I remember my days in Los Angeles when I was working as a full-time, traveling massage therapist.
At the end each workday, no matter where I was in the city or how many clients I had seen, I had to make my way to the beach. I always found relief standing by the vast ocean waters, feeling my feet in the sand and letting my body recharge and recalibrate after working with other peoples’ bodies.
I gave my worries, stress, aches and pains to the water and let go, always finding a renewed sense of peace after integrating with the natural world.
Even if the ocean is hundreds of miles from where you reside, as it is for me now, finding ways to be in and around nature— finding ways to connect with nature—can help support the reduction of stress and enhance your well-being.
Research on how natural environments are restorative for the mind and body is a growing topic in the scientific world. Our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual bodies are deeply connected to nature, and we are profoundly intertwined with our environment.
In 2016, a National Geographic article titled, “This is Your Brain on Nature,” by Florence Williams, brought to light the benefits of nature connection in the areas of stress reduction through research in neuroscience. This growing body of information scientifically links the benefits of nature and its powerful effects on the mind and body of human beings.
Many people are disconnected from nature due to busy work and family lives. As massage therapists, much of our time is often spent indoors in a room with dim lighting. This can be relaxing at times, but there may be very little contact with the outside world. In larger, more urban cities, this may mean even less time in nature.
Research has found that even looking at a picture of nature can ease the mind. One 2015 study of more than 700 employees found, “A greater amount of indoor nature contact at work was significantly associated with less job stress” and with sickness-related absence. Research conducted back in 1984 indicated that even having a view of a tree, rather than a brick wall, can shift a hospital patient’s pain control and need for pain medications.
According to the National Geographic article previously mentioned, an individual’s mental performance can improve significantly after spending time in a natural environment. David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, whom Williams quoted in her article, discovered that “short doses of nature—or even pictures of the natural world—can calm people down and sharpen their performance.”
His studies examine how the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for higher-order thinking, slows down in nature.
In other words, when we spend time in nature, our multi-tasking minds have a moment to take a pause and re-boot, allowing our imagination and creative mind to expand. This translates all the way through the nervous system and can have a profound effect on our overall health and wellness.
Our lives can become so full with planning for the future or ruminating about the past, that our brains fatigue easily. A short nap, surfing the internet or shopping may seem restorative in the moment, yet these do not compute as rest for our mind.
Instead, on your next break, experiment with going outside and sitting on a park bench. If it’s too cold in the winter months, find a place to sit indoors facing a window. Focus on a color or shape in nature that attracts you and pay attention to that while being mindful of your breath. If it helps, set your timer for five or 10 minutes.
Be curious about your experience and what you notice. Ultimately, personal experience is the truth-teller, and if you are aware of a positive shift then you are most likely to use this time as a tool for stress reduction.
The mental and physical benefits of being in nature are interrelated. Richard Louv writes about Vitamin N, or the mind-body-nature connection, in his book The Nature Principle. He says taking time to absorb a dose of Vitamin N can greatly enhance our mental state as well as our physical body.
In addition, a study from the National Environmental Education Foundation has found that spending time strolling or briskly walking in a natural environment decreases the stress hormone cortisol. Even Louv himself writes that he “walks to restore himself.”
Studies published in the International Journal of Health Research explain that exercise routines that begin outside are more likely to continue than those that involve a workout at the gym. People who participated in what researchers call “green exercise” had greater health effects, such as lowered blood pressure and better overall circulation than those people who exercised inside. In June 2016, researches at the University of Queensland reported, “People who visit parks for 30 minutes or more each week are much less likely to have high blood pressure or poor mental health than those who don’t.”
What is important about these facts? In an increasingly tech-focused world, choosing to take a break may often mean choosing a half hour on our phone or computer rather than spending time outside breathing in fresh air and oxygen.
