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.

Reflections on thirty-six hours of stress….

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Stress is interesting. It can be a good news or a bad news matter. Something you can or cannot get a handle on. Stress is what makes life worth living, or can make it a living hell.

Every sight, sound, taste, and smell, every brush of sensation over your skin, every conscious and unconscious thought or piece of news from the outside can be a source of stress.

It can last a moment, an hour, a day, or in the extreme, it can linger for years. For me, as I described in my post of July 23 my stress lasted 36 hours following the onset of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992.

This week I will reflect on what I believe happened that brought me from stress to peace during that time.

Restlessness, unspent energy, and unresolved stress, these were my constant companions during those hours. My stress was feeding itself. I found it difficult to fall asleep. My concentration faltered. I wandered, or drove, outwardly without purpose.

Although my behavior appeared mindless, however, I didn’t move in a fog. I was aware of what I was doing. Yet, I didn’t stop myself. Nor did I question where I was going. I allowed whatever was directing me to have its way.

Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist who is well-known for his work in dream analysis, and who has described some of the hidden workings of the human psyche, might have said I was being led by my unconscious, an all-knowing part of the psyche that plays an important role in helping the physical body maintain balance.

“When the conscious life is too stressful,” Jung wrote, “the unconscious will take over. Let it…..”

And I did let it. It was as if my unconscious knew that my physical body was being threatened by my stress and that I was unable to make healthy decisions or to function in a healthful way.

Whether Jung’s theory of unconscious interception can be applied in my situation cannot really be known. But, my consciousness had certainly been disrupted, and there seemed to be something else making decisions for me. I think my unconscious self knew, without the interference of reason or logic, what I needed to do.

But, why the wandering?  Who knows?  Perhaps for my healing, I needed to be out there, to see what was going on, to connect with the world outside my home and my neighborhood. Perhaps my fear would have kept me from venturing out, had my unconscious not intervened.

In that sense, you might say that my conscious and unconscious beings collaborated, to use Jung’s expression, to bring me to a healthful state.

Here’s how I see the collaboration working:

During the first twenty-four hours, although I wasn’t making any conscious decisions, I was aware of what I was doing. I knew that I was following some inner voice that was telling me to wander, to drive around.

On the second morning when I awoke, however, I made a conscious decision – to drive to the Crenshaw. But, even though there was no obvious reason to drive to the Crenshaw, I didn’t question my decision. I simply followed whatever it was that told me I needed to be there. Collaboration.

Once I arrived and observed the rebuilding and the human connection in the midst of so much destruction, I understood. A change came over me, and I felt hopeful.

But it didn’t end there. I had to continue to relinquish conscious control to my unconscious. When I went to Home Depot, my psyche knew that I needed some direct contact with the natural world. I needed to feel the mud ooze through my fingers, to tap into that primal self that connects me to all of nature. More collaboration.

It’s personal. I was led to planting tomatoes as the vehicle for my healing, even though I had never been a gardener. I had always disliked working in the garden. Yet, there I was, digging in the mud, creating a garden, never once questioning why. The ultimate collaboration. Ignore the preferences of my conscious life and follow the signals of my unconscious.

A confession: My tomato plants barely thrived.






This is what happened….Peace

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Day 1: The riots broke out in Los Angeles at 5:30 p.m., April 29, 1992. It was a Wednesday. I was driving home from work at the time, unaware that earlier in the day the Superior Court of Ventura County had announced their acquittal of four L.A.P.D. officers in the beating of Rodney King, a 26-year-old African American man.

If, at the time of the beating in the early hours of March 3, 1991, George Holliday had not videotaped almost a minute of the savage beating, and if he had not turned that tape over to a local T.V. station, and if that videotape had not gone viral,   it’s possible that the acquittal would not have been so carefully watched and L.A. would have been spared the rioting that caused over 50 deaths – including many homicides – 2,000 injuries, businesses and cars burned, and widespread looting.

The beating was captured on videotape, however, and everyone saw it, and after a year of legal maneuvering, everyone was waiting for the trial’s outcome. The acquittal was received with shock and outrage, and a chain reaction of anger and lawlessness erupted.

By the time I arrived home that night, Reginald Denny had been dragged from his truck and thrashed on the street; the first car burnings and rock-throwing at passing cars had occurred; buildings were beginning to burn.

I parked myself in front of the T.V. and, for over three hours sat transfixed by scenes of looting and arson, people raging in the streets, and Mayor Tom Bradley calling for calm. When a state of emergency was declared, a dusk to dawn curfew imposed, and after Governor Pete Wilson called in the National Guard, I turned off the T.V. and planned on going to sleep.

But I was a changed person, driven by an urgency to leave my house – curfew be damned. I roamed the dark streets, searching for I knew not what. Flame-lit skies surrounded my quiet neighborhood, a reminder that all was not well. When I finally returned home and climbed into bed, I fell into a deep, heavy, dreamless sleep.

Day 2: In the morning I awoke confused and disoriented. Then, with a jolt to my gut, I recalled the events of the previous night. The disquiet returned. I wanted to go to work, but the office was closed, so I left the house and drove around aimlessly, unable to concentrate. I cannot recall where I went or what I saw that day.

Day 3:  The next morning I awoke knowing what what I needed to do. My neighborhood was adjacent to an area called the Crenshaw District, a predominantly Black community and a center of Black business, art, music and culture. Many a day I had enjoyed shopping and lunching there. So I got in my car and drove to the Crenshaw.

What I found was both beautiful and dreadful, hopeful and discouraging, calm. The streets were crowded with young and old sweeping debris, boarding up windows, dousing still smoldering fires. People hugged and chatted. Traffic lights were out, and cars barely moved along the streets. At one point, I sat in my car waiting for the intersection ahead to clear, and bawled.

When I left the Crenshaw I drove directly to Home Depot. This, like most of my moves over the past days had not been planned. I entered and walked directly to the garden shop. Now, I am not, nor ever was a gardener. But when I walked out of Home Depot with a flat of tomato plants, I never questioned why.

At home, I filled a bucket with water and doused a narrow strip of dirt at the side of my house. I began tearing at the soil with my bare hands. Poured more and more water on the spot. I scooped out handfuls and dug some more.

And then, as if coming awake, I felt the ooze squeeze through my fingers and saw my hands caked with the rich dark mud. Everything slowed and softened. My heart. My muscles. My hands. The roiling in my stomach disappeared. I stopped digging and sat cross-legged on the pavement. Quiet. At peace.

In my post next week, I’m going to reflect on my journey from stress to peace in 36 hours.