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Archive for November, 2013

A stress-free picture if ever I saw one!

Jerusalem2002

These walking friends of mine are relaxing on the Walls of Jerusalem in Tasmania. But you don’t have to backpack your way into remote wilderness areas like this to be de-stressed by nature. A few moments in your own garden, a public park or simply contemplating the office plants can have beneficial effects of blood pressure, stress hormone levels, central nervous system function and mood.

I talked about the de-stressing power of nature in my post on bush bathing, our biased brain and office plants. In the first of these I made the point that it takes only a few minutes of exposure to a natural scene or even a picture of one for the physical and mental symptoms of stress to decrease and be replaced by the relaxation response.

I am returning to the topic of nature and stress simply to highlight the fact that ameliorating stress is one of the important pathways by which nature affects wellness. More importantly, I also want to underscore the value of connecting with nature as a way of dealing with the stress and strain of daily life.

But rather than labouring the point with more theory, I want to suggest a way you can discover the calming effect of nature first-hand and indeed make a habit of using nature to de-stress.

If you have access to Claim Your Wildness, you will find the exercise I have in mind described in last chapter. If not, this is an outline of what to do.

  • Choose ways of spending at least 30 minutes connecting with nature at home, work or play. This is easier than you might think. Go to the David Suzuki Foundation’s website,  http://30×30.davidsuzuki.org, and click on the “What you can do” link for ideas. If you are not yet ready to attempt the challenge of 30 minutes, it is OK to set a smaller target and perhaps build up.
  • Measure your stress symptoms before you start using one of the questionnaires available on the Internet, for example http://stress.about.com/library/symptoms/bl_stress_symptom_quiz.htm and http://www.stresswinner.com/nhnpdfs/Stress%20Symptom%20-%20Quiz.pdf
  • Measure your symptoms again after the 30 days. But bear in mind that the extent of your contacts with nature will be just one of the factors likely to influence your stress levels, so be realistic as well as optimistic in your expectations. Remain alert also to other benefits you are likely to be receiving, enjoyment, the beauty buzz and tranquillity, for example.

If you do this exercise, please consider using the comment box to let me and others know how you got on.

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We all need the love, security, comfort and support of others – the odd hermit or religious recluse excepted perhaps. Close relationships with family and friends are essential for optimal health and well-being. Without them, we can be in big trouble. In fact, social isolation or loneliness is potentially more damaging to our wellness than chronic stress, which is better known to be a health risk-factor.

If you actually measure stress, using our best available instruments, says Steve Cole, it can’t hold a candle to social isolation. Social isolation is the best-established, most robust social or psychological risk factor for disease out there. Nothing can compete.

Cole, a distinguished psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, bases this conclusion on 20 years of painstaking research into the way environmental factors, including our states of mind, affect the genes that regulate our immune system. Genes are bundles of chemicals that tell the cells of our bodies how to behave. But genes work only when they are switched on or “expressed”. This means that anything that affects the expression of genes can change or obstruct the work the gene should be doing. When going about their business as they should, the 200 or so genes controlling our immune system work in a controlled way – destroying bacteria, viruses and rogue cells without creating problems for the rest of our bodies.

What Steve Cole has discovered is that loneliness, even more than stress, disrupts the expression of genes associated with immune function, thereby lowering our defences against a range of diseases. Thus anything that promotes social connectedness and reduces social isolation is clearly good for our health.

And this is where nature fits into the picture:

Environmental-Wellness

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Nature is excellent for bringing people together because she is a great hostess. She provides all manner of settings where people can gather, chat and have fun together. More than that, she creates a distinctive form of social chemistry that makes it easier for people to socialise, form friendships and even find romance.

It is usual for people to discover that, when sharing activities in nature – gardening, undertaking a landcare project, hiking and the like – what they have in common matters far more than what makes them different. Differences in socio-economic status, cultural background, education, age and temperament, which separate and divide in the wider society, are irrelevant. This is because nature is impartial. Nature is the great leveller, the great disregarder of social status and pretensions. In natural settings people are freer to be themselves and more able to be accepting of others and to relate empathically and generously. A sense of companionship can develop remarkably quickly among people sharing an activity in nature.

In Claim Your Wildness, I describe how this happened for a woman on a canoe trip shared with several other women she had not previously met. This is her reflection on the experience:

The strongest part, the thing that I remember the most is just the interaction with all the other women which to me was equally important as being in this beautiful setting. You know, the natural setting was a wonderful place, but it was the interaction with all of these women that was truly inspirational to me. I have just never encountered that kind of cooperation in such a gentle manner. Maybe, it was the place, the setting itself washed away all the other stuff, all the artificial barriers that get in the way of first just being comfortable with yourself and then being with a group of people you haven’t met before.

It is sad that this woman had to wait until her forties before discovering just how unstinting and unconditional kindness can be. But we can be glad that she did not miss out altogether, thanks to her companions and the power of shared wilderness experiences to foster empathy and caring behaviour.

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