This article was written in September 2015 and is reprinted.
There is really no way to get around stress in your life. Truthfully, there should not be. Stress is what helps us grow and change and learn new things. Sometimes it pushes us to function in ways that we never would otherwise.
Too much stress, however, can create snippety, short, mean people. I know, because I can be that way. Overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things to do or having a short period of time to do them in, my answers get short and abrupt. It also makes me a person I don’t like to be.
This summer, I hit upon a twenty minute solution. I found a natural area, not at the Audubon Community Nature Center, that could be used as a mental break between home and work. Getting outside and watching the world go by for a short time made everything seem less stressful. It was taking a little time for myself to make me less abrupt, more patient and a better person.
In my ten to fifteen minutes of nature time, there were all kinds of things happening. There would be a Sora walking out of the reeds, hunting for food. These tiny birds with huge feet could amuse me for an hour, though they would move on after only a few minutes. Huge dragonflies would zoom by, flying in crazy patterns as they defied the laws of physics to grab insects out of the air. The time would be full of Green Herons, Virginia Rails and, most of all, a deep radiating peace that prepared me to go back to a desk filled with what my kids call a “Do Do” list of things to accomplish.
This is not news. In fact, this may be the opposite of news, but it is important. Ten years ago, a book came out called “Last Child in the Woods”. It was written by Richard Louv, who coined a new term: Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD).
The book explored the disappearance of children from the landscape and what that could mean for the planet. As children play outside less, will they have less of an understanding and appreciation for what is there? More importantly, are they losing something that could help them.
The book explores how natural time outdoors helps with everything from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to recovery time from surgery to ability to focus better after a walk in a natural area compared to a city. We’ve known for years that outside time is beneficial, so why did it take me so long to take outside time for myself?
Sometimes we just don’t take the time to do the things that are good for us, even if we know that we need to. It’s easy to slip into a “I’ll take time for this later” mindset. For me, those quiet times alone spent recharging make the whole day calmer and less overwhelming.
Scientists at the University of Illinois recently completed a study on why that may be. According to the summary: “Spending time in nature provides protections against a startling range of diseases, including depression, diabetes, obesity, ADHD, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and many more, research shows. How this exposure to green space leads to better health has remained a mystery. After reviewing hundreds of studies examining nature’s effects on health, an environment and behavior researcher believes the answer lies in nature’s ability to enhance the functioning of the body’s immune system.”
Think of stress, and all the problems it can cause, as a “fight or flight” response. This is the body’s reaction to stress. You exist in a state where you are ready to beat something with a club or run away. Your body sends all available energy towards survival and away from the basics, like the immune system and other functions not essential for immediate survival. Nature induces the opposite response, which the author of the study, Ming Kuo, describes as “rest and digest”.
“When we feel completely safe, our body devotes resources to long-term investments that lead to good health outcomes–growing, reproducing, and building the immune system,” Kuo said. “When we are in nature in that relaxed state, and our body knows that it’s safe, it invests resources toward the immune system.”
Can you get some of those same benefits inside? Sure. Doing something utterly relaxing inside can also send you into that “rest and digest” state, but the study emphasizes the added benefits of being outside. These include exposure to the sun that makes vitamin D in your body, exposure to various germs and bacteria and more.
And so, I continue to go outside, alone, several days a week. It doesn’t take long, just a few peaceful minutes of foggy quiet, to boost my body into a more relaxed, calm state before moving into the bedlam of work and life with two children who are always, always ready to push the boundaries as they grow and challenge themselves in new ways.
For me, it works. I find myself easier to live with, less stressed and more relaxed as nature has time to work its magic on me. It might work for you too and is worth a try. A walk outside is less expensive than the alternatives.
Jeff Tome is a naturalist at the Audubon Community Nature Center.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.