If you’re a highly sensitive person and you’re feeling overwhelmed, nature might be your very best tool.
As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I have a fondness for walking in the woods, basking in the power of a waterfall, being mesmerized by ocean waves, or running my hands through my puppy’s silky fur. I feel better when I’m spending time in nature and with animals. And that’s not surprising, since a wide body of research shows that people benefit mentally and physically from exposure to the natural world.
But mere exposure to nature isn’t enough to help people reap those rewards. People need to find a sense of connection to nature as well.
Given how many HSPs treasure nature and animals, is it fair to conclude that highly sensitive people are more connected to nature? A research team lead by Dr. Annalisa Setti at University College Cork, Ireland, set out to answer that question in a pair of studies.
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Are Sensitive People More Connected to Nature?
To measure how sensitive participants were, the studies relied on a trait called environmental sensitivity. Dr. Setti’s team noted that “ES [environmental sensitivity] is an umbrella term encompassing different conceptualizations of the relationship of the individual and the environment, with some theories emphasizing that highly sensitive individuals are more affected by environmental stressors, while other theories also focus on the evolutionary advantage of being more sensitive to the environments.” (Environmental sensitivity is also called Sensory Processing Sensitivity, for those who are more familiar with that term. The difference is that environmental sensitivity is broader, encompassing several different theories of sensitivity.)
To measure environmental sensitivity, the researchers gave participants in both studies a test known as the Highly Sensitive Person Scale, developed by psychologist Elaine Aron. They also completed Mayer and Frantz’s Connectedness to Nature Scale to measure their sense of oneness and belonging to the natural world.
After that, the two studies gave additional tests. Participants in the first study completed a measure assessing their attachment to pets. The second study expanded the parameters to examine what is known as animal affinity, which includes not only one’s bond with domestic animals, but also broader empathy for animals and their welfare.
The Surprising Connection Between Nature and HSPs
Both studies found that being a highly sensitive person is associated with higher connectedness with nature.
The first study did not demonstrate a connection between being an HSP and attachment to pets, although it is possible that participants who did not have pets at the time of the study might have responded differently if they did.
The second study, however, which looked more broadly at animal welfare and affinity, showed a strong association between being highly sensitive and connecting with animals.
In other words: sensitive people really do have a deeper connection not only to animals, but to nature as a whole. And harnessing that connection can be a powerful tool.
Being Connected to Nature Pays Off for HSPs
This emerging area of research makes a compelling argument for the importance of nature and animals to highly sensitive people. Setti’s team points out that there are clear emotional regulation benefits of connecting to the natural world, and that it boosts overall wellbeing. For HSPs who experience anxiety, depression, or overthinking, nature and animals can be a vital part of your self-care plan.
In my work as a psychologist, I encourage my clients to incorporate nature connectedness into their treatment plans. An “assignment” to go out and mindfully observe the wind in the trees or take your dog to the park is a lot more fun than most therapy homework, and it’s equally effective in helping HSPs improve their mood.
(One limitation of Setti’s research is that the participants in both studies were predominantly female identifying. This is a common challenge in recruiting research subjects. While I cannot think of any theoretical reason why HSPs with other gender identifications would have a difference in their connection to animals or nature, it’s worth noting. Regardless of your gender identification, you can do your own experiment to see how animals and nature impact you.)
HSPs May Struggle if They Don’t Maintain a Strong Connection to Nature and Animals
Given what we know from this study and more broadly about the positive effect of nature on ruminating (overthinking) and on mood symptoms (like depression and anxiety), it’s not surprising that HSPs are likely to suffer when they don’t nurture a relationship with the natural world. As sensitive people, we need to connect to the greater world; it’s not a luxury or an optional feature of building a good life.
In my experience personally and from seeing many HSP clients who are disconnected from nature, this disconnect carries a tremendous risk of suffering. When we expect ourselves to live separately from the rhythms and resources of the natural world, we can easily lose track of our need to sleep well, eat healthy foods, drink enough water, and move in ways that feel good. Our tendency to get lost in thought takes over, setting us up for anxiety, overstimulation, and burnout. We lose our ability to bring creativity to our lives.
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How to Connect with Nature in Modern Life
Like many introverted HSPs, I frequently joke about going off the grid and becoming a hermit in the woods. I know that’s not a viable option for me, though — it would make a nice vacation, but not a sustainable lifestyle. My hunch is you probably feel the same.
Instead, your nature connection needs to be realistic for your current life. Maybe you can bring a houseplant (or ten) into your space. Perhaps you have or could responsibly welcome a pet to your family. Are there trees or birds outside, flowers planted in window boxes, some wildflowers in the median of the highway? Urban areas have a surprising amount of nature, if you train yourself to look for it. And, if you do have woods nearby, even short stints of forest bathing have real benefits.
Some research even suggests that virtual exposures to nature can have a positive impact on our mood. Find a live web broadcast that appeals to you. My personal favorites are the live cameras from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which I discovered (along with many other people) during the early phase of the pandemic. Other people prefer livestreams of the beach, bird nests, or the desert. Whatever appeals to you, you’re likely to find a way to virtually indulge.
Alternatively, if you’re feeling brave, you could try making these delightful glasses.)
Commit to Giving Yourself the Benefits of Connection to Nature
Nature’s rhythms—the breeze through leaves, the rise and fall of waves, ripples and currents in a stream, the steady breathing of a sleeping pet—help us settle our normally active nervous systems. We can relax into our own mammalian patterns and circadian rhythms, which is physically restorative and creates space for us to feel emotional and spiritual restoration as well.
What steps can you take today, as part of your everyday life, to commit to nurturing a connection with nature? You owe yourself this gift.
My book, Wander and Delve: A Journal for Bright, Creative, Highly Sensitive People Forging Their Way, can help you discern how to strengthen your connection to nature and animals and support your Singularly Sensitive lifestyle.
You Might Like:
- Highly Sensitive People Have A Special Bond With Animals
- Nature Is The Ultimate ‘Release Valve’ For Overstimulated HSPs
- 11 ‘Little’ Things That Overwhelm Highly Sensitive People
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