Chronic environment

It’s a topic that plays on my mind a great deal these days as I am well into researching where we want to live out the next few decades of our life. The effects of environment on chronic health conditions are many and often quite pivotal when it comes to reasons why the recovery process may seem protracted and prone to constant setbacks, thus it’s not a topic that can be easily dismissed.

So much so that changing your environment for a few days, ideally at least a week, can serve to flag up some of the factors that may be most sticky for you, as an individual (since they will vary from one person to another). In my case, for example, it’s not as simple as saying I need to remove all sources of overstimulation. As someone with ADHD, I respond minutely to different levels of stimulation and can experience various “effects”, ranging from being over-stimulated to the point of systemic meltdown to being under-stimulated (which can equally cause me to languish and fall into a sort of malaise of inattentiveness and fatigue).

Even being stimulated in a different way to my norm can rock my boat so much it looks like some sort of flare-up until I adjust, and nature is anything but under stimulating, though often in far more subtle ways, yet equally powerful upon the nervous system and not to be underestimated. Part of this effect of being under stimulated can be through lack of contact with other people in a quiet location and, though I am an introvert, I do realise I need at least some people around me and not to be completely isolated; likewise, I need some sense of purpose, things I can do for “kicks”. These are all environmental factors that can profoundly impact your health and, in truth, it is a balancing act, whether ADHD or not (though those with it are known to be especially prone to developing chronic health conditions, see earlier post).

So, these are all factors to be considered when pondering how your everyday environment may be contributing to your state of “chronic-ness” (especially if some of the effects of your environment can’t be bettered or overcome, and may even be getting worse). In considering this, there will inevitably be areas where you do hold some sway or can express preference, at least in the longer term, and these are the keys to unpicking at least some important aspects of your chronic condition, or, they may even be foundational to whatever is keeping your health crisis going.

In my case, having just returned from a week in an extremely rural location on the far eastern coast of the UK, which (though we have been away from home multiple times this year) has been my second longest trip away, I am really noticing the difference between “that” morning routine and where I find myself, back home, this morning. For instance, I am sat here writing this post straight to my laptop at 5.30am, my mind fully awake and switched-on for action, which is one of my clues. Yes, I published a blog the first day we where away, at a similar time of day, but it was probably because of being highly overstimulated by travel and moving into a new setting the day before that I woke very early with my mind teaming, which is quite typical for me in Thames Valley where I live but not when I am staying somewhere quieter. Fair enough, I continued to get up early most days whilst staying there but, instead of this literal rocket-launch into activity, I spent most of my early mornings writing gentle existential ponderings in long-hand in my private journal…whilst paying equal attention to the ever-changing colours in the sky and the awakening sounds of nature.

So, same activity…with a twist and I know which is more relaxing (thus better for my health) but here I am, typing away at 6am and I really should be far more relaxed than this at the start of my day yet I can’t seem to help it. The effect of writing down my thoughts was equally, if not more, powerful when I journaled on holiday but the objective was different and it was far more relaxing. The effect on my nervous system is quite different too; yet when driven to write a post like this, wild horses wouldn’t stop me!

These are the kinds of differences that a change in environment can have and, though they may seem subtle or unimportant, you have to wonder, how much does an exaggerated sense of urgency, and a far more analytical approach to whatever thoughts or worries happen to occur to us (have you ever noticed how you feel more left-brained in an urban setting, less creative than in a rural one?) can have on our nervous systems, over time and compounded? How much does this same compound factor apply to worries; how much more do they take hold and feel “real” in the more stimulating environment? How much more easily do worries dissolve away when I can feed them with less sense of urgency or imperative, when more relaxed to start with, as I was this past week (where my optimism took a distinct turn for the better)? How much is the severe flare-up of pain I am experiencing since I got back a side-effect of feeling helplessly subjected to environmental effects I have no control over and which bring my mood down, as a chemical effect, regardless of how much I try to retrain my thoughts towards the more positive? Its an effect I am now thoroughly aware of, from the contrast of time spent in different types of setting several times over this year and which I therefore keep a watchful eye on, ever curious as to what it is telling me about my choices.

