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.

Calming techniques for fear and anxiety

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With dramatic stories of doom and gloom flooding the media in recent times, I’ve found myself digging into my store of calming techniques for fear and anxiety. I figured you might find them useful too, after all, we’re all experiencing a global pandemic together – something that none of us have had to deal with before. This article explores the nature and purpose of fear and gives you a list of action-based techniques and a list of mind-based techniques that have a calming effect on anxiety and fear.

Fear is the voice in your head trying to keep you safe

Fear is the voice in your head telling you a story that sets off a chain of physiological and psychological responses. This gets you prepared to fight off danger whether it’s really there or not, to run away from it in pursuit of self-preservation, or to freeze.

As much as we may not like the sensations that fear brings, we need to allow it. It’s helped to keep the human race alive so far by signalling to us and enabling us to draw away from danger and move towards safety.

So how do we keep these voices of fear in check so that they do their job of keeping us safe without stopping us from living a healthy and fulfilling life?

fight flight freeze OR pause breathe think

The biology of fear through the ages

Biologically, for some of us, our brains and bodies excel at responding to fear. In days gone by, we were the warriors, chiefs and the village leaders who led our families to safety, found shelter from storms, fought off predators and kept everyone together. In our modern world it’s easy to forget that people led very physically active and outdoors-based lives not that many years ago. Bodies were in constant motion throughout the day and in tune with nature and with their wired brains – the perfect combination.

But today we’ve removed a lot of the physical movement from our lives and we’ve become disconnected from the outdoors and often from each other and our inner selves too. We’ve organised the world around us to protect us from weather and hard labour. Many of us live in permanent housing in societies with building regulations requiring our homes to be resistant to cyclones, tornadoes, rain, snow, hail, and wind. We shop for our food rather than hunt and gather it. Most people around the world commute using motorised transport rather than human power. And everywhere we look there are labour saving devices such as food processors and power tools.

The signs of fear and anxiety

Although our physical activity levels have reduced and we spend a lot of time indoors, our wired brains continue to go searching for danger and find it everywhere. This is exacerbated when something unexpected happens, such as the current corona-virus pandemic. For many of us, our bodies are not moving enough or connected with the world in ways that stimulate the physiological changes that keep a calm equilibrium and so we experience more signs of anxiety including:

  • ruminating thoughts
  • difficulty sleeping
  • sweating
  • feeling on edge, irritable
  • distracted
  • difficulty concentrating
  • body tension
  • aches, pains and nausea
  • lethargy
  • restlessness

are you feeding your fears

Action-based calming techniques for fear and anxiety

When we understand the physiology of fear, that is, what’s happening in our bodies when we feel anxious, we can begin to take actions to calm it. Calming actions may include:

  • set boundaries around your sedentary activities, for example, give yourself permission to use your electronic devices at set times of the day, put them away at night, set a limit on your daily quota of usage, and limit the number of times you check the news and social media
  • move more, sit less – move as much as you can during the day and get outside whenever it’s safe to do so
  • exercise for 30 – 60 minutes each day, preferably in the morning so you’re energised for the day ahead and it doesn’t disrupt your sleep at night
  • spend time with people whose company you enjoy or create a tribe of like-minded people – this can be face-to-face (when health directives allow this once again) but don’t forget there is great value in connecting with others online or by phone, video-conference (eg Skype), text and through social media groups
  • get creative and constructive doing hobbies or other tasks
  • participate in regular yoga, meditation or breathing practices – if you can’t go to a group class, try using an app, online class or a YouTube tutorial
  • watch a funny movie or a comedy show – laughing helps you breathe deeply and relax
  • talk to a professional
  • drink plenty of water and feed your body with good nutrition
  • spend time outdoors connecting with nature using your senses to be fully present in that space and time
  • watch your posture – shoulders back, head held high and breathe fully and deeply
  • have a massage to release tension from your muscles
  • give yourself a head massage
  • use your senses to connect with activities that you find relaxing, for example think about what things you can look at, listen to, smell, taste or touch that brings you joy
  • work on improving your sleep – if you are having trouble sleeping, read my  Top Ten Tips for a Good Night’s Sleep
  • rest or have a nap in the morning or early afternoon if you need to

use nature to deal with fear and anxiety

Mind-based calming techniques for fear and anxiety

Your mind is a mighty powerful tool that can also contribute to a sense of calm. Using your mind in this way can be a bit tricky if you haven’t done it before so here are some techniques to get you started:

  • talk to yourself using a calm, kind and rational voice

I know you’re feeling scared. Is it actually dangerous, or does it simply feel scary?”

What can I do to minimise the risk and maximise the benefits / enjoyment in this situation?”

