“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”
Henry David Thoreau
With most of us spending many hours a day glued to screens, going outdoors and taking a walk in nature is one of the easiest most simple ways of maintaining your physical and mental health, according to a growing body of research.
What avid walkers have known all along is being confirmed by science. Walking in the green and blue spaces of nature is healing on multiple levels.
Trees emit airborne chemicals, called phytoncides, used to protect themselves from insects. As we breathe in these phytoncides, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a particular kind of white blood cell, called natural killer (NK) cells.
The term forest bathing or shinrin-yoku became popular in Japan in the 1980s. It is basically immersing or meditating in nature. Against the background of the increasing number of people with subhealth the Japanese researchers found that shinrin-yoku not only brings people with subhealth a healthy lifestyle but also offers complementary therapies to the sick. Subhealth is described as a condition between health and disease.
In the United States researchers monitored the intimate connection of trees to our physical health after the emerald ash borer decimated over a million trees in 15 states between 1990-2007. Less tree cover was linked to over 6,000 deaths from respiratory disease.
Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol weaken the body’s natural defense systems, making it susceptible to cardiovascular and other diseases. By spending time in the green and blue spaces of nature you can reduce those stress hormones in your body significantly.
We can interact directly with nature by opening our senses to the sound of bird song, the aroma of herbs and plants, the rushing waters of a creek, or simply meditating on the beauty of a flower.
The British Psychological Society has studied the benefits of outdoor therapy, especially for care workers. Stabilization, mindfulness, and other sensory exercises like walking while paying attention to the five senses have been found to be particularly beneficial when compared to indoor therapy sessions.
We easily become disconnected from the natural world by spending most of our lives in offices and consuming digital media. This inevitably leads to a sedentary lifestyle. Coupled with lack of exercise, a poor diet of processed food and stress the modern lifestyle is exceptionally unhealthy. Average longevity has increased over the years but few people are asking the question about the quality of life. Typical metabolism diseases linked to lifestyle such as diabetes 2, obesity, cardiac disease, cancer, dementia and alzheimer are on the increase in most industrial nations.
How much low-impact exercise do we need per day?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends at least 10,000 steps per day to reach a minimum fitness level. Most people working in office jobs are very far from reaching this target. Typically people working in a Call Center walk less than 1,500 steps per day. Studies conducted by the German Sport University in Cologne found that a low impact exercise programe for adolescents suffering from depression had a significantly positive effect on their mental state and reduced the risk of them suffering from depression later in life.
As the poet, artist and writer Jay Woodman said: “When you truly sing, you sing yourself free. When you truly dance, you dance yourself free. When you walk in the mountains or swim in the sea, again, you set yourself free.”
As a child, I was frequently confronted with episodes when Dad would withdraw behind a thick grey wall of brooding silence. Only much later in life, when confronting my own demons, did I begin to understand the meaning of depression and what profound effect it can have on family and relationships.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 280 million people worldwide suffer from depression with the Covid-19 pandemic having further impacted mental health on multiple levels as we deal with the loss of control and personal freedoms.
It is part of the human condition that we go through stages of melancholy sadness but depression is characterized by the WHO as a condition when a person suffers for a longer period of several weeks loss of pleasure in all things, hopelessness in the future, fatigue, low self-esteem and self-worth coupled with frequent suicidal thoughts.
When to ask for help
When you or a loved one are in such a situation it is advisable to seek professional help. Medication can be necessary, especially when hereditary factors or biological issues such as hormones and serotonin levels in the brain play a role. However, medication is not a quick fix and therapy must be understood as a long-term journey to improving the quality of life.
Depression has many facets and is intertwined with an individual’s response and coping mechanism to external stressors. Childhood trauma or emotional neglect could be underlying factors for low-esteem and self-worth, seeding the depression. And, sometimes depression is disguised as a job burnout or a midlife crisis because of the social stigma attached to mental health.
Losing the sense of meaning and purpose in life could be triggered after a relationship breakdown, loss of a loved one, job loss, or the diagnosis of a life-threatening disease. A personal tragedy can be so overwhelming that the individual is unable to find a way out without professional help.
Finding new meaning and purpose
What we do know is that most forms of depression are treatable. Low-impact sport and a healthy diet rich in fatty acids and low on sugars and processed foods play an important part in brain health. At the same time finding new purpose and meaning with the help of a good therapist or mentor is key.
There is a lovely quote from Mark Twain that “the two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.” The “why” need not be the one silver arrow. Very often people are passionate about a certain career path in the early part of their life and then find out decades later that they need to walk a new path.
