I’ve been on this journey lately of trying to reduce the stress and anxiety I feel on a daily basis. I’ve been thinking about how nature reduces stress.
Nature’s Loving Embrace
I’ve already discovered the traditional ways—hence my post on 10 Ways to Handle Stress. I now regularly have a bottle of lavender essential oils on my desk at work, sip relaxing tea, and when I can, listen to soothing music.
When I am hit with a particular tough moment (hey Joan, I’m going to ask you to take this case because you’re so good at the tough ones…oh yay), I remember to take a few deep cleansing breaths.
But, the older I get, the more I realize that stress and anxiety creep in and take hold much more easily than in my younger days. So how can I incorporate a bit of nature to do its magic? It is the middle of winter with nary a green plant, blue sky, or ray of sunshine in sight…and that tends to eat away at my resilience.
I long to feel restored and refreshed, to feel soothed by nature’s loving embrace.
Some people get their restoration from prayer, sitting in a church, or lighting a candle. I feel nurtured by nature. Think about the last time you closed your eyes and put your face up to the sun until it warmed your skin. It reminds me of a mother’s loving caress, a whisper that everything will be all right.
For whatever reason, I feel loved by the universe when I go for a walk in the park near my home. It is like my church, where I allow my mind to open and ask myself soul-searching questions. I solve problems there, I feel blessed when I am there. And I have many fond memories of strolling down the smooth paths that snake through towering trees.
I love seeing the sunshine light up the leaves to electric shades of green, the rays peeking through and lighting up the earth in golden speckles. The rich, earthy smells when the wind blows, the birds calling to each other, a distant woodpecker rat-a-tat-tatting on a tree. Why is that so magical?
I guess it should be no big surprise. No one is asking me to DO anything, I am not staring at a desk full of work or a house that needs cleaning, or piles of laundry, and the list goes on. But could there be more to this than just taking a break? Is it just me that feels this way?
No, my friends, it’s real.
Surround Yourself With Green Space
You’ve heard of the term green space? A green space is any area that has natural vegetation—grass, trees, undeveloped land or planned parks, and even a zone of greenery on urban streets.
Studies show that living near green space reduces your stress and anxiety no matter what you do for a living, how much you earn, or whether or not you are married. People actually produce less cortisol, the stress hormone, when they spend time walking among the trees. That describes how I feel when I am surrounded by green at the park.
But that’s not all! Evidence-based research has shown that even living nearby green space can have really cool health benefits—it helps you sleep better, reduces blood pressure, and can lower the risk of heart disease, Type II diabetes, even premature death.
What the heck is going on here?
Well, for one, you are more likely to be relaxed when you are stepping away from your usual hectic routine and taking time to slow things down while walking around the flora and fauna. Scientists have not exactly nailed it down, but the Japanese encourage what they call “forest bathing” – getting out among the trees, even lying down in the forest – because of organic compounds called phytoncides that have antibacterial properties (read the whole article here).
So we’ve established/proved that hanging around outside in green space is good for your health. What if you are like me, stuck inside with no hope of lollygagging with nature in the great green outdoors? Seriously, it is GRAY, dingy, dark and depressing outside, and it has been for weeks (and weeks)!
What if I could simply listen to nature sounds, would that help?
Yep, you guessed it! Even the sounds of nature can soothe the restless soul, but you have to tailor fit the soundscape to your own special preferences. Let me explain…
Sounds of Nature Soothe Your Soul
Scientists did a study playing different sounds while people were hooked up to a functional MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine). The results showed that when they listened to artificial sounds, they displayed what they call inward-focused attention. This is exactly the same type of stress response you experience when you are focused on your own stressful thoughts, negative feelings or worries (you are inwardly focused). When they played nature sounds, the people showed external-focused attention, some had a lower heart rate and a reduced stress response (less fight-or-flight). See the whole article here.
The key, they found, was the type of nature sounds that one person listens to may not invoke the same response in another person, so you have to find the right fit. Whatever sounds you are more familiar with, the better the response. I like a little wind, some birds chirping, a babbling brook, but you might prefer crashing waves, the sounds from whales, or the hum of cicadas. They also found that the more stressed out you are, the more likely you will experience a relaxed state from listening to nature sounds.
What if you don’t have nature recordings? Well, you can try the library, buy some recordings, or you can do what I did.
Even though the weather has been dreary, I decided to just get outside. I bundled up, went to the park, and took a short stroll to the pond. To my delight there were some very silly ducks out there making quite a racket which brought a smile to my face. I heard other birds chirping, saw robins fighting over something – seeds maybe – but they were beautiful! Someone had started a fire in the fireplace in the outdoor pavilion so there was a hint of smoke in the air. The wind was whirring through the naked trees…and though there wasn’t a single green sprout in sight, I felt the same spiritual warmth inside that I usually get when surrounded by nature.
Do you see a theme here? We need a little more of “stop and smell the roses” and lot less of go, go, go!
So lately, I am trying to adopt a slower, more forgiving pace base. I think the embroidered pillow that my husband gave me years ago sums it up quite nicely – “Take time from doing to enjoy being.”
A mantra worth living by.
Now, go hug a tree!