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Wellness and Personal Development

Environmental, Social and Spiritual Strategies for Stress Relief

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

At this point, we've described various biological and psychological methods for obtaining stress relief. These methods all require people to actively modify their bodies or minds in order to obtain relief. There are other ways to pursue stress relief, apart from directly manipulating one's body or mind, however. People exist in the context of natural, social and spiritual environments, and sometimes changing the environment rather than the self can produce a transformative and stress-relieving effect.

Sensory Immersion

woman stretching on beachOne of the best ways to transform one's relationship with the environment, and in turn become transformed by the environment is to immerse oneself in natural sensory experiences. This means to intentionally take time to appreciate the smells, textures, colors and shapes, sounds and tastes around you. When confronted with the riot of colors in a wild landscape, the smell of flowers in a garden, the roar of an ocean beach, the taste of a home-cooked meal, the soft sensation of a kiss, etc. it becomes easier for you to regain a sense of awe for something greater than yourself. The artificial urgency of working and family life (unpleasant chores, deadlines, meetings, sales goals, etc.) falls away at least temporarily as you immerse yourself in such sensations, and the elusive solution to the meaning of life feels nearer at such times.

Sensory immersion works to relieve stress for a few different reasons. At a basic level, it functions as a distraction and a non-verbal interruption to the constant, judgmental and demanding chatter that characterizes most people's thoughts. Such judgmental and demanding thought patterns are a large part of what makes people become stressed out. Bypassing them with a direct sensory experience can help quiet the mind for a moment or two and in the process, temporarily bypass the internal demands the mind's chatter creates and enforces.

Intentional sensory immersion will also generally produce positive, happy sensations which can help offset the numerous painful and anxiety-ridden sensations that are typical of a stressed person's life. In other words, people can tip the balance of their lives in the direction of joy by exposing themselves to experiences that will make them feel happy and content.

While everyone can benefit from a non-verbal respite, sensory immersion can produce additional benefits for some other people. By enabling people to have a pleasant break from routine demands, sensory immersion can help people find the mental space necessary to examine the values that are presently governing their lives and decide if those need tweaking and changing so as to allow for a more humane and relaxed lifestyle. Sometimes people don't know how much pressure they are putting upon themselves until they get a break, and see how crazy it is to live that way by choice.

The deeper purpose to our recommendation that people pursue pleasing sensations and build them into their lives is that these experiences can help clarify values and motivations. The sense of awe which emerges from allowing themselves to experience and savor sensations helps people to become present in the current moment of their lives (rather than worried about the future or the past), and also helps them to understand in a very concrete and visceral way what it is that they value. When people regain their connection to their values, their perspective broadens and it becomes easier for them to mange their stress.

The idea of pursuing joyful sensations for the simple felt joy they provide may seem hedonistic and irresponsible to some people. To such puritanical critics, we can recommend a few repetitions of the proverb, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." We are not suggesting to people that they become actual hedonists and completely ignore life tasks, but rather to move in a direction that offsets a stifling overabundance of duty and responsibility.

There are innumerable simple ways to add some sensory joy to your life; every person will have a few thoughts on how to do this best. Some of the sensations you loved as a child are still available for you to re-experience, and many other things as well. When was the last time you caught snowflakes on your tongue or had an old-fashioned snowball fight? Or listened to a kitten purr? Or licked the filling out of a cookie? How long has it been since you watched the sun set or the moon rise? How long since you walked barefoot on newly mowed grass? You can start to make a list of the experiences and sensations that have previously created joy for you, jotting down new ideas as they come to mind. Then, start making regular appointments to re-experience these ideas and some of the good feelings they produce.