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Posts Tagged ‘relaxation response’

This was the view from the tent my wife and I shared under the shadow of Mt Harmakh in Kashmir back when it was possible to travel safely in that now troubled region.

The water surging along the nullah right at our door made a constant low roar but we were completely untroubled by it. In fact, the sound was pleasantly soothing by day and soporific by night.

Something of this long-ago experience came back to me when I clicked on this link, got rid of the ad and played the video with my eyes closed. Try it for yourself and then decide what you think about this statement:

“When you listen to the tranquil sounds of nature and the great outdoors, you feel more relaxed.”

Most people would likely take that statement to be true, primarily because it makes sense intuitively. It may also be a “reality” that many have actually experienced.

But is it actually true? Can it be demonstrated scientifically? It seems likely that the answer to both questions will turn out to be, “Yes”. This is certainly the direction in which research evidence is pointing.

Some of this evidence comes from experimental studies in which subjects who had been stressed (by undertaking a difficult mental arithmetic task, for example) were then exposed to different auditory conditions including natural sounds such as birdsong, moving water and soft wind. The consistent message from these studies is that natural sounds are more effective in reducing the signs, symptoms and negative feelings of stress.

Other studies have shown that natural sounds are more effective than alternatives in reducing stress during surgical procedures.

Natural sounds may also hold the key to masking the distracting noise of conversation in open-plan office settings. Workers were found to perform better on a task requiring sustained attention when they were exposed to the sound of a mountain stream rather than a soundscape of artificial “white noise” and another of no masking noise at all. The sound of the stream also elicited more positive feelings about the work environment. By a very decisive margin, workers preferred the mountain stream sound to the standard white noise signal.

In a very recent study, researchers from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School investigated the effect of natural sounds on the workings of the brain. They did this by performing brain scans on subjects listening to artificial and natural soundscapes. Natural sounds were found to activate the network in the brain associated with the mind-wandering and reflective thinking that is experienced in moments of tranquillity (the default mode network). The study also found evidence that natural sound triggered the anti-stress, calming “rest-and-digest” system of the body. Interestingly, the amount of change in nervous system activity was dependent on the participants’ baseline state. Individuals who showed evidence of the greatest stress before starting the experiment showed the greatest bodily relaxation when listening to natural sounds,

Given the consistency of the evidence, it is fairly safe to assume that the human brain has evolved to find at least some natural sounds calming. According to evolutionary theory, this would have happened because sounds such as the gurgle of running water, the murmur of wind in trees, the song of birds and the roar of surf helped our ancestors identify safe, secure and supportive habitats. These were, for our ancestors, sounds of connectedness, affinity, intimacy and belonging – not consciously registered as such perhaps but deeply affecting none-the-less.Sounds roar of surf

And this is exactly the way these same sounds work for us – as subliminal reminders of our embeddedness in the natural world. They are the sounds of “home”.

So, as we hear and savour natural sounds and benefit from their soothing and restorative effects, let us also dwell on the awesome thought that what we are experiencing arises directly from our complete and timeless oneness with the whole of nature

 

 

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My Internet provider has just supplied me with a free replacement modem intended to speed up Internet traffic to and from my computer and thus save me time. The old modem was working fine as far as I was concerned but I was pressed to make the switch.

AQH3419.TIF

AQH3419.TIF

Isn’t this typical of technological development in our society? All of it is oriented towards increasing speed and saving time. If the truth be told, much of our way-of-life today is shaped by a pre-occupation with speed and “clock” time. Speed helps us to fit more into the day and respecting time enables us to schedule all that we need, want or are obliged to do.

But not all societies share our regard for clock time – what the Ancient Greeks referred to as chronos. In Nepal, for example, especially in the rural villages, the daily schedule is much more likely to be shaped by the timeliness of activities and events than the hands anddr A typical pastoral scene numbers on a clock. This is understandable in an agrarian society where daily activities are indissociably tied to rhythms set by the sun, seasons, crops, and animals. Conformity to these rhythms takes precedence over meeting clock-regulated schedules. Smart Western visitors to Nepal quickly learn to accommodate to the reality and elasticity of “Nepalese time”.

In significant ways “Nepalese time” is closer to the second notion of time that the Ancient Greeks had. That was Kairos, which is time that is referenced to events or activities or more precisely the “right” or opportune moment for such things. As is said in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible,

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that what is planted… and so on.

