When Fight or Flight Goes Astray

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

In his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky wrote, For the vast majority of beasts on this planet, stress is about a short-term crisis…. Animals, he explained, are endowed with physiologic mechanisms, commonly referred to as the fight or flight response, that allow them to deal with short-term physical emergencies.

Example: A deer feasting on brush senses movement nearby. A warning signal goes off in his brain. Chemicals flow and prompt vigilance. His body tenses. Head lifts, ears up, eyes wide. A leaf rustles. More stress. He bounds off into the forest. Moments later you might come across that very deer, once again munching on brush, for the moment relieved of his stress.

Human beings are equipped with similar physiologic mechanisms for responding to acute stressful circumstances. Whether you’re experiencing a ‘good’ threat – like anticipating starting a new job or performing in a concert – or a ‘bad’ threat – a police car with flashing lights following you – your body prepares for the confrontation. Your increased heart rate and elevated blood pressure, the sugars released into your bloodstream, the tensing of your muscles, increased alertness; these all position your body to act. When the perceived threat passes – the concert is over or the policeman has issued a ticket – the chemical levels return to normal, baseline heart rate and blood pressure will be restored and other physiologic processes will normalize.

Sometimes, however, we interfere with our bodies’ best intentions by preventing the system from returning to its normal state.

As human beings we have been blessed with the ability to anticipate the future and retrieve the past, to reflect and ponder and plan. These human powers, however, can at times work against us. We think too much – I shouldn’t have played that piece so fast. We dredge up our stressors from the past – I really got off to a bad start in my last job. Why should I expect to do better in this job? We anticipate and dread the future – how am I going to pay for that ticket?

When we sit around and worry about stressful things, explained Sapolsky, we often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute [short-term] physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions.

These worries hover around us and seep inside. We might not even be conscious of our fear and anxiety or our acute vigilance. So we keep sending signals to our watchful brain that something is wrong, and the feedback loop continues.

As a result, the stability our system craves has been undermined, and we remain in a state of physical and psychic imbalance. Hormones keep cranking out. Our hearts continue to beat too fast. Our stomachs roil with anxiety and our digestion is off. And to add to our woes, we have difficulty sleeping.

This situation mirrors the real sorrows and griefs described by Emerson, and the exhaustion, shaken nerves, and over-civilization perceived by Muir. We are Jung’s neurotics in need of the ancient Tao healing gardens, and of Thoreau’s tonic to the human spirit to help restore to our traumatized brains the balance and harmony promised by the Earth goddess, Gaia.

For those among us who need more than philosophy and psychology, who do not believe mythology provides answers to our everyday problems, for those who want hard data to prove the existence of a nature-health connection, there is a large body of information available. Over the past thirty years scientists and health practitioners have been studying the subject under a variety of conditions, and the results of their research point to a positive association between nature exposure and a range of physiologic, psychologic and cognitive functions.

A few examples:

  • Post-operative surgical patients whose rooms had windows that looked out on scenes of nature were less anxious and required less pain relief medication than those who had windows that looked out onto a brick wall.
  • A group of people suffering from depression and anxiety experienced lowered depression and felt an enhanced sense of well-being after a group walk in nature. These people were also better able to cope with stressful life events.
  • A group of office workers exposed to mild stress over a period of sixteen weeks, whose offices were equipped with plasma TV ‘windows’ with high-quality views of nature experienced greater reduction of heart rate, greater sense of well-being, clearer thinking and an enhanced sense of connection to the natural world as compared to a group in windowless offices exposed to the same stress. A follow-up experiment showed that an actual window that looked out on nature scenes resulted in greater heart-rate recovery than with either a plasma TV nature view or no view at all.
  • In two studies which looked at 1) the link between nature and happiness independent from other things that make us feel emotionally connected to life, like family, country, culture, music, and friends, and 2) the connection between nature relatedness and happiness, the researchers found that nature relatedness has a distinct happiness benefit separate from the other things, and that emotional connection to the natural world – nature relatedness – predicted happiness in life.
  • Participants subjected to tasks requiring intense concentration, to the point of saturation, were found to have achieved restored concentration after a three-mile walk through an arboretum, as opposed to participants who walked through urban streets. They did not experience restored concentration.

It’s rather heartening to think that a walk in the park or a view of nature out a window or, astonishingly, even on a T.V. screen, can alleviate so much suffering. But, what’s even more promising is that we are able to reach a peaceful place, even as we live under the pressures of modern life.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the nineteenth century poet and philosopher, got it right when he wrote, To the body and mind which have been cramped with noxious work or company, nature is medicinal and restores their tone. I can attest to these words from my own experience.

For several years I lived in a canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains just outside of Los Angeles. My house was situated in an isolated spot surrounded by rugged cliffs and hills of evergreen chaparral.

