manage post-pandemic anxiety with nature's help
Amy (a fictional client) started to break down over the phone. She couldn’t believe how frightened she was now that she had finally gotten a vaccine appointment.
As a single person, diabetic, and severely asthmatic, Amy spent the first six months of the pandemic in strict isolation, knowing if she contracted Covid it was most likely a death sentence. The reality of her fears came down on her early into the pandemic when her uncle got sick and died, alone at the hospital, and the family was unable to even have service.
During that time Amy quickly transitioned to working at home and having everything delivered. But, Zoom with friends was never satisfying, and family connections had always been weak. So she grinded out the off-work hours by herself. Initially, she spent time cleaning out closets and baking. After a few weeks, however, she began to fill her down time with glasses of wine, popcorn, and reading, and then with vodka, chocolate, and Netflix. She contacted me six months after the first stay-at-home orders were given, knowing she needed to get a handle on her pandemic lifestyle before her own actions became as harmful as potentially exposing herself to Covid. Together, we helped Amy face her challenges and grief, helped her accept and make difficult decisions regarding the balance of safety and sanity, and pointed her past the waiting game she had fallen into.
Now, however, she felt she was facing new, almost overwhelming, challenges, as she readied herself to receive the first dose of the vaccine. For her, vaccine meant leaving isolation. But it also meant facing new uncertainties, reconnecting with friendship groups that had seemed to go on without her, facing again the things she had never liked about office work, and planning a funeral.
She needed to find soothing for her feelings, healing for her losses, restoration, and connection.
I hardly need to remind you of this, as I am sure that at some time in your life you have experienced at least one deep-sigh moment while standing by a tree, or looking out across a lake, or gazing into a star-studded sky; nature soothes. If it helps you believe this, there is now a lot of research that has demonstrated that even 20 minutes spent gazing at nature scenes in books reduces felt stress, with at least equal amounts of stress reduction occurring when we can physically be in the outdoors.
Spending time in nature regulates essential body systems such as blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension, and lowers stress hormones. When our essential body systems are operating at their optimal rate, our other systems have more resources to engage in healing. There is even research that points at pain levels dropping and healing rates increasing when patients are exposed to forest scenes and sounds.
Being out in nature stimulates more of our senses than being indoors, where we can often get so lost in our thinking that we do our daily activities in a “mindless” way. When more of our sense are engaged, we tend to lean away from being absorbed in our own perspective, troubles, and woes. Being able to lift away from that absorption is what in psychology, is called, moving to a “meta” position.
Why does that matter? Because when we are absorbed or at one with our emotions, it is our emotions that are driving our system, not us. Additionally, emotions will always drive our system to similar emotions. For emotions, like is attracted to like. So when we let anxiety drive our system, it will drive us toward more anxiety, which will get collected in our system, which will then drive us toward even more anxiety.
Being in nature gives us the chance to feel our world with many senses, to be more in the moment, lift us out of our feelings so that we can re-take ownership of the driving of our system. Think of it as a neuronal “reset” time where you can reclaim yourself, and get perspective.
Ask anyone who has spent time hiking in the mountains or has looked into the sky at night, what they feel as they do that, and they will say something about a feeling of spaciousness, timelessness, awe, and an increased awareness of what they are really connected to. As humans we often feel and act like we are the most important animal-which actually serves to distance ourselves from feeling a connection to the world around us. Nature has a way of reminding us we aren’t really all that, and in that way serves to humble us. Being humble opens our heart, which in turn let’s us more easily sense our connection between ourselves and nature, ourselves and other people, and our connection within ourselves.
With our phone call, Amy quickly regained her sense of balance and perspective. Since she had already established daily routines of being in nature and using nature as her guide, it was easier for her to apply what she was already doing to ease her anxieties. If she had not had those routines, I would have suggested that she begin by simply connecting to nature and herself by sitting mindfully with a tree, and/or moving at one-quarter speed while out of doors. We most likely then would have also incorporated wanders, specific meditations, and ways of being in nature that elicit new awareness and understandings, as well as traditional exploration of her concerns.
We all experience anxiety for many reasons, but we are especially vulnerable to those sensations when we are going through a transition. Nature helps by soothing, healing, and connecting us in many ways.