Learning from the pain and trauma
Everything that you have experienced or suffered so far in life has prepared you for the next step. What did I need to learn from my divorce? Has it left me with resentment fear and hate? Or, has it taught me to forgive, improved my social skillset, and made me into a more compassionate human being?
Finding a new challenge and stepping out of the normal comfort zone of complacency is a major antidote to depression. When you reflect on your life so far you will always find some stories where you chalked up victories and personal accomplishments. You can add to that success list by finding a new challenge.
For me, such a challenge was walking the Camino in northwestern Spain for the first time in 2007. I was in a very bad place at the time going through a tumultuous relationship and finding myself on the edge of a job burnout. You can read my story in the book: “Walking on Edge: A pilgrimage to Santiago”
I now take the time each year for a personal retreat. Walking one more stage of the Camino has become my annual detox and timeout for realignment and soul replenishment.
What is your inner dialogue?
How are you talking to yourself? Is your self-talk predominantly negative or positive? You have the power to change your thoughts and your mindset. Predominantly positive people are more successful, happier, and content. We like to have those people around us. When they walk into a room there is a different energy. While those people who are cynical and only focused on the dark side of life inevitably pull you down. You can shift those dark emotions by replacing them with positive thoughts. What makes you laugh? What are the five things that you experienced during the past 24 hours that you can be truly grateful for? Training the mind is like training the body in physical exercise. It takes practice and sometimes we have to simply empty the mind from all those dancing monkeys in the head moving between the pain of the past and the fear of the future.
The healing power of community
Our modern culture of individualism has mutated into narcissism and loss of community bonding. We, humans, are social beings. We are formed by the nature of our associations and primary family connections. We all need a supportive network of long-term friends, family, and community that provides positive validation. Volunteering in a group or a community for a useful project, charity, or church group that improves the lives of others changes the perspective from self-absorption to giving for others in a worse situation. Find a reason to do something for the good of something.
Repurposing failure, tragedy, and grief
Some of the world’s greatest minds have turned a personal tragedy, humiliation, or failure into success by repurposing their experience into new meaning.
Andrew Carnegie, arguably one of the most successful industrialists ever, emigrated to the United States with his family at the age of 12 to avoid starvation in Scotland. He eventually amassed a vast fortune in the iron and steel industry but spent most of his later life on philanthropic projects including the establishment of 3,000 public libraries in the United States, England, and Canada.
Charles Dickens’s greatest works of fiction came from a dark place after losing his father and one of his daughters within a week. At the age of twelve Dickens was forced to work with working-class men and boys in a shoe polish factory while his father was in a debtor’s prison. This experience shaped his views of the harshness of the industrial world confronting human values.
Oprah Winfrey, raped, molested, and beaten in early childhood, faced many struggles before becoming one of the world’s most famous talk show hosts. She told fellow chat show host David Letterman that through all of the pain and struggle, she was thankful, “for everything that has happened. I would take nothing from my journey.”
Tony Robbins came from a dysfunctional family and was thrown out of his home by an abusive mother. The experience turned him into one of the world’s top motivational speakers, best-selling author of self-help books, and life coach.
In a world addicted to immediate gratification and quick-fix solutions – take a pill and it will go away – the individual going through a hard time is often told: “Get over it and move on.” Every person has a different rhythm when dealing with grief or trauma. That sadness over the loss of a loved one remains for a lifetime but over time it can take on a different perspective.
Those “dark night of the soul” moments force a look inside. A crisis reveals what needs to be changed. Complacency is the biggest obstacle to soul connection and elevation of consciousness. During times of pain and grief, we dig deep into the resources of resilience for that next hill to climb on life’s journey of growth and evolution and ultimately fulfillment of soul destiny.
“Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action. ” ― William James
Some years ago I met some of the happiest and kindest people in the small southeastern African country of Malawi. Over half the population live below the poverty line and some even in extreme poverty, yet the country is also known as “the warm heart of Africa” because its people have the reputation of smiling all the time.
The trip to Malawi set me thinking. While obviously many people in abject poverty fall prey to lethargy, some people in the very same situation appear to be taking on a very different mindset.
The 2020 World Happiness Report listing factors such as freedom of choice, the environment, social factors and the economy, consistently has the Nordic countries topping the list of the most happy countries. The report attributes happiness particularly to a high level of social and institutional trust as well as the social connections.
But there is much more to it. The United States, one of the world’s wealthiest nations, ranks only 19th on the life evaluation list. The Netherlands and Switzerland, in essence indistinguishable from many other wealthy countries on GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom, generosity, and corruption, nevertheless have a lower overall score than the Scandinavian countries.
How much of your happiness is under your control?
