Stress, Physical Activity and Nature - Vitality Part IV: the IV in Positive PsychologySep 30, 2021 10:00AM ● By Ann C. Reeves
Positive Psychology (PP) is the scientific study of optimal human functioning, its research encompassing neurobehavioral, cognitive behavioral and physiological science. The acronym used in PP is PERMA-V. We continue to explore V, or Vitality, an overriding factor that encourages and supports the success of Positivity, Engagement, Relationship, Meaning and Achievement/Accomplishment in bringing about a deep sense of well-being.
To optimize Vitality, it is essential to understand one’s stress reactions and find ways to reduce them. All of the components mentioned so far in this series—sleep, utilizing the breath, understanding balancing polarities, body alignment and nutrition—contribute to reducing stress.
Stress occurs when homeostasis (our natural balance) is threatened by real or perceived stressors, leading to a cascade of unpleasant physiological reactions and the ensuing behaviors of fight, flight or freeze. The nanosecond a threat is perceived, the hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into the bloodstream, which disrupts homeostasis.
Stress has as much or even more of a physiological effect on the body than on emotions. We know that long-term stress can bring about anxiety, depression, irritability, overwhelm, lack of focus and restlessness because we have experienced it. What we may not know is that long-term stress can also result in severe problems in physical health. According to a Mayo Clinic article, “Stress symptoms may be affecting your health, even though you might not realize it. You may think illness is to blame for that irritating headache, your frequent insomnia or your decreased productivity at work. But stress may actually be the cause.”
Chronic stress is associated with various conditions in the brain, the metabolic system and cardiovascular health. Stress can interfere with tissue and cellular development, the hormones and oxidative stress. According to LiveOn Laboratory research, stress can deplete magnesium and iron supplies in our bodies. It can also alter the level of zinc, which is important because too little or too much zinc can impair immune function.
Recognizing, acknowledging, accepting, examining and then understanding one’s stress reactions are helpful steps in reducing stress. There are many cognitive behavioral exercises that can be found online, such as taking a belief (that underlies your stressful emotions) to court. Making columns “for” and “against” the truthfulness of the belief (“I am so stupid”, “I am unattractive”, “I never will be able to…”) If there is even one example in your life in the “against” column, then that belief is not really true, similar to the concept of “a reasonable doubt = not guilty”.
Other stress management strategies besides those discussed earlier in the Vitality series include remembering what we used to love and perhaps getting back to a hobby or practice, remembering to laugh, reaching out to old friends or family members to check in, creating a gratitude journal, searching for something beautiful or meaningful every day and every night writing down three things “that went well today, and how I contributed to that”.
Physical activity is another key to vitality. It is said that a sedentary life is “the new smoking”. It fosters obesity, diabetes, bone weakness, heart disease and both anxiety and depression. Physical activity is one of the best ways to improve brain function, strengthen cardiac function, reduce disease, manage weight, bolster strength of bones and muscles and improve our ability to perform everyday activities deeply into our senior years.
It does not have to require joining a gym or signing up for classes. Even moderate exercise such as walking every day can make all the difference. Eastern practices such as yoga, tai chi and qi gong are enjoyable and effective ways to maintain joint movement and strength, as well as to develop mindful and meditative routines. Movements are slow, yet much energy can be expended without the threat of joint or muscle damage that more aggressive forms of exercise can foster, especially as one ages.
Much research has now emerged showing the importance of nature and the natural world upon our physical and mental health. We all know how good it feels to be in nature, but it is only in the last 50 years that empirical research has revealed the breadth and depth of nature’s benefits on our physiology and emotions.
Much of this research was inspired by the Japanese Forest Medicine movement begun in the 1980s and the development of Shinrin Yoku, or Forest Bathing, a practice that yields numerous evidence-based health benefits. Comparing exact protocols between participants in urban and forested settings, where participants were asked to stroll in a particular setting for a specified number of minutes several times a week, numerous health benefits were discovered for those in natural, but not in urban settings, suggesting that there was something explicitly healing about the natural environment itself. These include: more parasympathetic activity over sympathetic (rest and restore over stress), lower blood sugar levels, weight loss, increased energy, improved cardiovascular and metabolic health indicators, boosting of the immune system by increasing NK (killer) cells, increased anti-cancer protein production, improved concentration and memory, decreased anxiety, decreased depression, improved pain threshold, increased heart rate variability and significantly lowered experience of stress.
Besides the emotional and aesthetic aspects of being in nature, two substances are identified that appear to contribute to the positive physiological reactions of forest bathing. Phytoncides exist within most plants, including many trees. These are volatile organic compounds that prevent the growth of organisms that are dangerous to the specific plant or tree. We already know that certain essential oils produced by trees and plants can also help relieve stress, and these are chemically similar to the main components of phytoncides. Another natural factor is soil microbes called Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless bacteria commonly found in soil which we breathe when we walk in the woods. Discovered by accident in a research experiment, this substance has been found to boost immune systems and lead to more positive emotions and decreased depression. In one experiment, mice who received this natural substance behaved as though they were on antidepressants.
It is not insignificant that at the same time that Shinrin Yoku was developing in Japan, the renowned Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson published his book Biophilia, in 1984. Biophilia is the theory that human beings possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life, that we are genetically determined to love the natural world because we, too, are the natural world. He noted that our health improves when we are in nature and suffers when we are separated from it. This affinity for the natural world is fundamental to our health. In line with this, many worthy books have now been written about the power of trees, including Peter Wohllenben et. al.’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World and Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest.
This concludes the series on Positive Psychology. For more information, visit ppc.sas.upenn.edu. To find personal, private questionnaires on various aspects of positive psychology such as the Gratitude Scale; Meaning of Life Questionnaire; VIA Survey of Character Strengths; Psychological Well Being Scales; Quality of Life Inventory and more, type “Measures” in the search bar.
Ann C. Reeves, Psy.D is a Licensed Psychologist in Wilton. Connect at [email protected].