Stress Less in Nature

stress less in nature

We all experience it and we all have ways to manage it – some ways are more healthy and effective than others! This post is all about stress, the relaxation response, and how you can learn to stress less in nature.

Stress has a purpose

Typically we associate stress with overwhelm, overwork and feelings of dread and anxiety. It’s a complex system that involves your brain, nervous system and a range of bio chemicals that gets you ready for action. A couple of the stress hormones are quite famous so you’re probably familiar with their names – epinephrine or adrenaline, and cortisol. These hormones can have an enormous impact on your physiology – your muscles become tense, and your heart rate and breathing rate increase.

These sorts of responses are really helpful when you’re in immediate danger because they help you to move quickly, for example to jump out of the way towards safety if you need to.

Ongoing stress impacts health

But when your brain and body remain in this type of stress loop for a long period of time, there are other impacts on your health – high blood pressure, coronary problems, brain changes that can contribute to depression, anxiety and addictions, obesity, problems with sleeping, difficulty relaxing and winding down, and irritability.

It’s as if your body is on full throttle and the brakes aren’t being activated.

stress less for better health

Be ‘stress aware’

But did you know that this ‘full gas’ stress response can also happen when life seems good? When you’re racing through life, exercising hard, working long hours at a job even one that you love, coming home to care for your family, taking the kids to sport, getting the groceries, renovating the house, socialising on weekends – well, there’s a certain level of load on your body and brain then too. It’s important that you take stock of all of your loads, not just the dreaded ones when you’re trying to understand how your body deals with stress. You may not be aware of the build-up of your loads until things come crashing down.

Regulate your stress response

So if there’s a whole lot of throttle in your life, whether it’s wanted or unwanted, how can you regulate it so that your stress response doesn’t become unhealthy and lead you toward poor health – physical and mental?

#1 Where are you spending your energy and attention?

You can do an audit of your life to see where your energy and attention is going. Ask yourself:

  • Are there things you can change, maybe let go of, or reprioritise to reduce the load?
  • Are you saying yes to too many things?
  • Do you feel pressure to live your life a particular way even though it might not feel right for you?
  • Are you drinking lots of coffee? Alcohol? Tobacco or other drugs? These all put a load on your body and your brain.
  • What about your sleep? Lack of sleep or poor quality sleep adds another load on your life.
  • And your nutrition – what foods are you taking into your body that might be adding to your stresses or loads?

Once you’ve done some sorting to identify what’s contributing to your loads, you can move onto the next step.

Saying no

#2 Bring about a relaxation response

If you’ve cleaned up the loads in your life, it’s now time to bring about a relaxation response. A relaxation response is a bit like the brake that stops the stress response from continuing to escalate and the stress building up over time. A relaxation response can counteract the stress response to some extent by slowing the breathing and heart rate, reducing tension in the muscles, lowering blood pressure and increasing a feeling of inner calm.

So what’s the secret formula to this amazing brake-inducing relaxation response?

You can learn to bring about a relaxation response using a range of cognitive (mind-based) and behavioural (action-based) strategies. Some of the most powerful ones are:

  • certain breathing practices
  • visualisations
  • meditation
  • tai chi
  • yoga
  • prayer

It can be very helpful to have a mentor or a teacher guide you to find the best practice for you and to help you problem-solve it when it doesn’t seem to work. This is one of my favourite parts of the work I do, because I know just how transformational it is when you discover a technique or strategy that meets your needs. In fact I believe that meditation and breathing practices are so important that they feature in every women’s retreat and every workshop I run no matter what the topic is, even my professional development programs!

stress less with breathing practices

More ways to bring about a relaxation response

Physical exercise can also help you to stress less and bring about the relaxation response. Brisk exercise is really good for releasing stress and tension, and gentle exercise can bring about a sense of calm. So my recommendation is to make sure you have a combination of brisk and gentle exercise in your week. Even better – learn to read your body patterns over time so you know which type of exercise you need at different times.

And another important ingredient here to managing your stress load is having great supports and relationships in your life.

Stress less activities in nature

nature is my therapy bundleI’ve included some of my favourite stress less activities that you can do in nature in the “Nature is my Therapy Bundle”. You can grab a copy of this for yourself (for a limited time only) by heading over to my website and signing up for my email newsletter Grounded Inspiration. At the time of writing this blog post, the Nature is my Therapy Bundle is a gift that I send to all new subscribers of Grounded Inspiration.