What do I have control over in this situation? Hmmmm…. Okay, let’s just focus on that”

  • choose a positive intention or attitude for the day that will help you stay calm eg “Just breathe” or “I’ll start each day with movement and exercise”
  • remind yourself about fear’s purpose and that even in low risk situations your brain is wired to search for the danger, the difficulties, the problems – but this is only part of the whole picture
  • tune in to yourself and notice what’s happening in your body and what’s going through your mind
  • allow the fearful voices and thoughts to settle gentle as if they are snowflakes in a snow dome that’s been shaken up
  • imagine what advice a wise mentor might give you – this can help to balance up your own narrowly-focused thoughts
  • visualise wrapping your worries up as a gift and handing them over to someone or something that has more control over the situation
  • give your worries a name and imagine a safe little place that you can store them for now so that they no longer take over every part of your day and night
  • if you feel the fear or anxiety in parts of your body such as your belly or your head, imagine shrinking them down and allowing them a small space to do their thing – maybe a little corner of your belly or your little finger nail or behind your ear
  • visualise yourself walking into a beautiful garden and leaving your worries on the ancient worry tree at the gate before you go in (this idea comes from Maureen Garth’s book “Earthlight: new meditations for children”)

fear and possibility

Fear brings up other emotions

Fear is closely connected with a range of your emotions. It can keep you quiet with nervousness and shame. Fear can make you loud and angry too, or it can make you feel jumpy and agitated. It’s different for each of us, and it’s different in each situation we face too. That’s why it’s so important to have a deep store of techniques that you can draw upon when you need to. What worked for you before, may not work for you in a new situation.

Fear can be suppressed, expressed and transformed

When you think of fear as a form of energy, you can understand how it can be suppressed, expressed or transformed. Each of these processes has their purpose, but today I encourage you to focus on transforming your fear into productive and constructive actions and a healthy and helpful mindset. This takes practice and patience with yourself. Using the calming techniques for fear and anxiety that are listed in this article is a great way to begin your learning journey.

More Help?

If you would like help in managing fear and anxiety, you can chat with your doctor who may be able to refer you for counselling or to a local program or online resource that meets your needs. And check my website for my current individual and group programs including coaching, bush adventure and retreats that have been created to inform, inspire and empower you towards health and vitality.

You can listen to this article in the Outdoors is my Therapy podcast – Episodes 5 & 6!

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.

8 Strategies for Handling Unease During an Adventure

Daisy Spoke BannerHaving been on the road with my daughter now for over a week on my April Adventure road trip throughout central, northern and western Queensland, and heading north through the Northern Territory to Darwin, I’ve managed to settle in and really enjoy myself despite feeling unprepared and unorganised when we started. I’ve fairly easily challenged some of my underlying fears and assumptions about travel including leaving half my family behind, not researching details about the route and destinations, not planning my return flight home when I leave my daughter in the tropical north to start her new job, being female and camping in out-of-the-way places and driving on remote roads, and the list goes on. 

View from car windscreen

My latest challenge came only last night. Arriving at Elsey National Park near Mataranka I felt somewhat unsettled. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was about. The environment was not like any I’d spent time in before. It looked like a combination of wetlands and dry scrub with earth that appeared to be recently wet with rain but had since dried to a fine powder as silt does after a flood. There was a plethora of wildlife. The insects were very diverse, big and plentiful. I saw some grasshoppers that reminded me of the vivid yellow plastic toy grasshoppers you can buy in cheap toy packs from the dollar stores. The sounds of the bush here also seemed strange and haunting. I couldn’t tell the difference between bird and insect calls, or perhaps even other animals yet unseen. It was eerily quiet with only one other campsite inhabited by humans and the campgrounds extended well beyond sight in every direction. The facilities buildings were half fenced off and I was curious about this but couldn’t think of any rational reason why they would be fenced in this unusual way. 

We decided on a campsite with some shade, green grass and a picnic table, andCampsite at Elsey NP before we even set up camp we had a short walk around the area. A sudden loud rustle in the bushes next to us startled me. Turning around and expecting to see a wallaby, my daughter tells me I wouldn’t want to know what made that noise. On further enquiry she tells me it was a rather large snake, and I began to seriously wonder about moving our campsite further away from said snake. 

Roper River, Elsey NPMy uneasiness only increased as the evening rolled on and in particular when we came face to face with another snake only a few metres from our tents. Still, I wandered why the uneasiness was there in the first place. Was I sensing a spiritual presence? Was it simply that everything seemed strange and unfamiliar? Or perhaps the absence of other humans? Was I simply tired and misreading my intuition? Was it FEAR welling up and testing my inner strength? 