It feels like a whole different pace of life for me, as though there is an urgency drug pumping out into the air, as soon as I reenter the urban sprawl that is London. By that, I don’t even mean that I live in London (heaven forbid) but it was never more apparent to me than yesterday, with one eye on the sat nav during our journey, how the once separate urban centres around London now seem to gather together and then join-up into one long corridor now, making a continuum or ugly sprawl on the map, as soon as you drop onto the M25 and M4. All the green areas are being rapidly squeezed out, with each hungry centre of activity like an open mouth gobbling its way towards the next one. For someone as sensitive to environments as me, it feels like entering a sort of wind tunnel that buffers you around until you get to at least the other side of Swindon, almost an hour away on the other side of where I live and me caught up in the middle of it, “green” though my area was when I first moved to this house. In fact, it really wasn’t like this when I first moved to Thames Valley over 30 years ago, when my town felt like an almost rural backwater compared to other university towns I might have chosen…but it just sort of happened, all around me, and now I seem to live in a corridor more so than a village attached to a modest town.

What has that done to my health; and any coincidence that at least half that time has been impacted by ever-deteriorating health not in line with my age-group? It has got to have had an effect. Those effects, to my highly sensitive nervous system, are ever apparent to me and never more so than now. In our borrowed rural setting, this week, it was the running joke that to get cell phone connection you had to walk to the gate where, perhaps on the return trip, it would ping on for just long enough to get your messages. We kept the wifi switched off unless we needed it but, even when on, it was glitchy and temperamental. There were no, and I mean no, other wifi routers in the vicinity competing with ours. These were primary differences compared with where I am right now (and normally live), “invisible” though they are.

Back home, there is an ever elongating lists of other wifi sources in the vicinity, some of them that come and go at different times of day. Though we switch our router off overnight, have an old style box that doesn’t provide a hotspot for anyone else and use ethernet instead of wifi, its like a drop-in-the-ocean that we take these precautions for our health, given our home is invaded by every other source. We both notice the effects of going back into this. Within two hours of arriving home, my husband commented “how come my itchy skin is back yet I haven’t had it at all while we were away?” and its the same for me, only, my skin not only itches but burns to the point I can hardly bear clothes at times. I had no such problem when we were away.

Also you cannot underestimate the effect of urban street lightning. There was none where we were staying, given it was up a private drive and the nights were pitch black all around our village and beyond, as far as the nearest “A” road leading to the nearest big town (which really was quite close by, but you eally couldn’t tell where we were staying)…so no light, except for the moon. Interesting how the moon, which usually drives me up the wall, was no bother at all when it was full over the weekend, minus the competing effect of urban living. I guess two or more effects is too much for my sensitive system to cope with; no such competition with the moon there!

Back home, where a streetlight towers over our house adjacent to two of our upper rooms, such that we have to keep those doors firmly shut to prevent a glow around our bedroom door, and this in spite of the council fitting a lighting shield at our request, it’s a very different story. Since they changed the light to the LED version pumping dazzling blue-white intensity into our street, I have really struggled and not just with vision as I swear I can feel it, even with my eyes covered by the latest in a long line of eyemasks. No coincidence, I feel, that my vision has readopted the coloured sparkle effect against the black backdrop of night once again now that I am back home. I had no such visual interference when I was away but, here, it is relentless meaning that, even with my eyes closed, I never truly see dark when I am at home; its more like a sort of grid made out of pinprick lights, like looking at a speckled sky. Whatever the cause of this visual phenomenon (and I suspect it is a sort of synesthesia whereby my brain translates interference that may be more auditory or frequency-based into a visual effect), I know no peace from light stimulation day or night when I am at home and all I can do is mitigate it as best I can with closed doors and shutters plus eye masks or hats I pull over my eyes to keep my eyes as protected from nighttime stimulation as possible. I needed none of these sleep-aids when I stayed in the countryside last week!

There is a similar outcome in terms of tinnitus which I hardly noticed when I was away (it was there, but at a lower, far less invasive pitch) whereas it has dialled up into the shrill, relentless noise interference I am used to back home. Again, I suspect it to be a sort of synesthesia translating a felt sense triggered by wireless technologies and blue light interference into “sound”. I would be interested to know if anyone else with tinnitus also has synesthesia and thinks they may be connected.