In all, there are 26 events or activities listed in the Ecclesiastes passage but I doubt that the list was intended to cover “everything”. There are quite a number I would be happy to see added to the list – all to do with nature. A time to walk (sit, meditate, swim, cycle, canoe, ski tour etc) in nature, for example, a time to experience challenges in nature; a time to find peace in nature, a time to seek healing in nature;

and a time to slow down in nature.

Writing about friluftliv, the Scandinavian tradition of embracing an open air life, Hans Gelter speaks of “slow experiences”. Many in modern societies are caught up in high-tempo family and working lives where finding the time to do all that has to be done is difficult. In such a regime, the risks of unhealthy fatigue (the kind that leads to burnout) and stress are great, not only from the frustration of not getting the main jobs done but also from little things – the disruptive hassles that cumulatively can also be very wearing. “This speedy life”, says Gelter, “has resulted in the longing for an alternative to such a hectic life, a search for ‘slowness’, for an opportunity to get a break to breath and regain energy”.

He adds: “Urban stressed-out people are searching for ‘slow experiences’ designed to temporarily ‘stop the speed’ of the hectic everyday life”.

Perhaps the most effective slow experiences are the ones that appear to suspend time altogether. These are the ones that involve personally meaningful activities that completely absorb us and give us deep joy. They are the activities that provide the experience of “flow” that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes. In a state of flow, self-awareness almost disappears and there is no consciousness of time.

All manner of activities can do this, especially ones that are freely chosen and are personally very meaningful. Art, sport and hobby activities are commonly associated with the experience of flow.

Nature provides ideal settings for “flow” activities. There are several reasons for this, a very importantIMG_0346 resized one being that natural settings help us to have the “being away from it all” feeling. In natural settings also, we are much more likely to be “fascinated”, that is, to have our attention captured by the sights, sounds and other sensory stimuli around us. More than any other context, natural settings help us to withdraw and slow down.

Hans Gelter is a strong believer in the power of nature to provide the kind of restorative slow experiences that urban dwellers are needing and seeking. To test his belief, he conducted a study in which 221 people undertaking field trips in nature were asked to have a short solo experience. They were asked simply to sit silently in a natural setting. After 10 minutes, the participants re-joined their groups and wrote down how the solo experience was for them – their thoughts and feelings during it.

Most (96%) wrote positively about their encounter with nature, many expressing gratitude for the experience and reporting feelings of happiness and freedom. The most common (66%) observations were about the impact of the experience of mood as expressed in terms like calm, relaxation, stillness, quietness, peace, harmony and restoration. Almost as common were thoughts about sensations – the sights, sounds, smells of the surroundings and the increased awareness of details.

Although this was not a rigorous study, the results are totally consistent with the findings of many formal, peer-reviewed investigations. It is particularly interesting that a mere 10 minutes spent alone in a natural setting was sufficient to alter people’s moods, mental rhythms and time sense.

 

Hans Gelter’s study is mentioned in his chapter in Nature First: Outdoor Life the Friluftliv Way, edited by Bob Henderson and Vikander and published by Natural Heritage Books, 2007

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I never thought I would think, much less say, that taking a mobile phone on a nature walk could be a good idea. Mobile phones have become technological tyrants in the lives of many people. Sure, they are a great communication tool, but they are an insistent source of distraction that can almost run our lives if we are not careful. And they certainly have no place in nature-based activities undertaken to find stillness, inner calm and tranquillity – or at least so I believed.

My mind was changed by Matthew Johnstone’s story. Having had a long struggle with depression himself, Matthew is now creative director at the Black Dog Institute. He has been greatly helped by what he calls “eyes-wide-open” meditation (EWOM). This, he says, is a form of mindfulness meditation that is for people who are turned off by conventional insight or mindfulness meditation (MM) – or who find it difficult.

The cover of Matthew Johnstone's book on how to use photography in mindfulness meditation

The cover of Matthew Johnstone’s book on how to use photography in mindfulness meditation

MM involves quietening the mind by channelling attention onto an object, such as a candle flame, a feeling, a word or mantra – “om” is a popular one – or one’s own breathing, and then observing in a non-judgemental way the thoughts and feelings that pop into your head. The key ingredient of mindfulness says medical academic, Dr Craig Hassed, is that “we are conscious of what is going on but not in a self-conscious kind of way – so paying attention rather than thinking about ourselves”.