Especially during these times when the pandemic is wreaking havoc on economies and businesses it is easy to blame external circumstances for our unhappiness. The happiness pie chart, first presented by researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon M. Sheldon, and David Schkade in 2005, suggests that our perceived feeling of happiness is only influenced by external circumstances by ten per cent. The genes we inherited from our parents play a major part (50 per cent) but the researchers emphasize that it is possible to get happier and to stay happy by making certain choices and changing our mindset.
It appears that by far the major part of our happiness is determined by the way we process the external world and the way we program ourselves with our thought and belief systems. A large body of researchers from the school of positive psychology conclude that it is possible to completely transform a life for the better by changing ones attitude to whatever you have experienced. Thought discipline and taking control of the monkeys dancing in the head has been taught by spiritual teachers for centuries. Here are only some tips of how you can regain control:
Accept the up-and-down cycles.
Life is cyclical. It is part of the human condition to have moments of sadness and despair. The New Age obsession with “being happy all the time” is an illusion. It is only in the honest and full acceptance of the current state that we can take the first step to moving forward to a life of greater contentment.
What foods are you eating?
What we eat matters for every aspect of our health, but especially our mental health. A diet of junk food with a high sugar content and other additives not only affects your physical body negatively but also your mental health. It has inspired a whole field of medical research called nutritional psychiatry at Harvard University.
Practicing kindness and compassion
If we take care of others and practice compassion and loving kindness to each other this will have an immediate effect on your own sense of well-being. We know this from our own gut-feeling It costs nothing to be kind and you will in return attract the same energy in your surroundings. There is a saying called “givers gain” – the more you give the more you receive.
A core spiritual belief makes you more resilient during stressful times and will improve your sense of well-being. We are social beings and if you belong to a faith community you could be given emotional support. The spiritual seeker is on a journey to understand purpose and meaning in life. Dogmatic religion however could have the opposite effect and contribute to obsessive behavior and mental disorder.
How you talk to yourself is crucial. If your self-talk is predominantly negative you need to change something. Finding a positively-minded personal mantra could be part of a process you could work at with a personal mentor or therapist. Meditating at the start of your day and at the end of the day with a gratitude ritual could form part of a realignment program.
Low-impact exercise such as yoga, tai chi or qi gong helps to realign body, mind and spirit. It includes breathing exercise routines that help you breathe naturally through your nose rather than through the mouth. Your nose releases nitric oxide which widens the blood vessels allowing for better transportation of oxygen to vital organs.
There is not the one silver bullet that will improve your overall happiness level and feeling of contentment. It is best to start with small steps in changing some of your daily habits. Keeping a daily journal will help you keep track on what you are doing in terms of action. And when you read some of the lines many months or years later you will be proud of what you have achieved.
Are you finding yourself lost and alone? Just when you thought you were on the right track you find yourself hitting a wall and not knowing a way out.
We have all had those moments. At times I have not only found myself lost on a remote mountain on the Camino in northwestern Spain but also on life’s journey. Inevitably I would get lost when I missed an important way marker while daydreaming and avoiding the warning signs from the universe.
Heeding the early warning signs when something is wrong
The universe will always be whispering to you. Especially when you are on the wrong track the whispers could turn into a “shout out”. Inevitably there will be those early warning signs where you feel intuitively that something is wrong.
A person is asking you to lend them money. They tell you they will most certainly pay you back within a month. There is that first feeling that you shouldn’t be doing this but the person is so convincing that you push that first doubt aside. Of course you remember that thought again when the person never complies and you have lost your money.
Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior
Despite a person’s charm the best predictor of a person’s future behavior is that person’s past behavior. Very few people can disguise for any length of time their true character traits. A pity then that falling in love often gets in the way of making a realistic assessment of a person’s character.
There are those small tell-tale signs. Small lies turn into big lies. Repeated assurances that it will not happen again. A change in the tone of voice, a look in the eye and you know something is just not right.
Trusting what the body is trying to tell you
The body is an excellent compass when it comes to trusting your intuition, and knowing. When does my energy expand? When is my energy getting depleted? Ignoring the inner voice of truth for any length of time will inevitably impact your mental and physical health.
Sleepless nights. A common cold not wanting to go away and pointing to a more serious underlying health issue? Regular high blood pressure problems indicating a high stress level and putting you at risk of a stroke or heart attack?
Very few crisis situations simply come out of the blue. Like getting lost on a walk it takes some time before you realize that you are on the wrong path. A call from a passing farmer might alert you to going back onto the right path. Advice from a good friend might prevent you from making a bad decision. But sometimes you do end up getting lost hopelessly. Such crisis situations however can be important lessons in the elevation of consciousness.
Lessons to be learning in a crisis
If you have the feeling that you have placed your ladder against the wrong wall, are unhappy with your situation, and maybe going through a period of sadness and depression, here is something you might consider doing:
What is my current situation trying to teach me?
