Stressed? Go Outdoors!
A professor in the Anderson University College of Arts and Sciences and his students are looking at ways to combat stress—naturally.
We’re facing and processing unprecedented challenges posed by a global pandemic, increased conflict globally and personal crises that hit close to home. Added to the mix are ever-present phones and tablets; when they’re not barraging us with notifications, they’re skewing our perception of reality. At the same time, people who help others, whether in education, healthcare, public service or the military, are becoming fatigued as they face challenges on many fronts.
Dr. Travis (Rocky) Nation, professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Anderson University, used his own experiences as a springboard to further study on how to recognize stressors and to manage how they’re internalized.
“Several years ago I had come to the realization and acknowledged that stress and anxiety were friends or acquaintances. It’s probably something that had been there for a really long time. I never really dealt with it,” he said. “Finally like it does with a lot of people, it came to a head and—long story short—I ended up in the emergency room. It was just kind of a reckoning time, an assessment of ‘what am I doing and what I need to work on.’”
It’s a given in life that there are always going to be things out of our control. That said, Dr. Nation focuses his studies on the best ways to respond when things go wrong.
“The big overarching message is that stress is universal; you can’t run from it; you can’t eliminate it; but you can learn to manage it,” he said. “One of the big central themes is the concept of resilience and being able to respond to disturbances and stressors and returning to some normal, healthy state.”
For much of his life, Dr. Nation has enjoyed being outdoors. He feels anyone can benefit from intentional time spent outside. With his students, Dr. Nation studies how individuals’ heart rate and blood pressure is affected by spending increased time outdoors.
“Forest bathing (“Shinrin Yoku” in Japanese) is the practice of mindfulness in outdoor settings, primarily forests,” he said. “It’s basically spending time in a forest immersing yourself in the sights, sounds, smells and textures of a natural area for the benefits of relaxation and calming the stress response. There is a substantial body of research that supports those claims.”
Whether referred to as forest bathing or something else, the concept, Dr. Nation explains, is really an old idea found in a lot of cultures and traditions, including Old Testament and New Testament scripture.
“I think it really is kind of a universal experience that being outdoors is good for you,” he said. Taking his class outdoors to the nearby Rocky River Nature Park, he’s conducted research with his students. Students would sit in folding outdoor chairs and do nothing but take in the sights and sounds.
“We’d do a set of measurements. Even after 20 minutes, it’s pretty remarkable. You see an average drop in heart rate and blood pressure and increase in heart rate variability,” he said.
Dr. Nation advocates that exercise, a healthy diet and disconnecting from devices (phones, tablets, computers) helps individuals become more resilient under pressure.
He established Carolina Wilderness Renewal (carolinawildernessrenewal.org), an organization offering programs aimed at helping those who help others by promoting the therapeutic value of nature. He hopes to make presentations during seminars, continuing education and professional development activities. He also hopes to publish a book.
“The wheels of creativity started turning and I came up with this idea to start a project to talk about stress and physiological aspects of it, but also how to manage it all in the context of being outdoors and incorporating some of those elements of forest bathing or ecotherapy. I tend to refer to it as nature-based stress management,” he said.
So, what are some things anyone can do?
Dr. Nation says the simple act of going for a walk introduces the element of exercise.
“There’s a whole lot of research that suggests there’s something about being outdoors, whether it’s away from man-made noise or the actual parts of the environment like colors and textures and sounds that have been demonstrated to knock down those stress responses. Even just going for a walk in a natural area if it’s not a wilderness area can have therapeutic benefits. There are tons of papers that show that. Just going for a walk sometimes 15-30 minutes is good. Even more is better,” he said.
“This isn’t a silver bullet. It’s not a cure-all. You’re not going to cure certain illnesses by spending 30 minutes a day outdoors. It’s good for you and it can help eliminate some of the issues we have. But it’s fairly easy, it’s fairly accessible, and in most places it’s free.”