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Reduce stress in 2020 by going natural

By Steve Roark

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park Volunteer

I don’t know the stats for our area, but on a national level Americans are overstressed, and everyone knows this is unhealthy. The causes are also familiar: fast pace of life, multi-tasking, you know the sound bites. I’ve written in the past about studies that show that immersing yourself in natural settings can reduce stress, so I revisited the topic and found some new twists on natural stress reduction. Here are some recommendations that surfaced.

Take a screen break: the problem with social media, video games, and video streaming is they take up all of your loose time, and the brain gets no break in sensory input (i.e. it’s overstimulated). Jenny Odell in her book “How to Do Nothing” suggests pulling your focus away from screens occasionally when you have some down time and simply pay more attention to the natural world wherever you’re at. Research has shown that having a view of a tree and grass out a window is more calming than a view of man-made structures. The thought is that we are hard wired to be comforted by natural scenery.

Cut some caffeine: This is a downer to all you coffee drinkers, but the concern is more for the energy drink and espresso shot consumers who down high doses of caffeine. There is no way you’re going to relax with your mind and body hyped up on a stimulant, and there have been documented cases of death by caffeine from its messing with heart function. So consider reducing caffeine consumption to a sane level.

Play in the dirt: On the weird side, contact with the microbiome living in soil has been correlated with improved mood, and all you gardeners can nod in agreeing satisfaction. Another positive of doing simple tasks like gardening, planting flowers, even kneading bread, is that they get you to focus on your immediate surroundings and to be in the moment. This is referred to as mindfulness and is a verified stress reliever.

Stimulate the Vagus Nerve: This one is also out there. The vagus nerve is the largest and longest of the twelve nerve fibers that connect the brain to the rest of your body. It is still being researched, but it is thought that the vagus nerve is how the microbiota in your gut sends signals to your brain that there’s food in your belly being processed and to go into a rest and digest mode. Here energy is conserved, heart rate slows, the fight or flight response is subdued, and you relax. The science-ey term for this process is the parasympathetic system. The system can also be activated by yoga, deep breathing, and moderate exercise, perhaps explaining why people get positive feeling from these activities. A quick but jolting way to activate the vagus nerve is to plunge your face in cold water (55 degrees) for a few seconds. After the initial shock, many claim to feel somewhat calmed. Some even get a calming response from a quick cold face splash.

Most of these recommendations involve refiguring your relationship to everything around you. Rather than pouring vast quantities of information into the brain through devices or constantly having worrisome thoughts and concerns, perhaps the Biblical recommendation to “BE STILL AND KNOW” should be considered more often.