Nature Based Stress Management

Coach Heidi
Stress occurs when there is a mismatch between resources and the demands we experience.

We all have limited amounts of energy and finite resources available as we go about our lives, and many times, it feels like there are never enough of these resources to go around. Energy is low. Demands are high. Our attention, time, money, patience, emotions, and a myriad other qualities are tapped to keep our heads above water. In an increasingly digital world, things go faster, we feel less connected to others no matter how connected we may be on social media, and many times we simply feel overwhelmed in the midst of everything. The good news is that we can thrive in this stressful world, and we can invite that thriving by focusing on what we can control, letting go of what we can’t, and putting our energy into the things that truly align with what we value.

The goal today is to discern the difference between the things you can control and the things you can’t, prioritize where your energy needs to go and practice letting nature invite a sense of calm into your everyday life experiences.

Being alive on planet earth has never been easy. From animals to plants to humans, stress is a regular part of life. A gazelle experiences stress when a lion springs from the bushes: that rush of adrenaline and cortisol that fuel the instinct to flee keeps the gazelle alive for another day. A plant in the garden experiences stress when the weather is too hot and windy or cold and too damp: the resiliency that is built due to these conditions helps the plant to thrive when conditions evolve. Much like in the gazelle’s story, a human can experience stress when life is physically threatened whether that threat comes via a gunman, a grizzly bear or a lightning bolt. The heart races, palms get sweaty and all we can think about is the crisis at hand. We react. And that reaction to a life or death threat is necessary for survival in such cases.

However, in our modern societies, we generally experience significantly less “survival” stress than our hunter/gatherer ancestors did.  Much of the time, stress arises when we perceive a situation to be stressful and let our perception commandeer our response. . There are challenges galore in a human life, to be sure. Schedules are tight, communications with loved ones or bosses or neighbors are strained or non-existent, traffic is bad and there are too many bills to pay. 

We must acknowledge before moving forward that systemic discrimination, racism, and stigmatization also cause extreme stress for myriad groups across the globe, including real threats to physical and psychological safety, and some of our community members do face life and death situations regularly in their line of work.

That being said, the average citizen who is not living in untenable conditions may not be dealing with life or death situations on a regular basis. But when we’re talking about the stress of the average modern person, even non life-threatening situations can trigger the same fear or stress response:  Our hearts race, palms get sweaty, and all we can think about is the crisis at hand.  We react.  And in this case, our reaction is not helping us to survive. In fact, it might be causing damage to our health in the form of elevated blood pressure, chronic tension headaches, or inability to get quality sleep. In today’s dominant culture, particularly in the corporate workforce, values of more, better, faster have invited everything from chronic stress to burnout to a general disliking of Mondays. When we view the world as an emergency room, our stress levels soar.  But when we can break our issues down and really look at what’s going on, a sense of control and peace becomes reachable.

The following activity will provide some structure around identifying where you want to spend your energy and what things you want to put energy into according to your values.

We can break our “stressors” down into four categories: Things we can control that are important, things we can control that are not important, things we cannot control that are important, and things that we cannot control that are not important. Regardless of scale, all stressors fit into one of these categories.

  1. Take a piece of paper and draw four large boxes. Label them according to the above categories.
  2. Consider all the things that cause you stress, and write each one that comes to mind in the appropriate box.
  3. Cross out the things in the uncontrollable/unimportant box. Letting these things go instead of putting energy and resources on them is your first step to feeling better.
  4. ‘Look at the controllable but unimportant items. Decide if it’s worth it to you to take the action needed to address these. If the outcome doesn’t at least equal the energy/resources it takes to make the change, let it go, or put it to the bottom of your priorities list.
  5. Look at the important/controllable items. This is where you can take action. Maybe you need to organize your day more effectively by keeping a detailed calendar and using an alarm. Maybe you need to pick a closet to sort and donate 10 items to your local thrift store to feel less cluttered. Maybe you need to track your spending for a week and create a budget to stick to in order to ease the anxiety that creeps in when the mortgage bill is due each month. Write down at least one action item to complete by the end of the week.
  6. Finally, there are the things that are important and totally outside of your control. These are the tough ones, and it will take some practice to learn to manage them differently–in a way that doesn’t add even MORE stress to life. Practicing acceptance (no matter what the situation, and remember acceptance doesn’t equal surrender or giving up), being intentional about constructive self-talk, and tapping into your support network can help. Then, make a point to look to the natural world for solace and the opportunity to relax, move your body, drink a glass of water, and be in the present moment. Because in that present moment, unless you are literally in a life or death situation, you are okay. (Sometimes being okay looks and feels different then we think it should.) After a while of practicing, you’ll have whole days, and even lifetimes, of being okay.

Now that you’ve taken a good look at your stress triggers, think about what it feels like to sit outside, on a nice day, alone. There’s a great practice, sometimes called simply “having a sit spot” which means finding a place that’s easy to get to regularly, where you can safely practice tuning in fully to your natural surroundings and sinking into the pattern of being present with all of your senses attuned to your experience. When stressful situations arise, you can go back there in your mind’s eye, even if you cannot physically be in your sit spot.

When you’ve identified a good spot, next time you are there, pick up a small token of remembrance: a smooth stone, a fallen piece of bark, some dried grasses, an acorn. Carry this token with you and pull it out when you need a grounding reminder – when a situation feels threatening or overwhelming or invokes an irrational fear response in your body. Let your past experience of being immersed in the natural environment wash over you and clear your mind of the worries at hand, if even just for a moment. Return to the stressful situation with a renewed sense of calm and focus. (Getting to your desired outcome will take practice.)

In addition to finding an object of remembrance, take a bit of time to identify some things you can do outdoors that will invoke a sense of calm. Dig in your garden, make a point to move in the natural air regularly to refuel with daylight. Really get to know your sit spot. And above all remember what J.B. MacKinnon does when he writes: “Nature offers us respite from the worlds we create for ourselves.”

*Please note that even if outdoor spaces aren’t accessible to you right now, you can do this exercise in the company of an open window, an indoor plant, terrarium, or even a photo of a favorite natural space.

And next time you venture outside, take 30 seconds and look all the way up. The sky is always there to ground you to the wild.

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