I’m going to share something crazy that happened to my family and I last week. We were at my nine-year-olds soccer tournament in a park in Los Angeles where we live. There were hundreds of children playing multiple games back-to-back, with family members, vendors, coaches, and organizers all in attendance. All of a sudden, we hear, “Get off the field! Get off the field! There’s a gun!”
Before I can even begin to process what is happening, I grabbed my daughter off the field and ran. As we looked for an exit (the unaffected side of the field was gated) terror began to sink into my bones. People were screaming. Others were crying. Honestly, I can’t really recall all that was going on around me, I was just focused on finding safety for my daughter while communicating calm and not fear.
We arrived at the lower fields where we waited with other children and families for what seemed like hours, until we were told that the police had detained the suspect and we were allowed to return to our cars. We are now not certain if he actually had a gun; and to be honest, it’s almost irrelevant if he did or did not. The fact that this is now a distinct possibility in Anytown, USA is the real tragedy.
When we got home, I was so disappointed with humanity; all I could do was to crawl into bed. I kept telling myself to get up and go for a run – my usual cure for a difficult mood – or to take the dog for a walk; but I couldn’t. I felt utterly and totally depleted.
And then I got the suggestion of a hike, a hike, I thought to myself. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Just the mere mention of it started to lift my spirits. And so, I got out of bed, laced up my sneakers, and headed out 20 minutes or so to a trail that I frequent.
As I began to head up the trail, I felt like the trees, the narrow path, and the hillside enveloped me like a deep hug. Immediately, I felt a sense of ease in my body, like the alarm bells were being shut off. And it’s true – being in nature does turn off our internal alarm system, the part of our nervous system that triggers us to action in the midst of a threat; the part of me that surged with cortisol that morning so that I could run, the part that breathed heavily to obtain more oxygen for my racing heart. The part that dilated my pupils, enhancing my vision so that I could find my daughter on the field.
But now, all of that was turned off, as nature has scientifically proven to do. Time in nature has been shown to reduce heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, and sympathetic drive. I took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of the damp earth and the leaves, further generating a sense of ease and well-being. Scent is sent directly to the hypothalamus, bypassing the thalamus – the switchboard of the brain– and to the part of the brain involved in stress responses, the amygdala. Indeed the smell of nature has also been shown to reduce the stress response, as does sound, the sound of the stream that I could now hear thanks to the recent rains in L.A., activate the vagus nerve and literally calm us down.
This all comes full circle to me as I write this from the remote landscape of Rancho La Puerta, where I am running workshops all week on how we can broaden our definition of nutrition to include not only the food that we eat but also the company that we keep, the thoughts that we think and how much or how little we utilize the nutrients of sleep, movement and of course, nature.
I hope this newsletter and this week’s episode of HealthBite serve as a reminder to nourish yourself deeply, mind, body, and soul.
In good health!