For many of us, during lockdown, our daily walk has become a focal point of the day. Something to savour and look forward to, a breath of fresh air and a release from the four walls of home. Over the past few months, I have enjoyed exploring some woods near my home, woods which before the pandemic were sadly ignored - at least by me. Now, every day, I pull on my wellies and waterproofs and venture out on a journey which connects me to the beauty of nature and the changing seasons, as well as to myself and my inner world.
A few weeks ago, I took a slightly different route to usual and found myself standing underneath a majestic old tree. It was a bright clear day and the icy, crisp air nipped at my cheeks. As I paused, I could hear the wind blowing through the bare branches of the big old tree and through the other evergreens nearby. In that moment I noticed that I felt very still, and I became aware of my own breath. I stood up straight, with my feet planted on the ground, put my shoulders back and let my arms rest by my sides. As I felt the wind blow around me and heard it in the trees, I began to breathe using a yoga breathing technique called ‘ocean breath’. This breath technique, which involves breathing in and out deeply through your nose with your mouth closed, is known to increase the flow of oxygen to the body and brain. Right there, outside in the woods, I felt wholly connected to the natural world around me as I smelled the earthy smell of the woods and felt the cold wind on my skin. I experienced being at one and part of. At the same time, I felt connected to my body, my thoughts and emotions as I breathed in and noticed the air filling and expanding my lungs and then the contraction of my lungs as I exhaled.
Cultivating moments like these have become particularly important for me, and others I speak to, during this time of lockdown when the overwhelming experience is that of disconnect. The current lockdown rules in the UK mean that we might be isolated from our friends and family and those that we would usually go to for support. It is my experience that by nurturing our relationship with our own selves and with nature we can build a different kind of support which will continue to bring benefits to our health and wellbeing even when we are able to get physically close to humans again.
When we feel stressed, anxious, or in some way threatened our body responds by signalling to our brain to go into fight, flight, freeze mode. This causes our brain to switch off the part that enables us to think and plan, the frontal cortex, and switch on a more primitive part of the brain which modulates the fight, flight, freeze response - the limbic system, which in turn stimulates a part of the autonomic nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. We become flooded with the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline and we might feel like we want to run away, fight off an ‘enemy’ or we might freeze and feel rooted to the spot. At times this response is to a perceived threat rather than an actual threat, so finding ways to calm and soothe our nervous system so that we can switch back into thinking mode can be helpful. However, in our current situation, living through a global pandemic, the threat from an unseen virus is very real and has wider ranging effects which serve to cut us off from our loved ones from whom we might draw support and cause us to spend time alone or with a very limited number of people.
To switch off the flight, fight, freeze response, another part of the autonomic nervous system needs to be brought into play. This is called the parasympathetic nervous system and acts as a brake to the sympathetic response. Calming and soothing us and enabling us to get back into a position where we are able to use the thinking part of our brains.
One very effective way of soothing our nervous system and reconnecting our bodies, minds and emotions is to breathe in a mindful and controlled way. It can be helpful to use different breath ratios e.g. breath in for a count of four and out for a count of four, or in for a count of 5 and out for a count of 7. The important thing is to bring your attention to your breath and notice how it feels as it fills up your lungs and as you breath it out. Sometimes your attention might wander, this is ok, just notice and bring your attention back to your breath.
Another way in which we can soothe our nervous system and connect with ourselves is to use grounding. When I was in the woods, I stood with my feet planted shoulder width apart, standing up tall with my arms by my sides. Grounding your body means bringing your attention to how your body feels in space. You might also do this by sitting in a chair or lying on the ground and feeling the sensation of the ground or the chair touching your body.
For many people, simply being outdoors in nature has the effect of lowering blood pressure and reducing levels of stress hormones. There are even studies which show that trees emit compounds called phytoncides which are thought to boost our immune systems.
All in all, getting outside and spending time in nature whilst mindfully being aware of our breathing and our bodies in space has a multitude of benefits, including calming and soothing our overstimulated nervous systems. Why not go outside and explore a green space local to you today?