In contrast to MM, which adopts an inward looking perspective, EWOM turns our observing to the world beyond ourselves. It requires us to slow down, look around, and let our attention be attracted and held. It centres our awareness on the “out there” and enables our senses to dwell on “beautiful light, beautiful shapes [and] beautiful colours”. It locates us in the present and the here and now and, in so doing, quietens the sometimes unpleasant and damaging “busyness” of our minds.

Matthew found that a camera can be a great aid to EWOM.

“A camera in your hands is the reminder to consciously slow everything down from your breath, to your walk, to your thoughts… To take photographs, we have to stop, look around, focus and capture. It brings our awareness to what’s going on.”

The camera does not have to be a fancy one. The camera built into most mobile phones is quite suitable for the purpose. Indeed, a mobile phone camera is the perfect tool for EWOM, he says, especially for people on-the-go. A great advantage of your phone camera is that you probably have it with you all or most of the time. It is also convenient to carry and easy to use.

Based on Matthew’s remarks, I have identified some simple guidelines for using your camera phone as a EWOM tool (no doubt Matthew would suggest others):

  • Switch the phone to aeroplane mode so that you’re not distracted by texts, tweets and the like.
  • Let the camera remind you to consciously slow everything down – from your breath, to your walk, to your thoughts – and then take time to look.
  • Imagine the camera is asking you questions like, “What can you see that no-one else can? What grabs your heart? What makes you smile?”

This last guideline underlines the importance of photographing only what resonates with you – what you find yourself drawn to happily and involuntarily. These will be subjects that you find intrinsically interesting and attractive; subjects that you attend to effortlessly and without direction from your conscious mind. Psychologists refer to this involuntary, interest and emotion-driven attention as “fascination”, and contrast it with the fatiguing, voluntary, choice-driven (or directed) attention that is so much part of day-to-day life.

In the human mind, nature and fascination go together. Just as directed attention is an inescapable part of life in modern environments, fascination is the “normal” or typical form of attention in natural places. The psychological relationship between fascination and nature is forged by our emotions. The emotional centres in the human brain evolved long before the thinking parts and continue to have a big say in our behaviour including where and how we focus our attention.

There is now overwhelming evidence that fascination experienced in natural environments is therapeutic. Apart from countering stress, it enhances recovery from mental fatigue and associated mood problems. It is not hard to imagine that regular doses of fascination help relieve depression and anxiety, perhaps by giving the brain time-out from negative thoughts and feelings.

Matthew Johnstone practices EWOM in all kinds of settings. But I think that natural settings have more than most to offer as far as EWOM is concerned.

Matthew Jonstone b

And if the phone camera can help with EWOM then I am willing to concede that there is a case for taking a mobile phone (switched to aeroplane mode, of course) on a nature walk. If you are going to be “in the present and the here-and-now” anywhere, the “present and the here-and-now” in nature are as good as it gets.

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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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Dr Oliver Sacks, author of the bestseller, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, has a friend with moderately severe Tourette’s syndrome. In his city environment, the friend has thousands of tics and verbal ejaculations each day – grunting, jumping, and touching things compulsively

But once when they were hiking together in a desert, Sacks was astonished to notice that the tics had completely disappeared. He attributed this extraordinary change in his friend’s neurological state to “the remoteness and uncrowdedness of the scene, combined with some ineffable calming effect of nature”.

There may be aspects of nature’s calming effect that are indeed hard to capture in words but there is absolutely no doubt about the reality of the effect. It has been documented in literally hundreds of studies.

It takes only a few minutes of exposure to a natural scene or even a picture of one for the symptoms of stress in mind and body to decrease and be replaced by the relaxation response (as expertly demonstrated by my friend Roger).

In Japan, relaxing in nature is taken very seriously. The people in this photo are engaged in  shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing”. As you can see, it simply involves taking in the atmosphere of a forest by walking in it. Sitting in a forest would do just as well. I guess the Australian equivalent of the practice could be called “bush bathing”.

For over 30 years Japanese scientists have been studying the effects of shinrin-yoku. The findings have been consistent and compelling. Blood pressure, stress hormone levels, central nervous system function and mood – all respond positively to the shinrin-yoku experience. As a result, health practitioners in Japan are now advocating shinrin-yoku therapy.

Why nature triggers the relaxation response is not clear but it is safe to assume that the answer lies in biophilia. As we have evolved to find nature attractive, it is logical that we will also experience it as comforting and calming.

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