These sleep disturbance effects are ironic given I go to such lengths to eliminate blue light (as well as wifi) from my environment. I have recently discovered a company called Block Blue Light who make what is (as far as I am aware) the only non-flickering, low EMF LED lightbulb in the UK, called the BioLight, so I now have several around my house. A main advantage is that they have three settings, activated by simply switching the light on and off, between full spectrum mode, partially blue-blocked mixed mode (comparable to sunset/evening) and fully blue-blocked nighttime mode, meaning we dial down the light as the evening progresses and now spend our later evenings in a room with no blue effects whatsoever.

Combined with blue blockers on any screens we happen to use, the effect is extremely relaxing and ensures we are as ready for sleep as we can be. The challenge is staying asleep as the “blue” effect of street lighting seems to seep into every gap and crevice with such relentless determination, even around our wooden shutters. Combined with the light pollution caused by neighbours, especially those who are fixated by security lights and garden illuminations (even in the middle of the night) I often feel doomed and wonder how the wildlife copes. Do they, like me, have to bury their heads a little deeper year-on-year? For loads of resources regarding the science of blue light and how it affects health, I recommend dipping into the Blue Block Light blog which has numerous articles and up to the minute science information relating to their products (I am not affiliated but have used their bulbs and other products for a few months now, with good results).

Close urban living is always a challenge for someone with sensitivities; but its when it adds to the effects of chronic health that it becomes a real aggravation. Our neighbours are early risers and don’t see the point in using their bathroom blind when they rise at 5am in the darker months, thus their bathroom light shines straight into our bedroom as brightly as a full moon.

They are nice people but he has a few other foibles and one is a love of using a power washer on his various vehicles almost daily at times, making a hell of a noise (thankfully curtailed by the hosepipe ban, at least for the moment) and for doing-up vintage camper vans and chunky vehicles with extremely guttural engines that make our house, quite literally, shudder when he works on their engines or comes and goes (such as now, with comic timing, as he is just leaving…at 6.18am). It takes a little while to pull out of our shared drive into the main road so we feel the full effects of this engine “purr” (not!) at all hours.

Quite a few of the “kids” hereabouts seem to also have cars that have been souped up to make back-firing sounds like a rally of shotguns going off along with deep growly engine noises and these frequently come to a noisy stop, stereos blaring, at the shops opposite our house, or return home from the pub past our house at 1am revving for all they are worth…again, more visceral effects and physical aggravation running through the wooden frame of our house and straight into my sensitive bones. Combined with refrigerated lorries delivering foodstuff to the shop from 6am….its a lot to deal with for an HSP!

On that topic, I will never again buy a “new build” house, they seem to be made out of paper and matchsticks; next time around, I want something sturdy and made of stone, not all this timber frame and plasterboard. It makes for a huge difference to how I feel…the so-called “minor” factor of whether the building I am in is made of old style brick or stone or the modern way that is as flimsy as hell. These are things you don’t even think about (when you are dazzled by the new show home) until your health goes awry but, believe me, they will really come to matter when things go wrong with your health, especially if the nervous system is involved (which in chronic illness, it always is). Effects from household wiring such as EMF sensitivity developing (imagine, bundles of wires hanging loosely behind a thin layer of plasterboard right behind your head!) are much more detrimental when the walls of your home are insufficient to insulate the wires and properly protect you. Anything involving metal in the structure is likely to exacerbate the effects of EMF pollution and for this you will need to call in an environmental consultant specialising in EMF mitigation,to see what (if anything) they can do to improve things, most importantly the area where you sleep!

Thus trendy metal bedsteads can be a real problem for me in an urban setting, conducting electricity as they do (ours is wood and has next to no metal in in its construction, plus it is grounded). Not such a problem to have that whimsical metal bedstead in a rural setting where pollution is very low, though I would generally avoid them. Again, have you ever thought things through like this? You kind-of have to when you are getting to the bottom of a chronic state of health and why your nervous system continues to fire off, no matter what you do to relax…because its these subtle effects that can undo you, stitch by stitch.

