just a lovely book, but a book and CD/DVD combo, created by Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh. It is highly suitable to HSPs, and covers walking meditations in all settings, from noisy cities to serene countryside. It's an excellent guide if you want to fully understand the value of having a "practice."
More About Walking Meditations
Personally, I do most of my walking meditations on the beach, because I love the "white noise" backdrop of ocean and wind sounds, combined with the occasional cry of a sea gull.
However, when it gets too windy-- or just because I "feel like it"-- I will also do walking meditations in our nearby state park which is far more sheltered.
However, there's no rule that says you have to do a walking meditation in nature-- when I am traveling, I sometimes walk around city neighborhoods during quiet times of the day. Nature, however, enhances the benefits.
I often get asked about the difference between "just walking" and a "walking meditation." The best way to characterize the difference is really "intent."
You can "take a walk" for any number of reasons from "the dog needed to go out" to "exercise" to "I ran out of bread and walked to the shops." A walking meditation has a very specific purpose-- namely to help you relax and find inner quiet; to silence our swirling thoughts.
For me, it started by simply "counting steps" (as a kind of "mantra") as I walked, because it was a "mindless" alternative to thinking about work/relationship/family/money problems. I also incorporated breathing into the process, counting "one-two-three-four-IN, one-two-three-four-OUT" and so forth.
Now some 20 years later, I am not really aware of a "process" anymore... I just start walking, and my mind goes "still," out of practice.
Another way to experience the healing power of nature is to keep a journal-- outside. This is especially useful as a "problem solving" or "creative" tool.
I recommend hand written-- for a number of reasons-- but if you must, use your tablet or laptop computer.
What is the benefit of journaling in nature?
Well, no matter how hard you may try, creating a truly "uninterrupted" space in which to journal at home can be difficult. No matter what, there's always the phone, or the mail arriving, or wanting to check your email, or your kids, or needing "a quick break for a soda," or something else sitting "at the edge" of your awareness.
When you take an actual journal book and a pen out into nature, it removes all the distractions, and allows you to get in touch with a fundamental part of your inner self.
For HSPs-- who usually have very rich inner worlds-- journaling in nature can also offer an excellent way to get in touch with your creative flow. I have gotten a great many ideas for my writing simply from sitting down outside and letting my thoughts flow onto paper.
Nature as "Therapist"
I sometimes refer to nature as my "therapist" and when I say that to someone I am only joking a little bit.
Aside from the immediate value I gain from walking meditations, I sometimes use my time in nature to "problem solve" an assortment of challenging situations in my personal life.
Absent the "noise" of distractions and people at home, I find I can have "inner conversations" about particular issues that are troubling me. This can include all manners of things from feeling stuck on a writing project to trying to resolve what to do about a friend with whom I might be having some communication issues.
I'm not suggesting that spending time in nature is a substitute for getting help from a qualified mental health practitioner, but it definitely CAN help you clarify your thoughts.
Nature as a Spiritual Experience
In many ways, I can truly say that "Nature is my Church."
Maybe that sounds a bit "formal," but nature is definitely a place to which I can retreat and find peace, much like the peace many people get from being a member of a Church.
For me, the spiritual aspects arise when I pause and truly look at the beauty and intricacy around me. Often, we walk around outside and the world around us is merely a pretty backdrop for "something else" we're concerned about. Taking the time to truly see what is around us-- to study the intricacy of a flower, or the rippling reflections on a pond on a sunny day, or bumblebees feeding from a flower garden has the ability to bring us closer to "the source" from which we all came. In turn, that can offer us a great sense of inner peace.
And when we truly learn to see what is there, we also get to witness some wondrous and beautiful things-- birds learning to fly; an otter taking her offspring to the ocean or lake for the first time; the very essence of life on our planet.
Nature in the Country
Going into nature is easy enough, when you live in a rural area. In fact, you are probably surrounded by nature... but do you actually take the time to truly be in it? Or do you just take it for granted?
Surprisingly, even when we are aware of the proximity of natural space, we often fail to use it. We may have a beautiful greenbelt area with walking trails at the end of our street, yet all we do is think to ourselves "I really ought to go for more walks," but we never actually get around to it. Since we love nature, part of us tends to feel like going outside should "come naturally," yet it often requires an ongoing commitment, or a "practice," if you will.
I have found that being outside helped me developed more of a sense of consciousness-- following the saying "Be Here NOW." I have learned to pay a lot more attention to what is around me-- a definite benefit. Truly observe your surroundings!
Now, if you don't really like your immediate natural surroundings, you always have the option to create something that suits you. Plant a flower garden! Clear out that patch of nettles and blackberries and create a beautiful peaceful place to retreat to!
The latter can be very beneficial for the Highly Sensitive Person because we tend to spend a lot of time "inside our heads," and "getting our hands in the dirt" is an excellent way to break state and-- for many of us-- far more enjoyable than going to the gym to exercise with people we neither know nor care very much about.
Nature in the City
Getting out in nature is easy enough when you live in a rural area, or even in suburbia. But what about those who live in cities, with their concrete "landscapes," noise and pollution?
HSPs in the city are especially in need of access to natural spaces. Fortunately, there are typically lots of options, but they may take a little time to uncover.
The obvious choice is a park, public garden or a nicely planted area. Keep in mind that your best choice may not always be "the park around the corner."