But in the meantime here are some stress less activities that you can do in nature right now:

  • Go outside and spend a few minutes simply being still, listen to the sounds around you
  • Go for a walk outside to clear your head
  • Have a yummy picnic in a natural environment
  • Take your drawing, painting, writing or other craft outdoors
  • Go on a nature treasure hunt
  • Explore a park
  • Give your worries to something outside like a tree or a stream
  • Snap some photos of the beautiful little treasures you find outside
  • Go on a camping trip
  • Take your meditation practice outdoors
  • Watch the sunset or sunrise
  • Grow a garden, pot plants or herbs for kitchen

Let's sum up!

I do hope this post has given you a little bit of understanding about how stress works in your body, how it can affect physical and mental health, the importance of managing the loads you have in your life, and how you can bring about a relaxation response to put the brakes on the stress response. And of course some ideas to take your stress less activities outdoors and immerse yourself in nature.

Do you have a favourite stress less activity in the outdoors? Let me know by sending me a message!

Listen in to the podcast episode here!

Daisy Spoke

Discovering mountain biking as life’s ultimate parallel universe in her middle age, Kathryn Walton shares information and reflections in Daisy Spoke that connect, inspire and self-empower women to make healthy choices for themselves. She integrates her love of physical exercise, family, nature, gardening and creative arts with her professional background in mental health social work to facilitate change with individuals, groups and communities of women who are committed to living life to the full.

How to find parks where I live

how to find parksAt the time of writing this post, it’s late May 2020 and Australia is going through a staged process of coming out of isolation. The world is striving to manage human health needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m seeing and hearing a lot of enthusiasm from people to get out and socialise more, but also to reconnect with outdoor spaces and places. That includes people who haven’t been especially interested in the outdoors before. I think people have become more aware of the role that getting out and about and connecting with the outdoors has on mental health and well-being.

Lots of people have been asking questions about how to find parks where they live, where they can go, what walks are around, how to get to places, what facilities are available in different locations, whether particular trails are suitable for young families or people with mobility issues, how to get started bush walking and so on.

In this article I’m going to begin answering some of those questions. I’ll give you a run down on what types of parks we have in Australia that you can access for outings, picnics, walks, bush walks and other activities. We’ll look at what the differences are between National Parks, State Forests, Regional Parks and privately managed parklands and what sorts of activities can you do there.

I wrote last year about the Goomburra Section of Main Range and in future posts I’ll share information about some of my other favourite parks as well.

What are National Parks?

National Parks and reserves are publicly owned landholdings that are protected and managed by Federal or State authorities. Many National Parks are open for public recreation activities and have infrastructure such as toilets, picnic shelters, campgrounds and marked walking trails. Some National Parks have designated mountain bike (MTB) trails and locations for abseiling, rock climbing, bouldering, and other adventurous activities. There are some National Parks with no facilities and some that are not open to the public.

If you want to know what National Parks are in your area, what facilities are there, what activities you’re permitted to do and so on, you can start by looking up the National Parks website in your state and check the Parks Australia website for information about the National Parks that are managed at the federal level. Here are some clickable links to help you find a National Park:

Queensland
New South Wales
Victoria
Tasmania
South Australia
Western Australia
Northern Territory
Australian Capital Territory
Parks Australia

Visitor Information Centres are dotted around the nation and are a great source of information about the National Parks in their areas.

Regional tourist associations will also have information including accommodation and hospitality options nearby.

Social media groups is another way to find out more about National Parks and other parks as well. Many people love to share their knowledge of different parks so this can be a fantastic way to get first hand information about people’s experiences and to ask questions that you might have. But don’t forget to check with National Parks for up-to-date information as well, especially about current closures. National Parks can be closed for maintenance, bushfires, extreme weather and other reasons so I recommend checking every time before you set out for a visit.

There are entry fees for visiting some National Parks and for camping which you may need to book ahead. Some National Parks have an online booking system for camping, and others are first-in-first-served. In certain circumstances you may need to apply for a special permit well ahead of time if you want to undertake activities such as running organised events or commercial tours.

What are State Forests?

State Forests are publicly owned lands that are designated for multiple uses and which may be managed by your state National Parks, plantation companies or other enterprises. There is a lot of variation in what activities are permitted in each state forest. Mountain biking is popular in some State Forests, as well as walking, bouldering, and 4WDing.