So, what’s the answer, when the “developing” world isn’t going to go any other way but more urban and stimulating? I guess all that there is to do is to work out what works best for you in particular. What effects can you tolerate, for now, though not ideal (perhaps to a view to changing them later) and which, if any, are having a really detrimental effect, in which case can you mitigate or get away from them? Can you change the way you live or where you live, which is our long-running project (getting more urgent by the year)? Whilst we don’t plan to be off grid since we enjoy a lifestyle where we have access to a medium-sized urban centre and the “arts”, we do know we need far more sensory quiet than this, and I don’t speak exclusively of “noise” when I say this, though that is a huge factor.

Many times before, I have lamented the amount of traffic noise on the road where I live (not just the revving teenagers but so-called ordinary urban traffic flow), which is already considerable at 6.31am as I write this and which didn’t die down till long after midnight last night. It really affects me, so very much, and boils down to much more than “I don’t like noise” since the effect is systemic, like a surface trigger to a compound effect that involves many other aspects of overstimulation (a sort of “final straw” that would be less affecting if there weren’t so many other triggers under the surface).

What it does is it adds onto the one-plus-one effect of too much stimulation in general in this kind of environment. Imagine, you come home to a place where you are being subliminally bombarded with wifi routers that make your skin itch and burn or that, at the very least, over-activate your brain in subtle but important ways, waking you up too early then triggering you off to a running start instead of a gentle wake-up in the mornings, even going so far as to flip you into flight, fright or freeze “for no apparent reason” at times if you have anything on your mind. Then, add to that, the effect of urban lighting and any other blue lights coming off your tech devices and so you are deprived of good quality sleep, meaning you are now double-amped beneath the surface of your central nervous system. The neighbours then make some noise, the house shakes with a lorry going past, so you toss and turn, cortisol suddenly rises at 4am and you can’t get back to sleep. Now any worries you happen to have turn on in their most exaggerated form or your IBS flare-up, and did I mention a menopausal hot flush or two (which are known to be aggravated by inflammation from environmental factors such as EMFs and of course lack of quality sleep). Add into all this the relentless sound of urban traffic and its a perfect storm; your body goes into a quiet yet highly effective meltdown.

By contrast, there was plenty of noise where we stayed last week yet it felt entirely different and I felt much better in myself than I now do back in Thames Valley (the detrimental effect of which was immediate when I returned; especially tinnitis, waking feeling wired yet tired, visual disturbances and eye-strain and such burning/itching skin). This, in spite of the fact it wasn’t all bliss when we were away as we were visiting family and dealing with an extremely sad ane emotionally demanding situation; so, some of our days were really tough, yet I still fared far better than I am already doing back at home and felt, fundamentally, calm, well-rested from sleep and in a good place.

For starters, there were two owls in dialogue all night long at very close proximity and the occasional thud of some thing landing on the roof, yet we didn’t mind and found it soothing and it nver kept me from going back to my sleep (no earpugs required, though I frequently use them at home). In the daytime, there were so many birds in song and, though we have many of the same ones at home, there was nothing here to contend with them so we were able to really tune in. After a few hours of that, you would find that your nervous system had somehow entrained to the birdsong (as at home I find it entrains to the disharmonious sound of the traffic…) like it might dial into soothing binaural beats, a kind of meditation, and so you fell into a reverie for hours on end. Then there was the wind in the trees, always surprising how much noise that makes, and how much movement is generated by light wind through leaves, enough to throughly mesmerise the eyes so that no other entertainment was required for numerous hours on end (though at home, I frequently get stir-crazy). I was able to sit out in the golden-sunny garden for long periods though I have recently become quite adverse to sitting out, at home, because the cacopheny of our location gets to me too much, however much I try to focus on the birds.

In fact, isn’t it interesting how I can never seem to sit still in Thames Valley, always looking for the next source of stimulation yet in that rural location I was able to sit there for hours in our little garden, or near an open door, and just bide my time with my sewing, content to just “be”. I came to the conclusion there is an element of “if you can’t beat it, join it” to my ADHD such that, when overstimulated, my nervous system actively seeks out stimulation of its own choosing as a way of dealing with, or fending off, all that other overstimulation being imposed on it. This begs the question, how much is the ever-more common diagnosis of ADHD a result of our highly overstimulating, urban way of living and is the best approach really to offer stimulants (as is the commonplace pharmaceutical approach favoured by GPs, which I have shunned, though I agree I use other stimulants of my own devising to manage my symptoms from time to time…drinking caffeine when I shouldn’t and “making myself hyper-busy” being two of them!) or should we turn to a more natural, perhaps “quieter” (though its not really…perhaps we should call it more “harmonious”) way of living and see if the worse effects of ADHD settle down over time?

