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A year ago I wrote a blog for this site talking about how I managed stress with time in the great outdoors. Fast forward to this spring and life is unrecognisable for everyone. Whatever we thought constituted stress 12 months ago might look a little mild compared to the rampant global anxieties that abound while we sit in splendid isolation today.
Like so many people, time outdoors was always the release valve for me of the pressures of everyday life. A tough week in the office could be balanced by a hike at the weekend. If I needed some time to think, the first course of action was always to get the trainers on and walk the dog. I had, over a period of years, learnt that the fastest way to decompress was to get outside, look up and breathe deeply. I had developed the tools to make sure that the quotidian annoyances never escalated into full blown mood busters and I thanked my lucky stars that I had all of the blessings of the Mournes on my doorstep.
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As Coronavirus went from an item half way through the evening news to an all-consuming, global pandemic I began to feel my stress levels rise. Yes it might have only been hand-sanitiser in the office but it was a hint of things to come, an impending sense of dread. A few sleepless nights started to creep in wondering how this would affect me and my family, concerns for some of my friends working in the NHS, uncertainties for our business. And then this term “lockdown” came in to every day usage. Lockdown. Has a particularly energy to it doesn’t it? I had prided myself on having a toolbox to deal with stress but even this was challenging me.
Then the calm, the days in the house, the acceptance of what was the new normal. And the awareness that I just had to alter some tools to deal with what was upon me. Look to nature, for we are part of it, not apart from it. In no particular order, here are the nature-based-stress-busters upon which I’ve relied over the last couple of weeks and which might be useful.
I can usually kick in a solid eight hours without a problem but information overload really took its toll on my sleeping habits – thoughts turning over and over will make the land of nod seem like an impossible destination. And of course the next day I felt sluggish. Exposing yourself to bright natural light first thing in the morning helps flush out the sleep hormone melatonin from your system and re-set the natural circadian rhythm, meaning you’ll feel more refreshed in the short term and sleep better the next night. I’m home-working at the moment and it can be tempted to roll straight for breakfast to my computer, but getting even short stint of 15 or 20 minutes outside in the garden has really helped to make me feel more alert in the morning and reset my body clock.
In other European countries lockdown has been close to lock in. So like most I was relieved that we could at least get outside once a day for exercise – walk, run or cycle. Although an occasional runner, this was a no-brainer for me – get out and walk. I’ve always used walking as a moving meditation when needed but recently hearing neuroscientist Shane O’Mara describe walking as a “superpower” that makes us happier, healthier and brainier made this the obvious choice for the daily escape. In his book “In Praise of Walking” he cites a 2018 study which showed regular walkers had lower levels of stress of depression than non-walkers. You might not be able to get yourself up a mountain but even a short (and socially-distant) walk will help process thoughts and decompress. And if you want something to pass the time during lockdown, Dr. O’Mara’s book is worth a read.
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I’m now on a laptop for most of the day – when I was in the office, I used to have the screen free time of meetings to get away from the blue-lit rectangle on my desk, but every meeting is now done virtually so there’s way more screen time than is strictly healthy. The counterbalance is to make sure I get time away from screens outdoors. Not outdoors scrolling through a social media feed. Outdoors looking up. If a screen brings everything into sharp focus, time under a big sky will bring perspective. I used to try to use a skytime to screentime ratio but frankly all bets are off at the moment – all I know is that the act of simply being outdoors in fresh air is taking away the sense of claustrophobia that working from home can engender. Set a timer, leave your laptop, get outside.
There is a small comfort in the fact that we are experiencing all of this in springtime – yes it’s hard not to be able to take full advantage of longer days and warmer temperatures but this might be a lot harder in November. Small mercies and all that. This is nature’s busiest time of the year and no two days look the same. Observing the changes daily (and they are daily) brings into sharp relief the passage of time. This too shall pass. We have a magnolia tree just outside a window and in the past three weeks it’s gone from brown furry buds to delicate cream blooms. Nature is doing its thing. You’ve got a ring-side seat this year.
This might seem unlikely but it’s effective and easy. While it’s been well documented that time outdoors is good for physical and mental health, what has also been demonstrated is that we don’t even need to “be” in nature to reap some of the benefits. In a 2016 Netherlands study, researchers documented that simply looking at images of nature was enough to lower stress levels by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. For anyone self-isolating or without access to green space, having images of nature is a useful addition. For anyone home working, keeping a shot of your favourite hike as your screensaver might just be enough to help drop you into the ‘rest and digest’ mode.
It can be easy to feel overwhelmed at the moment. Whether you are facing this head on in your day job, worried for loved ones, isolated or just feeling helpless at home, self-care is an essential not a luxury. Call on nature to give you a lift even if it’s not in the regular dose to which you are accustomed. And look forward to that next nature overdose – we will appreciate our treks all the more for the absence of them now.
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Belfast By Night
Percy Bysshe and Cove Caves
A Ring of Bright Waters: a Mourne hydrotrek