What has the universe been trying to whisper to my soul?
What past experience feels similar and how did I get out of that situation?
If you feel lost or are finding yourself in a personal crisis situation it always means that something needs to change, has to be reconfigured, realigned, surrendered, let go-of.
But the fear of change and moving out of a comfort zone is one of the biggest human fears. The suffering in the silent misery of procrastination comes from the misconception that we are victims of external circumstance. But it is only half of the truth.
Our greatest freedom is the freedom of choice
The universe, or God, has at the same time given man the freedom of choice. The freedom of choice starts with your mindset. Am I programming myself into a victim mentality? Or am I programming myself to becoming a co-creator in the firm belief that whatever challenge I am confronted with is part of the lesson to be learned of an eternal soul on an evolutionary path of the human experience.
We make mistakes, take the wrong turns, trust the wrong people, make bad choices. It is part of the human condition. We are on a journey, picking up the cues and lessons while on the way.
Reino Gevers – Author. Mentor. Speaker
One more thing…
You might want to check out my new book “Deep Walking for Body, Mind and Soul” released as a paperback by Morgan James Publishing on August 11, 2020. It has some valuable tips on creating happiness and boosting your vibrational energy on many levels. You can order it at all major outlets such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble or in my own store. Check out the latest five-star reviews on Goodreads.
“A breathtaking, captivating, transformative walk,” – Tom Dutta, Canada
“The book reminded me of my own journey in life I am walking and how bringing stillness to my busy life and mind is essential.” – Karin, France
“The book compresses on its slim 190 pages an extreme density of life wisdom.” Christina, Germany
In my previous blog I wrote about typical symptoms of psychological stress such as a stiff neck and shoulders. These are in most cases the first signals the body is sending “of a load too much to carry.”
Long-term effects of stress are far more serious. High blood pressure over many years often leads to a stroke, a heart attack or other serious health problems.
When the body is under constant stress it is more or less in a state of war with havoc caused on many levels. Muscles and blood vessels tighten up and begin to tear. Tendons are damaged.
Every cell is working overtime in trying to get the necessary nutrients. The body already has to deal with all the toxins found in processed food, chemicals, water and the atmosphere. In stress situations, cellular malfunction becomes more frequent. With the cells unable to do their job properly this eventually leads to organ malfunction.
But there are many warning signs that something must be wrong such as chronic fatigue, neurological disorders, gastric problems, or acute infections, pain in the joints. The cells are literally screaming out for help that a certain organ or system is heading for a major problem.
During such a “state of war” the only protection is giving the cells enough of the vital nutrients to deal with the constant assault. It has been found that chronic fatigue or “burnout” patients often have an acute deficit of essential nutrients such as Omega 3 fatty acids which keeps the stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline under control. While the body has an abundance of carbohydrates and fats there is an acute lack of magnesium, calcium and other essential nutrients.
So removing the toxins from the cells with the right nutrients and providing them with the right source of energy is the way to go. It is estimated that 70 per cent if not more of our health is attributed to lifestyle habits with only a small portion affected by genes, injuries or other factors.
There is compelling evidence that the chronic shortage of Omega 3 fatty acids in most foods is responsible for many psychological disorders such as depression and Attention Deficity Syndrome (ADS).
Eating the right superfoods will do a lot to reduce stress and anxiety and help provide the essential nutrients to the cells. Here are some:
Avocados are rich in Vitamin B and monunsaturated fat and potassium which can help lower blood pressure.
Fish such as salmon is rich in Omega 3
Fresh spinach, broccoli, kale and other rich greens are packed with vital magnesium and other vitamins.
Sweet potatoes are a good alternative to carbohydrates and the urge to eat sugars when we have too much cortisol in our bodies.
Almonds, pistachios and walnuts have all those B and E vitamins which help boost the immune system and help lower blood pressure.
And, here is the absolute top of the pops – chia seed. According to legend it was already a powerfood for the Aztecs. It has a multitude of nutrients. It is packed with Omega 3. A little chia in your juice or salad will provide your daily intake of calcium which is essential for bone and teeth density. It will provide at least 30 per cent of the manganese and phosphorus you need for the day. The amino acid tryptophan helps regulate the appetite and has a strong mood influence. Chia seeds have also been shown to improve blood pressure for diabetics.
Reducing carbohydrates in your food and doing away with industrial sugars and salts will do a lot to overcome the high-and-low energy cycles.
Remember the state of your health now is the result of the life you have been leading the past five years. Nothing is as rewarding as feeling physically and emotionally in top form which also immensely improves your coping-strategy in stress situations.