Nature resets everything, as I always find. A few days spent in nature and you don’t so much have to wrestle with a health problem as to just let it be what it is and get on with the business of living; nature will do the rest. It’s one of the reasons Japanese doctors actually prescribe nature cures such as forest bathing the same way as western doctors dole out pills. Its a no brainer really…yet not so easy to achieve if you are in an urban setting and can’t see your way out of it, especially if you have to be there for your job. However, the least you can do is start to notice the effects certain factors of your environment have on you (and that might also include any adverse effects from lack of stimulation, as alluded to above, as I have equally floundered in places that are too quiet and cut-off, even too dark and dreary, for my nervous system to cope with).

On that topic, seasonal light quality and the weather are also big factors (incidentally, the same company that makes my wonderful bulbs, Block Blue Light, have just brought out a low EMF, no flicker SAD lamp (the first of its kind as most SAD lamps have made me feel worse in the end due to the flicker of flourescents or conventional LEDs and all the considerable EMFs that are generated by them) and I am currently trialling it as the days get darker to see if it helps. SAD is a whole other topic, one that I have tackled before, as it can profoundly affects mood, energy and pain levels but please see my other post on this rather than me repeating it all here (just remember, I have changed SAD lamp brand since that time).

Environment is such a big topic when it comes to chronic illness, perhaps an obvious one too but I also think far too many people with chronic health problems get too deeply into navel gazing, imagining all their problems stem from a faulty body and actually forget to look at the environment except to consider what they are wearing or if they are in a comfortable bed. It’s so much more than that. Even if they do realise the broader environment has an effect, they often assume there is nothing they can do about it. Yet, once taken seriously, most effects can be mitigated even if you have to alter your habits or take a small hit in terms of convenience to move somewhere that is at least semi-rural or has different, perhaps fewer, neighbours. Our project is well underway, and though it may take some time yet to achieve, just having its positive results in my sights and coming to understand the fine balance of what is most likely to work for me (neither over nor under stimulating) is making a huge difference to my morale.

In the meantime, I get away from home as much as I can doing my “research” (the wonder of Airbnb rentals meaning options are far more varied, flexible and affordable than ever before; these have been my saviour this past couple of years or I would have really floundered stuck at home). These frequent small breaks reboot me in so many ways, one being that I more clearly see what aggravates me now and so I do something about it, as much as I can (maybe its time to have a chat with my neighbours about their bathroom blind), whilst striving to become more accepting when I can’t because there is no point in fighting what cannot be changed (which only adds another trigger to those likely to activate a fight, flight or freeze response in my nervous system). Instead, I try to adapt!

Meaning, as soon as I was on that motorway yesterday, my headphones went on though I didn’t listen to any music or podcasts at all for the whole week we were away (it was far too delicious lapping up the peace and quiet of the rural setting). Back home is different, so here I cultivate my love of music and my fascination with different topics by scheduling listening-time when the effects of urban living are likely to be at their worst at different times of day, and so I continue on in this way…knowing it won’t be forever and that one day I will find my personal, self-curated haven and leave those who love urban sprawls and endless busyness, light and noise to continue doing whatever it is that they do without me.

Disclaimer: This blog, it’s content and any material linked to it are presented for autobiographical, general interest and anecdotal purposes only. They are not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or prescribing. This article does not constitute a recommendation or lifestyle advice. Opinions are my own based on personal experience. Any links and information shared are for your own assessement and research purposes, I have no affiliation with any of the attached information sources and share them as point of interest, with no recommendation implied. You should check all health-related supplement and other protocols with your medical doctor before proceeding. Please seek medical advice from a professional if you are experiencing any symptoms or before you change your diet, your nutrients, your habits or anything else.

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