I am currently reading the “The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer”.
A fascinating scientific book on how our telomeres shape our disease - and lifespan and that we can actually influence our lifespan with lifestyle choices.
Telomeres are protective tips at the end of our chromosomes. They get shorter during lifespan and eventually cannot protect chromosomes properly anymore which leads to diseases and ageing. I will write an entire article about the findings of the research on telomeres. I wanted to start though with some insights i got from the book on highly sensitive children.
The research on telomeres has proven that you can track sensitivity back to our DNA.
One of the large influencers on the lengths of telomeres and subsequently our lifespan and health is stress-sensitivity.
Highly sensitive children are more “permeable” and have bigger stress reactions to light, noise, and physical irritation. Some react by getting angry or aggressive and some internalise their feelings and might seem quiet. No matter if they react quiet or aggressive the stress their body experiences frequently will influence their telomeres and can lead to a shorter lifespan and higher susceptibility to diseases.
This sounds pretty terrible. But there is good news! Certain environments allow highly sensitive children to thrive and influence their telomeres positively to be even stronger and healthier than their non-sensitive peers.
Highly sensitive kids do poorly in large, crowded, chaotic classrooms or harsh family environment.
But if they are in a classroom and home with nurturing, warm adults they will do better than the average child. They will get less sick and show fewer symptoms of depression or anxiety. Their telomeres will get longer which leads to better health and longer lifespan than that of their non-sensitive peers.
Highly sensitive kids benefit from warm, gentle correction and a consistent routine. They need our assistance and patience when they are placed into new environments.
From my own experience it is super hard to always have the patience and a warm nurturing approach to your highly sensitive child. Especially if you have a child that reacts aggressive to stress. You will feel more exhausted, feel more blame than other parents and you have to fight more battles. Battles to create an environment that works for your child like selecting the right school, the right neighbourhood etc. But if you think how you are actually positively influencing your child’s health and lifespan it’s all worth the effort.
As highly sensitive kids are more high-stress reactors they benefit if you teach them techniques like thought awareness, the challenge response and mindful breathing. All of these techniques will reduce the influence of stress on their telomeres and boost their health.
The book includes lots of exercises on mindfulness. “The challenge response’ I thought was most intriguing and important to learn, especially also for highly sensitive parents.
The Challenge Response
In the body of a highly sensitive person the common response to stress such as a school test is a fight-or-flight mode often paired with fears and negative predictions about the outcome of the stressful situation. This kind of stress response is damaging for our health. But there is not just this response. There is also a healthy response to stress that does not damage our telomeres. It happens when you regard stress as a challenge. There are people that respond to stress as a challenge.
If those people have to perform in a school test, they also feel butterflies and a racing heart beat but they believe their body is gearing up to give it’s best. They see the body’s arousal as a source of fuel that will help the brain to work most efficiently. They feel challenged to give their best instead of feeling threatened.
Imagine your highly sensitive child has to go to a birthday party and is scared. Ask him to pause a moment to feel his body, the fast heartbeat, the butterflies in his stomach etc and then tell him that these are signs of his body to prepare to do its best. His body is working for him and this stress is good. He doesn't have to fight his aroused body, his body is helping him to cope best with the new situation. If you train this kind of thinking your body will over time regard arousal as helpful. Instead of giving in to your instinct survival response of threat you can teach yourself to feel challenged.