Some evenings, particularly after a stressful day at work, I would go out to the patio and sit, and simply enjoy the quiet and solitude. I can remember at those times feeling a calming energy that seemed to flow into me from the mountains. Sensing something switch inside of me, I would lean back in my chair, close my eyes, and allow my body to recalibrate.

This ends my series on the healing effects of nature. I’d love to hear about your experiences with the soothing, restorative presence of nature. In my next series of posts – Mudding, Mudders and Meadows – I will devote the space to exploring the recreational activity referred to as “mudding.”

Stressors and the Nature Fix

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

One hundred fifty years before the Rodney King riots, poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, — he is my creature, and auger [in spite of] all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me.

When I first read those lines, I felt as if Emerson wrote them for me, personally, painting a picture of my thirty-six hour journey from anxiety to peace of mind. Then it struck me that his words painted a picture for anyone who has experienced the restorative and calming effects of nature.

Here are a couple of examples…..

A member of a 4-wheel drive club who breathes easier when he’s in the mountains. I shut down when I’m in town, he said. I don’t want to breathe the exhaust fumes. I don’t want to hear the racket we live in. But when you’re up there, you say, Yeah! I get out of my truck, and there’s a lake with no dams, no boats, no noise, just pristine and clear. It’s like, I stand there and I don’t want to curse anymore.

A retired high school social studies teacher who would go on a solo backpacking trip before school started each fall. To prepare myself for my year of teaching, he said. It was a need I had for this experience in the wilderness, this kind of beauty, the majesty. I felt a kind of cleansing or refreshing – something like that. I loved teaching, but this was different. I knew I had to have it – for my soul.

And Richard Louv, who, in his book, The Nature Principle, wrote about a time in New Mexico when he was sitting alone, looking out over a field toward the Pecos River nearby. My eyes settled on a single cottonwood at the river, he wrote, its branches and upper leaves waving in a slow rhythm above all the others. An hour, perhaps more, went by. Tension crawled up and out of me. It seemed to twist in the air above the green field. Then it was gone. And then something better took its place….. I received from nature just what I needed: an elusive it for which I have no name.

So, how do these individual tales of nature’s balm connect to Emerson? What is the relevance for these people of Emerson’s reference to man’s real sorrows and impertinent griefs?

And what about the words of conservationist John Muir who, in 1901 wrote, Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home…?

Or, Henry David Thoreau, the nineteenth century poet and philosopher, what was he saying when he touted nature as a particular tonic to the human spirit in an age devoted to commerce, to politics, to the spread of dehumanizing industrialization and urbanization, to unfulfilling social interactions and to the perpetuation of human institutions at best in need of change and at worst immoral?

What does my experience have to do with these writers? Why do we in the twenty-first century have to pay attention to them?

These voices from the past were addressing what Oxford University professor, Sally Shuttleworth, has named ‘diseases of modern life.’ But her focus was the nineteenth century. From medical and scientific journals and the literature of that time, Shuttleworth has gathered examples of stress and overload and other disorders related to the problems of modernity associated with the Industrial Age.

– addiction to drugs and alcohol
– fatigue from overwork and overpressure
– stress of economic turbulence created by new ways of doing business
– anxiety over job loss due to mechanization
– stress related to overcrowding, noise, pollution and to new technologies
– fear of memory lapses
– phobias due to perceptions of lack of control over one’s destiny
– suicide as a choice for a way out.

Sound familiar?

While there appears to be a parallel in our time with the stressors of the nineteenth century, you could argue that the innovations that drive society today are more complicated and challenging than those of the Industrial Age, and therefore the writings of long ago have little relevance.

The typewriter cannot be compared with the computer for technological complexity, nor the telegraph with the Internet for speed and proliferation of information exchange. The telephone is not simply a precursor of the iPhone. And as for the economic turbulence of the nineteenth century industrial economy, there is no comparison to the confusion and instability created by doing business in the global economy of today.

That all may be so. But we will leave it to the social science experts to ferret out the differences and similarities.

What is of interest here is not the comparison of our two worlds, but how our present-day stress connects us to Emerson, Muir and Thoreau and their nature healing; as well as to the ancient Taoists who planted gardens for people’s health and well-being; and the ancient Greeks who understood nature and created the primordial mythical goddess, Gaia, to protect Earth’s balance and harmony; to Carl Jung, the twentieth century psychiatrist and teacher who warned that without nature human beings become neurotic; and to the many writers, philosophers, and scientists, the health practitioners and enlightened public down through the ages who have advocated for time spent in nature. We are linked to all of them through nature and its restorative gifts.

In next week’s post I will explore some of the physiologic aspects of stress and, for those of us who prefer science and facts to philosophy, poetry and mythology, I will describe some of the research findings related to the health benefits of contact with nature.