State Forests are also subject to closure for harvesting timber and other reasons, so once again it’s best to check what’s on offer before heading out. My suggestion is to get on the Internet and search for State Forests in your area to find out more. Very generally there are fewer facilities and less infrastructure provided at State Forests than in National Parks so you need to be prepared to be self-sufficient.

What are Regional Parks?

There are lots of other public parks and reserves that are not National Parks or State Forests. Many of these are managed by regional councils or other local authorities so we’ll refer to them here as Regional Parks. They could also be managed through partnerships between different authorities and even with the private sector. Because the management can vary from place to place, you’ll need to look up your local council government website, or contact your Visitor Information Centre or your regional tourist association for more information about what’s around and what you can do there.

I want to give another plug for Visitor Information Centres. They can be a wealth of information about all sorts of local attractions, not just parks. And they should be able to tell you or give you brochures about local marked or signed walks, places where you’re allowed to take your dog, and parks where there are public toilets. Information Centres are often staffed by volunteers who are enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge of their area.

How do I find out about privately owned places that I can visit?

There are some privately owned or managed properties that the public can access for recreation, often for a fee. I’m thinking here about campgrounds, bush retreats and farm properties which allow you to camp and/or use the property for bushwalking, bike riding, climbing, bird watching, photography, picnics and so on. These properties are usually required to comply with certain regulations or have a licence and insurance to allow visitors. Once again you can find out about them through Internet searches; social media groups; Visitor Information Centres; and travel, tourism and accommodation platforms.

Your mental health will thank you for it!

I hope this article has given you some helpful information about how to find parks in your region and what the differences are between National Parks, State Forests, Regional Parks and privately managed park lands. All of these parks offer a different range of outdoor experiences and activities. It’s absolutely vital for your mental health and overall well-being to get out, to be active and to connect with nature. And my aim is to help you to do that in ways that are safe and health-giving as well as good for the environment.

Listen to the audio version of this blog on the podcast!

You can listen here to the audio version of this article on the Outdoors is my Therapy podcast, or find it on your favourite podcast player and remember to subscribe so you won’t miss future episodes about places you can go to get your outdoor therapy!

Daisy Spoke

Discovering mountain biking as life’s ultimate parallel universe in her middle age, Kathryn Walton shares information and reflections in ‘Daisy Spoke’ that inform, inspire and empower women to a healthy and active lifestyle.

Everyday in the Outdoors

everyday in the outdoors sunrise

Intentionally spending time everyday in the outdoors can add amazing value to your day, to your mental health and to your life in general. Yet many people rush through their day without even a thought about it. When you invest time and energy into connecting with the outdoors and with nature each day, you stand to gain multiple health benefits including improved attention, reduced stress levels, improved sleep and a better mood. Spending even just a few minutes outside each day can start to make a difference.

Recently the Outdoors is my Therapy Facebook Group ran a 7 Day Challenge to share ideas about some of the ways we can all get connected with the outdoors on a more regular basis – so we feel better! And live better! All of these are completely do-able, perhaps with some modifications, no matter your fitness level, age, where you live or how mobile you are. Here are the 7 challenges we undertook to spend time everyday in the outdoors:

GO FOR A WALK

I’m referring here to simply walking around, moving your larger muscle groups and immersing yourself in your surroundings. Whilst daily exercise is very important, the act of getting your body in motion and connecting with the outdoors is the focus here. You can take a walk at various times during the day depending what works best for your routine.

Morning walk

Getting out into the natural sunlight first thing in the day helps your brain to wake up, re-sets your body clock so you’re ready for sleep again after dark, and forms a solid foundation for your day.

Lunch time walk

A mid-day walk helps to break up your day. Getting outside your usual workplace and changing your focus is one of the best stress breaks you can give yourself. Perhaps you’ll love it so much you’ll incorporate a daily constitutional into your regular workday routine.

End of the day walk

A stroll at the end of the day signifies the end of work and helps you transition to family time, personal time or relaxation time. Walking as the sun goes down is especially helpful to switch modes and settle for the evening.

WITNESS SUNRISE & SUNSET

Begin your day with the waking light of dawn and finish your work day as the sun sinks below the horizon – nature’s perfect bookends for your day! If you practise yoga, why not do some sun salutations as the sun rises or sets. Or use this special time for personal prayer, meditation or breathing or stillness practices. Sunrise and sunset are global phenomena which can help us feel connected with other people and places.

