A dear reader recently contacted me with this:
“I’m very glad I stumbled across your site. Your story speaks to me and I can totally relate. I’ve been struggling with anxiety and depression for a very long time and haven’t found much success. I’ve tried pretty much everything under the sun — from supplements, books, therapies, to even living in Taiwan and studying martial arts! Meds didn’t help much and the side effects were too much to bear. I totally agree that holistic is the way to go long term but I have difficult time sticking to a healthy and low stimulation life style. I enjoy having a few beers, and have a difficult time resisting the urge for coffee! (Even though my body makes it very clear it is too much!) I commit for a few weeks to healthier habits but time and time again I go back to old habits like drinking coffee, or playing stimulating games. Could you share any advice on how to better structure a plan to staying on track to making healthier choices?”
Can you relate? I sure can. It has taken me a long time to crack this one and here’s what I have learned in the process…
How To Stick To An HSP-Friendly Lifestyle Long-Term
1. Remember That Giant Leaps Are Just A Bunch Of Baby Steps Strung Together
If you were to compare my lifestyle now to my lifestyle, say, 5 years ago, you would see a drastic difference. You would see that I’ve made changes that would seem extreme to most people.
I’ve almost completely eliminated alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and processed foods from my diet. I’ve replaced my erratic sleep schedule with a consistent one, getting eight hours of snooze almost every night. I’ve let go of a stressful job, relationships that weren’t meaningful, and a bunch of activities that were giving me nothing but overstimulation. Instead of rushing around in a go-go-go frenzy, I now prioritize daily “quiet time” and “white space” that are devoted to rest and recharging.
I’ll spare you some of the gory details, but my old lifestyle was t-e-r-r-i-b-le for an HSP. My life now looks drastically different.
But here’s the thing. I don’t feel like I ever actually made any drastic changes. There’s no specific date I can point to when the “new life” began.
And that’s because none of the changes above happened simultaneously and most of them didn’t happen in one big swoop either. Whenever I’ve attempted too much change at once, I’ve just gotten overwhelmed or burned out and given up.
The transformations that stuck have come from working on one change – one habit – at a time. I didn’t quit caffeine the same week I started a new exercise program. I didn’t deal with relationship problems at the same time as transitioning out of my job.
And many of the changes were very incremental too. Like the way I quit caffeine. At first I dropped soda and set a coffee limit at two cups a day. Then months later, I reduced it to one cup. And then it was another several months before I was ready to quit caffeine completely.
That’s how it’s been with most of the other changes too. The giant leaps I’ve made have been the result of a whole bunch of baby steps strung together over several years of slowly inching my lifestyle into a healthier and more HSP-friendly direction.
2. Don’t Make It All-Or-Nothing
Another thing to remember is that your lifestyle doesn’t need to be all-or-nothing. Instead of completely eliminating all “vices”, it might be easier to work on finding a level of stimulation that you can tolerate without unpleasant consequences.
Did you notice how I used the qualifier “almost” when I was describing my HSP-friendly lifestyle above? That’s because I can tolerate some chocolate and maybe a cocktail on special occasions. I also don’t fall apart if I only get seven hours of sleep once every couple of weeks. And (confession) I watch stimulating TV shows almost every night and, yes, sometimes it has an impact on my sleep quality, but I’m still feeling very well overall, so I haven’t been bothered enough to do anything about it.
You’re allowed to pick your battles and it helps if you…
3. Use Your Capacity With Intention
I believe that we all have X amount of capacity to be stimulated without suffering major consequences. Let’s call it your stimulation money. Your stimulation money is yours to spend however you see fit.
Now, HSPs have a little less in the bank than non-HSPs, so we need to be choosier about where we put our hard earned dollars. We want the biggest possible bang for our buck, so we need to be intentional.
We need to stop wasting dollars on things that don’t get us much return, so we have more left over for the things we REALLY want.
For example, I don’t get that much return from alcohol, caffeine, junk food, spending time with acquaintances, associating with arrogant and/or inconsiderate people, going to parties, or going shopping in brick and mortar stores (with the exception of Ikea 😉 ). So I’ve drastically reduced wasting my capacity on those things.
That means I have more capacity left over for the things I REALLY want to do. Doing Family Fun Days in places that were originally designed as HSP torture chambers. Putting myself out there to serve other HSPs and introverts. And yes, watching Nordic Noir right before bed.
4. Accept That You Will At Times Overdo It For The Rest Of Your Life
Something else I’ve learned is that perfection doesn’t exist. And it especially doesn’t exist when it comes to trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Sometimes we stray intentionally (it’s New Year’s Eve!) and sometimes things just happen and the next thing you know you’re laying in a dark room with a terrible migraine because you forgot you have limits.
We all overdo things from time to time, so it’s best to just expect it and accept it. Instead of beating yourself up for not sticking to the plan, just notice how it makes you feel and think of it as a reminder of why you stick to the plan most of the time.
And you do NOT need to wait until the first of the month or even next Monday to get back on track. The best time to make your next healthy choice is always right now. 🙂
With all that being said, I have noticed that the longer I’ve been trying to stick to healthy habits and the more I’ve learned about myself and my limits, the less frequent and the less severe my stumbles have become.
Maybe I used to “stay up for one more episode” at least once a week, but now it’s once every couple of months. Maybe I used to let my bedtime slip by a couple of hours, but now it’s a half hour at the most.
5. Know That It Will Get Easier Over Time
I think the reason for these improvements over time is that the longer you manage to “do what’s good for you” – even if imperfectly – the easier it gets!
First of all, self control is directly related to your physical well-being and energy reserves. So the better you feel, the more willpower you have to implement further changes. When you make one change, it’ll give you more energy to make another. And when you already have two healthy habits in place, it’s easier to implement a third. It’s kind of a snowball effect.
And second, the more you start actually seeing and feeling the benefits of healthy habits and noticing how specific “vices” impact you, the less appealing the “bad for you” stuff becomes. I love the smell of coffee and I borrow my husband’s cup all the time to breathe in the steam. But the thought of actually drinking it now grosses me out. I simply don’t want to ruin my good feels with the overwired caffeine high plus the inevitable withdrawal headache if I fail to supply my brain with the same exact dose at regular intervals.
So all those baby steps later, I feel pretty good most of the time. Too good to mess with things! Which in turn makes it a whole lot easier to say no.
It just took some time, patience, and lots of missteps to get here.