In my last blog posting, “One of Those Aha Moments,” I talked about a self-revelation that occurred while on a long weekend in Virginia. I was beginning to lose balance and not taking enough time to relax, settle down and keep my priorities straight. The result was an increase in stress and anxiety and decrease in focus and energy.
When the insight occurred I was hiking, merely walking. Could there be a connection between the two events…between the simple act of walking and self discovery? I believe there is.
Modern life itself is a stressor. The key is how your body/mind reacts to and responds to stress. We have been exposed to and forced to interact with a tremendous number and variety of stressors, many of which are unique to mankind within the past 100 years.
Without going into a big discussion into how the “fight or flight stress response” came about, I will say that it is an evolutionary development that is perfect for dealing with a physical stressor that requires a physical response.
Today, most stressors do not require a physical response, much less a strong physical response. Todays stressors are often self-induced, that is they are mental/emotional in origin. We try to live a healthy happy life but are constantly bombarded by the mixed cultural messages of desires, wants and needs that very often are in sharp contrast with our core values.
Advances in technology have created their own host of physical, chemical, nutritional and environmental stress problems:
- Sitting and working for long hours
- Fluorescent lighting and CRT screen refresh rates
- Electromagnetic fields from electronic devices (especially cell phones, wi-fi hotspots and smart meters)
- Chlorinated and fluoridated water
- Processed and denatured foods
- Unhealthy work environments (repetitive stress, stale air, synthetic air fresheners, off-gassing, etc.)
- Artificial and mechanical noises
- The introduction into the environment of over 80,000 new chemicals, most untested for safety
- Radiation from over 1,000 nuclear tests and power plant problems (Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Indian Point to name a few)
So How Is This a Problem?
First modern life tend to stimulate the left brain, the analytical, the thinking, the problem solving side of our minds.
When left brain dominant, we lose touch with the right side; feeling, passion, creativity and intuition.
When stuck in the left brain, it is almost as if you are on auto-pilot reacting and responding to any stimuli that is placed in front of you.
Neither the left or right brain is inherently bad. They both balance each other out. The challenge is when we are placed in a situation that keeps us in one side for long periods of time. We tend to get stuck and this pathway strengthens making it more difficult to shift towards a balanced state.
This is particularly challenging for individuals who are naturally right brain dominant. They can become disenfranchised with life as they know something is wrong but can’t quite put all the pieces together to form a clear image of the problem.
For the already left brain dominant person, they easily shift further left without realizing it. Being left brain dominant already tends to hinder the body/mind communication pathway. A further shift left often results in health problems or complaints appearing out of “nowhere” with no warning due to the lack of body awareness.
Second, our nervous system also adapts to stressors.
Our nervous system consists of two systems working together:
- The peripheral nervous system which controls conscious movement
- The central nervous system, containing the autonomic nervous system that controls those body functions that you do not normally regulate through conscious thought.
The autonomic nervous system is further split into two branches:
- The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) when activated produces the “fight or flight response.”
- The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) when activated, supports digestion, the repair processes and healing.
The common stressors of everyday life that we discussed are perceived by the body to be threats. As threats, they will stimulate the sympathetic nervous system.
Daily life can put us in a perpetual sympathetic state of “fight or flight.”
At the same time, our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS); digestion, metabolism and the release of tissue building hormones (DHEA, growth hormone, testosterone, estrogen and others) is suppressed.
The outcome of a chronically suppressed PNS and excessively stimulated SNS is often a state of chronic fatigue, chronic disease processes along with mental/emotional imbalances. It is not a matter of if a health issue will arise, it is a matter of when!
So What Does This Have To Do With Walking?
In essence, my decision to go walking in nature suppressed the sympathetic and stimulated the parasympathetic nervous system. I removed myself from the “fight or flight” stress response.
My desire to interact with nature, take in all its beauty, wonder and splendor created a shift from the left brain to the right brain.
I began to feel not only the energy of the environment surrounding me, but also began to hear and listen to the internal dialogue and what my body was trying to teach me.
The result was that I stopped, took a few deep breaths, and considered the path I was on and the destination it was leading me to.
I could have dismissed it. What I have come to realize is that my body will never lie to me. My body wants to be healthy, functional and full of energy and vitality. On the other hand, my brain, or as I like to call it, my “monkey mind,” will gladly play mental hopscotch all day long if allowed.
If I had not gone away for that weekend, I am sure I would have missed the healing opportunity. I am also sure I would have come to the realization at some point. The question is when and what further disruption in body function would have taken place?
What Can I Do?
Simple, get outside and interact with nature. Allow her energy to envelope you and communicate with you. Go for a walk. Get a bird feeder, or two and watch the birds interact. Do some gardening and grow something. Lie on the ground watching the clouds overhead. Walk barefoot and get grounded. Learn some Tai Chi or Qi Gong and practice it barefoot.
At first it may be rather difficult. Your mind will wander, you will get bored, the monkey mind starts playing all kinds of games to distract you and pull you left.
Don’t forget to breathe. Breathing deeply, slowly and through the nose will greatly enhance this balancing process by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system.
Try it! What have you got to lose?
Or to look at it another way. What have you got to gain!
In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks – John Muir