But how to handle this uneasiness? I decided to take some of my own advice and implemented these strategies:

  1. I chose to “be” with my uneasiness. I acknowledged how I truly felt instead of denying or avoiding it. 
  2. I shared my feelings and concerns with my daughter, getting them out into the open instead of hiding them away and pretending they didn’t exist as I would have in the past. 
  3. I listened and looked, tuning into my surroundings in the present time, focusing on grounding myself to the moment rather than flying off into a fantastical and irrational anxiety about what might happen. 
  4. I set an intention to be open to possibilities and new experiences. Instead of being closed-minded and putting up barriers to enjoying myself, I chose to embrace the experience and adopt an adventurous mindset. 
  5. I intentionally invoked a relaxation response when I noticed my anxiety rising. I brought my attention to my breath and let go of the physical tension that I felt. 
  6. I used rational and logical self-talk such as “Just because I’ve seen a snake (or two) close to camp doesn’t mean I’m in any greater danger than if I hadn’t seen them”; “Not all snakes are deadly”; “We have a snake bandage on us at all times and an emergency signalling system if we need to use it”; 
  7. I immersed myself in the sounds of the night as I went to sleep, setting an intention of getting to know them better; an intention of curiosity, wonder and awe. 
  8. I also created an action to take during the night that however irrational it was, it really helped! It may seem funny to anyone else, and in fact it does to me now too! Whenever I stirred during the night and noticed that I’d rolled off my camping mattress or that I was touching the sides of the tent, I rolled back onto the mattress telling myself I can go to sleep safely now because no snake can bite me through the mattress even if does manage to slither its way under my tent!

Kathryn at Elsey NPAnd so I survived. In fact I thrived and had possibly the best sleep so far on my April Adventure. I awoke before dawn, spent a couple of hours silently meditating, embracing my surroundings and feeling entirely captivated by what seemed so haunting and difficult the day before. I feel an immense sense of satisfaction that I didn’t allow my anxiety to rule and limit me. I chose to respect it but also to stand up to it. In doing so I’ve come to know an amazing spiritual aspect of this sacred land which I may not ever understand, but I can accept it and embrace it. And when I do that, I also accept and embrace myself. 

Discovering mountain biking as life’s ultimate parallel universe in her middle age, Daisy Spoke aka Kathryn Walton logoKathryn 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. 

 

 

 

7 Step Action Plan to Conquer Scary Stuff (Part 2)

In Part 1 I explained how I used a 7 Step Action Plan to conquer an irrational fear I had about riding “the scary corner” on my mountain bike. While everybody else seemed to effortlessly glide round the corner at speed and then over or around the craggy rocks as they exited on an uphill slope, I’d turn to hike-a-bike mode. I had previously ridden this corner, but somehow the fear escalated and made me feel very small and incapable.

The Scary Corner is quite photogenic! It really doesn’t look so scary here!

The same 7 Step Action Plan that I used to conquer my fear on “the scary corner” can be applied to other scenarios in ordinary everyday life. Here’s how…..

First of all, what is it that’s got your heart pumping, your mind racing and your stomach churning? Maybe going to a meeting or party where you’re not sure if you know anyone? Going in a lift? Making a phone call that you’ve been dreading? Or something else? Let’s apply the 7 Step Action Plan to your situation:

  1. Walk it through

Think it through calmly. Maybe talk it through with someone. Stay rational, logical and reasonable.

  1. “Is anything missing?”

Are there skills or equipment that will help you be successful? For example, learn how to make small talk, have a dot point list in front of you, play music through your headphones.

  1. Make modifications – physical and / or psychological

Would it help to ask a friend to accompany you, place your chair near the exit, or use the phone on speaker so your hands are free?

  1. Identify your focus

Refocus your attention on what you want to happen, where you want to go, what you want to say, how you want to feel. The scary thoughts or feelings will keep popping up, but don’t give them the attention they are seeking. Keep refocusing.

  1. Practise your exit

Have an exit plan. If things get too much, what will you say, what will you do, where will you go? Knowing there’s a safe and valid way out brings a greater sense of ease and improves your rate of success.

  1. Make your entrance!

This is where you just do it. Every thing’s in place. You have a plan. Trust it. Trust yourself. What’s the worst that could happen now?

  1. Celebrate your growth

Your reward for stepping up to the challenge my be felt internally with a surge of relief or confidence. Or perhaps you’d like to reward yourself in another way.

Remember, everyone feels nervous about something at least some of the time. It’s a normal mechanism designed to keep us safe, but if it’s keeping you small, then it’s time to do something about it. If your nervousness is impacting heavily on your functioning or contributing to ill-health, you can seek support from your GP to access counselling. Counselling is a bit like having a coach provide step-by-step guidelines and support as you learn new skills to achieve your goals.