How to Use Nature to Reduce Stress – and More
It may be an understatement, but I think every one of us has felt some degree of stress over the past year, as well as coming into 2021. We know stress generally is not good for our overall health. And for people with diabetes, stress can create a domino effect, starting with increased blood sugar readings.
A simple walk in the woods can work wonders for mental and physical health. (Getty Images)
Most likely, you’ve already experienced how stress affects your body. Think of a time when you were extremely frightened or suddenly startled, and how your heart pounded, your hands trembled and you felt an instantaneous rush of raw energy. This biological reaction to danger is triggered by a flood of hormones and “neurotransmitters” (brain chemicals) that speed your heart rate, raise your blood pressure, activate your immune system, and dump glucose (for instant energy) into your system.
Effect of Stress on Your Body
You may have heard the term fight or flight response – it’s a response that’s reserved for confronting danger, but it has the same effects on us when stress is low grade but long term.
Even this low-level stress can make managing diabetes more difficult, as stress can raise our blood sugar (hyperglycemia) readings, or at other times cause our blood sugar to take a nose-dive into low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). In addition to the stress hormones affecting our blood sugar management, stress can also throw us off balance with our lifestyle behaviors such as eating too much, skipping meals, over-exercising, or stopping our exercise routine.
Let’s face it, stress can really throw our typical day off-kilter, which will affect our blood sugar levels. Yet often, we continue to go about with our business and don’t even realize how underlying stress is affecting us. Then, there are other times when we feel the heavyweight of stress on our minds and bodies. And, you don’t need to have diabetes to feel all the emotional impact we have had this past year with COVID-19.
Benefits of Forest Bathing
You may have witnessed this yourself, but I know when I’m walking outdoors or walking near water, I feel less stressed, a sense of calm, a “zen” moment. So, what is this all about? Sure enough, there is a name for this stress-reducing effect, and there’s a load of research on the mental, physical and social health promotion outcomes of being outdoors. The Japanese call this shinrin-yoku, or forest-air bathing and walking.
A study this past November looked at the impact of using mindfulness – putting a focus on your behaviors and thoughts – and the forest bathing practice. The results were extremely positive for both of these types of therapies and they work well together because you focus on your five senses as part of forest bathing. Practicing mindfulness during your process of forest bathing is a key element. Health benefits include lower blood pressure, pulse rate, cortisol levels, and heart rate variability, and improved cognition.
Many of the studies looked at green environments. Examples of green environments include forests, parks, gardens, and tree-lined streets. The green color in these areas made a difference with improved self-esteem and mood and the presence of water generated even greater effects.
Think about the feeling you have when walking on the beach. It’s interesting that both men and women had similar improvements in self-esteem after being surrounded by green nature, although men also showed a difference in mood. Studies also have shown being among nature also can boost your attention abilities.
And even better yet, a study specifically on people with Type 2 diabetes showed a decrease in blood glucose levels after a forest walk.
You can get these health benefits whether it’s a true forest, a community park, a golf course, a garden or even simply walking along a path of trees on the sidewalk. Forest bathing is not meant to be part of an exercise routine, but it certainly can be a positive health behavior in the sense of body movement. Your walk in a green environment doesn’t need to be a major hike nor for hours on end. A 10 to 15-minute walk using the tips listed below can help with your mood and overall psychological well-being.
The practice of immersing yourself in nature helps your physical, mental, emotional, and social health.
Use All Your Senses for a ‘Forest Walk’
To get the most out of your forest walk, tap into all five of your senses to allow nature to embrace you:
Listen: Make sure to listen carefully to hear the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees or hear the water and any wildlife that surrounds that body of water. If you are walking on the sand near the water, listen to the sound of the sand surrounding each of your footsteps. Refrain from listening to music on this particular walk, you want to make sure to have all your senses available to hear the sounds of nature.
Look: Look at the variations of the color green in the forest or colors within the body of the water you are experiencing. How many different shapes of leaves do you see on these trees? Are there waves in the water you are viewing or is the water still and calm? Make sure to take notice of the shapes, color, and size of your surroundings.
Smell, taste, and feel: When you’re outside – whether it’s in a forest, on a beach, or simply outside your home – take a moment breathe in deeply, smelling and tasting the air; place your hands on a tree or a finger in the water to experience the feel of nature.
The last sense is the state of mind, which is a combination of all these senses you have opened by participating in this experience.
If you cannot go outdoors – either due to the time of day/night, weather, or physical limitations – there are options to still gain this experience. Log onto a video or look for apps with views of forests or oceans. It is best to experience forest bathing in person, but it’s always good to have a second option.