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April 12, 2018

How to Cure Stress the Old Fashioned Way.

I have a cure for stress.

No incense is burned. No chants to Hare Krishna are uttered. I simply close my laptop, slip on my Merrells, and leave for the woods.

I’ve been staring at a computer all day, striking away at the keys, biting on my fingernails. It may not look like much from the outside, but this work stresses me out. My brain screams for nature. And so, I give it what it wants.

Now I’m at the trailhead. I feel my forehead relax as I take a deep, diaphragmatic breath. Finally, I’m surrounded by living things, not drywall and devices. Even the air tastes alive.

With every passing second, my tension recedes. After one, two, maybe three hours, I enter a dimension where my quotidian worries are replaced by bare sensations. My eyes see vibrant green. My ears hear the low buzz of insects. My nose sniffs floral fragrances floating through the air. I’ve forgotten all about my email.

Why this profound effect? For one, the woods provide relief from the artificial environments we spend most of our lives in. People need space, and nature provides it in spades. Nonetheless we spend most of our time indoors. This is kind of like a monkey choosing to live at the zoo.

But unlike many zoo animals, we simply can’t chill. At the first hint of boredom, we reach for our iPhones, iPads, magazines—anything to stave off a bit of unstructured time.

“Animals spend much of their time dozing and idling pleasantly,” writes philosopher Alan Watts, “But, because life is short, human beings must cram into the years the highest possible amount of consciousness, alertness, and chronic insomnia so as to be sure not to miss the last fragment of startling pleasure.”

In other words, we’re addicted to doing.

We’re also in love with our future selves—anything to make them happy. We think that if we get that promotion, woo our heart’s desire, escape to that oceanfront condo, our troubles will be over. But when we finally land in a paradise of palm trees, our mind has already floated to the next vacation: it’s a little muggy here…maybe somewhere with mountains next time…hmm, the Rockies are nice…need to find a direct flight. I speak from experience of course.

So what can we do? We are neurotic animals, always thinking of the future. Once the human condition is understood, the only solution is to do nothing. Relax. Don’t worry. And if you worry anyway, that’s fine. Just don’t worry over worrying. Worrying is normal.

And where better to stop worrying than in the woods? There I have unlimited space, unconfined by eight-foot ceilings. The scent of pine permeates the air. Ah, much better than car exhaust. A gnarled stump comes to life, an ancient spirit of the forest. What the heck is that? Oh, just a stump. I’m skipping down the trail like a schoolgirl, humming some song I heard on the radio, pausing to hang off a low branch. I’m in my happy place.

It turns out that when you cure stress, you cure other things too. Researchers from Japan, in fact, have shown that lingering in the woods might even prevent cancer by boosting natural killer cell activity. This Japanese practice, called “forest bathing,” also results in lower blood pressure and cortisol levels.

But we needn’t review any data from the lab to vindicate spending time in nature. What could be more centering than a stroll through towering poplars? What could be more cleansing than an afternoon of unpolluted air? To understand, we don’t have to sit cross-legged until blood stops circulating. Walking in the woods is meditation.

I’m not the first person to have noticed this. Henry David Thoreau spent his life ambling through the countryside, senses attuned, scanning for details that would later appear in his writing.

“As I walked,” he writes, “I was intoxicated with the slight spicy odor of the hickory buds and the bruised bark of the black birch, and, in the fall, the pennyroyal.”

Now I could go for a whiff of that.

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Author: Brian Stanton
Image: Elephant Archives     
Editor: Travis May
Copy & Social Editor: Yoli Ramazzina

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Brian Stanton