Modern-day life is the opposite of calm.
Endless streams of information bombard us; messages and media constantly vie for our attention, and our senses are assaulted with non-stop noise and commotion.
To our brains and bodies, it’s the equivalent of driving a car at maximum speed day in day out.
No wonder we feel frazzled, irritated, and worn out most of the time. The pace of the 21st century is taking a serious toll on our minds, bodies and quality of life.
But, what to do in a world that never stops?
Is it even possible to have less stress and more calm when our lives demand so much from us?
The answer is a resounding yes.
Feeling tranquil is within reach, but it requires that we work with our biology.
You see, we actually have in-built calming mechanisms; cues and signals that inform our nervous system that we are safe. Feeling safe is a prerequisite to tranquility because it means there is no need to be vigilant - we can rest and be at ease.
Our daily lives, however, are anything but restful and safety-inducing; we spend most of our time in artificial, man-made environments interacting with devices and staring at screens. We are overloaded with visual and auditory information and interrupted countless times a day with updates, alerts and requests.
Although these signals are not an actual threat or danger to us, our nervous system can’t help but react to them; they act as constant triggers, activating the stress response and keeping us in a state of hypervigilance and low-level anxiety.
Simply reducing or eliminating noise, distraction and stimulation is not enough to bring about a sense of calm; that is only one half of the equation. The other half requires the presence of certain nature cues in order for true tranquility to arise.
Nature is not simply a backdrop to our lives or something to move through; it’s our nervous system’s reset button.
We evolved within an existing nature; our bodies and brains formed in response to the sights and sounds of a living planet, and WE NEED these cues to restore a state of equilibrium.
Let’s take the example of watching the morning news compared to sitting on a park bench or your own backyard.
On your TV screen you have the newscaster reporting while video clips show the actual event; banners run across the bottom with sports, stock market and world news updates, while a carousel of live footage show you what the current traffic conditions are on various highways. Let’s not forget the temperature, 3-day forecast and weather information flashing in the top right corner as well.
Now let’s shift to the park bench scenario.
Above you, you have clouds drifting across the sky, trees swaying in the breeze and hear the sound of birds singing. At your feet you might see pigeons pecking away at the grass or, at eye-level, a squirrel hopping from branch to branch. There might even be a fountain or some form of running water nearby.
This scenario has a more soothing and calming effect because the PACE of incoming stimuli. The degree of movement and activity in your visual field is slow and gentle. There aren’t many things requiring intense focus and what you see outside of you begins to be mirrored inside of you.
The sounds of birdsong indicate safe surroundings as birds typically stop singing when they sense danger. The resonance of running water or rustling leaves are quieter and more rhythmic lending cues of reassurance and peacefulness.
In this picture, another element your biology responds to is the amount of SPACE. When you’re outdoors you are instantly in limitless space. It begins at your feet and moves upward into infinity and outer space. Space implies a sense of freedom, of room to breathe, and a literal expansiveness occurs within your own body.
This really sinks in when you consider that physical tension is akin to a lack of space. Think about it - when you’re stressed you scrunch up your shoulders, furrow your brow, feel knots in your stomach and an overall tightness. You literally take up less space in the room.
The park setting allows your body to relax and open, thus physically occupying more space than before, because it informs your nervous system that there is nothing of an urgent nature to concern yourself with.
Science is finally picking up on what folk wisdom has known all along - the therapeutic benefits of nature. New branches of study focusing on the health benefits of nature, such as eco-therapy, forest bathing and nature therapy, have been forming as a result of the scientific evidence coming to light.
The research is also showing that the real benefits arise from active engagement with nature and the full integration of our senses. This suggests that, while listening to nature sounds or viewing pleasant rural scenery improve our well-being, the most profound benefits arise when we purposefully slow down and consciously direct our attention to our experience.
The sensory information our bodies detect are only some of the ways through which we access the benefits of nature experiences. Equally important are non-sensory avenues that involve contemplation, perspective and mindfulness as well as our thoughts, perceptions and worries – but that’s a topic for another article.
The bottom line is, our current life patterns have us living in perpetual anxiety and stress which is neither healthy nor normal. The good news is, feeling tranquil is within reach. Even tiny pockets of calm make a difference - it's a matter of choosing to heed our biology's inner workings and mindfully engage with the nature outside our doors.
The antidote to our age of anxiety is simpler than we realize, but it will require a fundamental change in how we think about our connection with nature and the importance of tranquility in our physical and mental well-being.
I’m convinced that if we’d prioritize our need for mindful interaction with nature, we'd feel less anxious, more peaceful and have a deeper connection with ourselves and our lives.
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