Opting to take a five-to-10-minute walk in a park can brighten your mind and body by clearing your head and giving you natural energy and vitality. Louv says too little time outside can have a negative effect on our body, including a deficiency in Vitamin D, which is naturally absorbed from sunshine, among other sources. Vitamin D is responsible for autoimmune health, mood balance, bone health and physical strength.
Spending time outside does not necessarily have to be about exercise. There can be great calm and connection gained simply by listening to the natural sounds around you—the birds, the leaves in the wind, the waves at the beach.
The natural world is nondenominational, yet not without the ability to stir a human’s spirit with a sense of awe and amazement. As a reminder of this, I am aware of an experience on a nine-day course I took last year with a well-known wilderness survival instructor. On our third day, he brought us out to a two or three acre field of dried grass. At first sight, I thought nothing of this land and visually it all looked the same.
The next instruction was to get down on our stomachs, in the grass, and like children spend an hour on the earth’s surface and explore. At first, after following his instructions, I felt itchy among the grass reeds and uncomfortable on the front of my body. My mind was in overdrive.
After a few minutes, something shifted within and all of a sudden I began to see a whole other world within the grass and weeds. A family of grasshoppers, multi-colored specks of stone and gravel, pieces of crystal and quartz.
As if I was on another planet, my sense of wonder grew with every new awareness of this tiny, microcosmic world. By the end of the exercise, I would deem it a spiritual experience—one that enhanced my sense of something greater and more powerful than the “tiny me” observing bugs and dirt.
In an article by Margaret Paul, Ph.D., in The Huffington Post titled “What Does it Mean to be Spiritual?” she writes about one aspect of spirituality stemming from our love and kindness toward Earth and all its beings. Perhaps a spiritual practice may
be tending to a garden or taking time to advocate for an environmental cause. At its simplest, creating the intention to take a walk or a hike and noticing something new can create feelings of being interconnected and a part of something sacred.
For some people, the spiritual benefits of being in nature have to do with their desire to find a sense of place. A woman in Louv’s book, The Nature Principle, shares her account of finding solace throughout her life under large trees. This is where she regulates her nervous system, finds emotional balance and has a deeper sense of being connected to all things.
Spiritual connection in nature is varied, diverse and very individual. If you are open to exploring your own relationship to the natural world and any meaning that may or may not develop from this relationship, you might begin with the process of slowing down and going out on a walk with a sense of wonder or beginner’s mind. Maybe connect with nature by spending some time by your favorite body of water and journal about what you observe, smell, touch, taste and hear.
Who knows what will transpire? Perhaps a transformation of some sort or simply a sense of awe at the tiniest movements of a bug on a leaf.
We all know that stress and emotional dis-regulation can be a natural part of life. How we cope with emotional imbalance is what matters. It is important to consider how we deal with challenges and what is in our toolbox when difficult situations arise. When we connect with nature, this can be a resource in these times
A research study at Stanford University indicates that spending time in nature lowers depression. Specifically, the study had two groups of people walk for 90-minutes.
One group walked in a natural setting and the other in a crowded city setting. The results afterward showed a marked decrease in heart rate for people who walked in nature, as well as decreased activity in the area of the brain that is correlated with depression and anxiety.
When difficult emotions arise, being outside can be highly therapeutic.
Connect with nature
As massage therapists, there are many ways to experience the benefits of nature. Feeling run down can be a common experience in this field of work.
Professional burnout in massage therapists is quite high.
Knowing this, mindfully finding ways to bring more of the natural world into your life can be a helpful way to increase self-care and find balance with the physical demands of massage. Connecting to nature can be a practice that is both preventive and curative for one’s well-being.
About the Author
Erin Tanner Jospé, L.P.C., R.Y.T., is a licensed professional counselor, personal coach, bodyworker and yoga teacher. She’s been in the field of psychology and stress reduction since 1998. Over the past 20 years, she has taught yoga and been a bodyworker in both Los Angeles, California, and Boulder, Colorado. Most recently, she is part of a two-year meditation teacher-training program with Jack Kornfield and Tara Branch.
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