Some years back, I lived in Portland, Oregon and my favorite greenspace was actually an "office park" that was built around a wooded area with a pond. The pond area was evidently a "swampy" place where water would accumulate and not drain-- and it was unsuitable for building. To the developers' credit, they left the trees and pond and built mulched trails for the office tenants and workers to use.
Aside from during the busy lunch hour, I could go there to get away from the sprawl of apartment buildings... and largely have it to myself.
Take some time to explore your city and find a green space that really appeals to you! And if it happens to be a 10-minute walk from your apartment, consider that a good investment in physical exercise.
Another option for city dwellers might be to become involved with a community garden project. Not only does that put you in contact with nature, it allows you to "get your hands in the dirt," which can be very relaxing and healing.
A friend lent me this book when we were starting to turn a rather dull urban garden space into something "more." Liked it so much I ended up getting my own copy! It's not so much about "nature" as it is about "getting your hands in the dirt" and having a smaller footprint on our fragile planet.
Bringing Nature to Our Own Spaces
For those who live in apartments-- or in parts of cities where there is little convenient green space-- don't overlook the option of bringing nature to you.
If you have a balcony, get some plant pots and grow flowers. When I was in college, I had several long planters of the kind that hook over the railings, and I grew trailing geraniums in them. Later on, I moved to a different apartment with a larger deck, and was even able to use planter boxes and pots to grow a few herbs and vegetables.
If that's not possible, you might want to get some plants that do well indoors. Depending on how your space is laid out-- and especially how much light there is-- you may need to look for plants that do well with limited light.
If you have cats and are worried about them eating toxic plants, do a little research online to make sure that what you bring in is safe for cats. Part of the nibbling on plants issue can also be addressed by bringing in some oat grass as the cats' own garden. If you have concerns about the kitties using the pots as litter boxes, go to your nearest garden center and buy a small bag of river rocks to lay in the top of the pots-- that will make them unattractive as places to "do their business."
Tending plants is good for your health, even on this limited scale. Not just HSPs-- but human beings, in general-- benefit from "getting their hands in the dirt."
The Importance of Nature in Our Lives
How important is nature-- and being outside-- to you?
Sometimes a beautiful coffee table book of natural images can help us visit natural places-- even if only in our minds-- for a short while. Even this can be remarkably soothing for an HSP.
"Creating" Nature... When You Have None
Sometimes, we just don't have a way to get our "nature fix" the natural way. Maybe we find ourselves in a hotel room in a strange city, or maybe the weather is so miserable we just can't face going outside. Maybe we live on the 17th floor of an apartment building with no balcony. But that doesn't mean we have to "go without."
The most obvious answer (except for the hotel room example) is to get yourself some houseplants, or at the very least to invest in occasionally buying cut flowers. Even the tiniest patch of green has the ability to add a sense of "life" to an otherwise lifeless space.
There are other small things you can do for yourself-- these may sound insignificant, but they can have remarkably healing and soothing effects over time.
Create beautiful slideslow of natural images on your laptop or computer; if possible, add a natural sounds soundtrack. Whereas is it nice to have the grandkids or your favorite pet as your screen saver... some natural views can really help you feel calm.
You could also use your camera (or even smartphone) to create a short video of a favorite natural place, which you can them have on your laptop computer or tablet-- and you can then take with you when you travel. As an example, I created a 30-minute "meditation loop" of just the view and bird sounds in the summer at my family's vacation cottage. After a long work day, I just set it to play on the computer and soon find myself becoming very relaxed. It may sound counterintuitive, but if used wisely, we CAN use technology to get in touch with nature.
If all else fails (or sounds unappealing) you can still get some "natural" benefits from having a favorite coffee table book around... and just looking at the pictures and daydreaming when life seems overwhelming. Many years ago-- before I moved there-- I used to have a beautiful photo book of Washington state on my desk... and I would look at it whenever life seemed "too much." It really did work...
HSP Healing: Making Nature a Priority in your Life
In order to truly benefit from the healing and restorative power of nature, we do have to make our "natural time" a priority in our lives. In short, nature isn't going to come TO you, you have to come to nature.
Sometimes that can be a bit of a challenge for HSPs-- many of us prefer to stay home and in "familiar routines"-- but the extra effort it takes to "get out there" is well worth the overall health benefits-- both physically, as well as mentally and emotionally. Like most things, it just takes a few weeks of concerted effort to create a new habit.
I think you'll be glad you did!
If you enjoyed this article-- or found it useful-- please consider sharing it with others! The more people learn and know about the HSP trait, the better off we ALL are! Using the "social sharing" buttons at left helps spread the word about HSPs. Thank you!
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More Reading About High Sensitivity
If you're interested in learning more about high sensitivity and living as an HSP, I have written many articles about different aspects of the trait... important, because HSPs don't always process life "the same" as the rest of the world.
Consider, for example, the challenges of Highly Sensitive Men in a world that still clings somewhat to the idea that men are supposed to be "tough" and not emotional. Work and the Highly Sensitive Person is also a topic often of concern to HSPs... who often struggle to find a place for their idealism in an often ruthless world. Many HSPs struggle with friendships because their expectations of "connecting" tends to be deeper than most people's.
These are just a few topics in a fairly long list of what you can find here. Thank you for reading, and for your interest!
© 2015 Peter Messerschmidt