SPEND TIME IN A GARDEN

Are you fortunate enough to have your own outside yard? Or do you have pot plants, indoor plants or access to a local park or green space? Maybe you have an in-house kitchen garden with herbs or bean sprouts growing? Your daily garden routine could include weeding, pruning, watering, planting or harvesting. It could also include more physically demanding jobs such as fencing, making compost and nurturing your worm farm. If you don’t have your own garden, you can spend time planning your dream garden, creating a garden either in the earth, on your balcony or on your kitchen bench. Or you can use your senses to enjoy nature’s handiwork outdoors.

HAVE A GO AT BIRDWATCHING

Bring your attention to the bird life around you. What birds can you see? And hear? You might like to identify the various birds in your neighbourhood, or simply watch and listen to them. Over time you’ll notice their patterns and routines, flight paths, nesting sites, amusing behaviours, social groupings, and how they respond to seasonal changes.

PRACTISE MINDFUL PRACTICES

Mindfulness-based practices are wide and varied. In general the focus is on slowing down and bringing your attention to your surroundings and your experiences in the moment. This can be challenging because we spend so much of our lives rushing around.

Sensory mindfulness

One way to practise mindfulness in the outdoors is to observe the world around you through each of your senses one by one. Spend a couple of minutes noticing what you see, then move on to noticing what you hear, what you smell, what you feel, and so on.

Mindful walk

There are many variations of mindful walks too. You can be barefoot or wearing shoes. Begin by pausing for a few moments, close your eyes, take a few breaths and tune into how that feels in your body. Notice the sensations of the ground beneath your feet. Slowly open your eyes and draw your gaze to the ground slightly ahead of you. Move slowly forward one step at a time, bringing your attention to the sensations as you move your foot forward – lifting, moving, placing it down, and adjusting your balance. Repeat this for each step you take bringing your attention back to the sensations of walking each time your mind wanders. Continue for a few minutes, then when you are ready to finish, pause again, close your eyes, take a few breaths and then open your eyes. This is a wonderful moment for a gratitude practice.

FIND THE LITTLE TREASURES

Make new discoveries in your outdoor spaces every day. When you begin to look, you can find little treasures everywhere! Cobwebs hiding in the corners of the fence. Bugs scurrying in search of new homes. Grasses beginning to seed. Leaves swaying in the breeze. The soft sound of bird wings as they fly by. Grains of sand sparkling in the sunlight. The feel of the breeze as it moves your hair or caresses your skin. The smell of the eucalyptus tree.

CELEBRATE LIFE WITH A PICNIC

Picnics are the perfect way to celebrate life and the outdoors. They are equally delightful whether you go solo or share it with others. Picnics can be simple or complex, planned or spontaneous, romantic or practical. All you need is some food and somewhere suitable outdoors. You might like to have a picnic rug, chairs or a park bench to sit on, but finding a fallen log or rock is heaps of fun too.

Pre-preparing picnic food can be pretty special, however turning your ordinary everyday meal into a picnic outdoors is a fabulous way to liven up your day. If you like, you can bring some extra activities with you such as a camera to do some photography, bat and ball games, “I Spy” games, books and crosswords. Turn your picnic into an adventure by adding a physical challenge to it, for example hiking or biking into your picnic spot.

Let's sum up!
We had a lot of fun sharing these activities during our 7 Day Outdoor Challenge. Which ones would you like to incorporate into your routine for getting outdoors everyday? Or what other actions are you feeling inspired to take to get connected everyday in the outdoors?

Head over to our Facebook Group to view the videos and threads about our #7DayOutdoorChallenge and share your ideas with us. By the way (if you’re not already a member) when you request to join the Group you’ll be asked to answer some questions before you can join (so we know you’re not a robot!) and you need to agree to the rules which are there to keep the group as a safe space for sharing and inspiring.

You can also listen to this article in the Outdoors is my Therapy podcast!

Kathryn talks you through how you can incorporate a daily routine of spending time in the outdoors that works for you!

Daisy Spoke avatar has long curly hair and smiling mouth

Discovering mountain biking as life’s ultimate parallel universe in her middle age, Kathryn Walton shares information and reflections in ‘Daisy Spoke’ that inform, inspire and empower women to a healthy and active lifestyle.