Combating Stress with an Attitude of Gratitude and the Great Outdoors

relieving stress with nature

The late great Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once began a presentation by saying, “You will never see a pig develop an ulcer!” After getting everyone’s attention with this rather strange statement, he went on to reflect on how our self-awareness, superior intellect and emotional composition as human beings (when compared to that of animals) can sometimes backfire on us. While we are capable of astounding feats of creativity and scientific reasoning and can experience immense joy and contentment in our lives by willfully seeking it out, we can also succumb to the negativity we are exposed to and worry ourselves sick…even to death! Indeed, you’ll never encounter a pig having an anxiety induced panic attack or engaging in many of the self-destructive, unhealthy behaviors that we humans can often get sucked into as we deal with the stress in our lives.

The stress and chaos we experience can very easily steal away the spirit of peace that God desires for each of us. No matter the source, whether its work, family, finances, health, a personal struggle, or a combination thereof, stress is one of the most destructive forces on earth. There are numerous emotional and physical disorders that have been linked directly to stress including depression, insomnia, anxiety, heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, immune system disturbances, autoimmune diseases, viral disorders, and much more. In fact, when I worked full time in parish/church ministry, an alarming majority of funerals that I did for heart attack victims were for people in their 40’s and early 50’s, who were very successful in regard to their careers, but who ultimately perished from stress-induced health problems. Likewise, most funerals I did for suicide victims were in that same age group, who also succumbed to being fatally overwhelmed by stress.

Stress is one of the most destructive forces on earth: physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Stress is one of the most destructive forces on earth: physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

There are many ways to physically, mentally, and spiritually combat stress. But no matter what means one chooses to do so, the most important thing is to do it, and do it as often as possible, as your life and overall well-being literally depend on it!  At the top of the list for ways of combating stress, is developing an attitude of gratitude. As I often remind folks (including myself) for every one thing going wrong in life, there are at least a dozen things that are going right. It’s so very easy to let a handful of stressful situations totally blind us of the immense goodness that is all around us, which we almost sinfully take for granted each day. As is often the case, the things we chronically obsess and stress over and allow to destroy the peace that God desires for us, often don’t amount to a hill of beans when it’s all said and done. I’ve done a lot of work with hospice patients over the years, and I can tell you that from working with the dying, one learns very quickly and profoundly what really matters in life…and it’s not the shallow, fleeting, materialistic, narcissistic, self-gratifying nonsense that our modern culture tells us we must pursue at all costs, which so many unfortunately do…resulting in the destruction of their physical, emotional, and spiritual health and wellbeing.

Go Outside to get Inside your Soul

Being grateful for the love, immense beauty, and goodness present in our world and in our lives, even when times are tough and it’s hard to see, can almost instantly dispel the demons of fear, anxiety, and stress. The more positive, grateful thoughts we think, the more joy and peace we experience. When we actually take some time out of our busy lives to count our blessings…literally…we find a long, looooong list of things for which we can give thanks…many of which we probably haven’t expressed gratitude for, or even acknowledged, in a long, looooong time, if ever.

Finding the right time and place for searching and nourishing the soul, as well as cultivating a more positive, stress-free attitude can be challenging, however. It’s hard to find a quiet, distraction-free place to do such things, as we live in a very noisy world, where silence is generally not a welcomed guest. I’ve always found that there is no better place for experiencing the sacred silence that one needs for doing some serious housekeeping of the mind, body, and soul than in the great outdoors. After all, Jesus, along with all the other major religious figures of our world, as well as many of the most effective and productive political leaders throughout history, have all spent quality time immersed in the solitude of nature as a means of purifying and preparing themselves for their work/mission, as well as restoring themselves when the work was done.

The natural world is one of the best places to get rid of stress.
The natural world is one of the best places to get rid of stress.

It’s not so much just the peace and quiet of nature that helps one to decompress from stress though. The silence itself is a powerful catalyst for facing and processing things that perhaps have been a tremendously destructive force in one’s life. Silence, sometimes rather uncomfortably, opens one’s ears to hear a voice that one may have been desperately trying to consciously or subconsciously drown out or ignore for a long time: sometimes it’s the voice of reason or conscience coming from one’s self, and at other times it is the voice of God. Silence forces one to listen and to confront the demons of stress and destruction, it reveals the brutal honesty of one’s own weaknesses, the areas in one’s life that need attention, and even the reality of one’s own mortality. It’s not always a pleasant experience, to say the least. However, in listening to and confronting the voices that we hear loud and clear in silence, it becomes an incredible catalyst for positive change!

The Silent Voices of Change

Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, “We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature; the trees, flowers, and grass grows in silence; see the stars, the moon, and the sun, how they move in silence. We need silence to be able to touch souls.” Naturally, learning and appreciating the discipline of silence can be difficult. And, even getting to that point of experiencing the healing power of silence is a process in and of itself. It involves patiently emptying our minds of distracting thoughts, which can’t be done in a few fleeting moments. It’s kind of like running water through a set of pipes that haven’t been used for a while. First, nothing comes out. Then, some rusty brown stuff gushes forth, followed by some less-rusty brown stuff, and eventually, after things have been flushed out, the pure, clean, healthy, fresh water re-emerges. The process of entering into a true prayerful silence is exactly the same. Our minds and souls have to be flushed out for our hearts to stay fresh and pure with the blessedness which God desires for us to experience in order to bear fruit in our lives.

To clarify this process, allow me to offer an example from my own experience. On most occasions when I head to the woods or waters, I have a camera, fishing rod, bow, trekking pole, or another piece of equipment with me that essentially defines the purpose of that particular outing. While the underlying reason for my time spent in the outdoors is almost always to seek the immense peace and clarity that I find there, and all that gear is ultimately a catalyst to do so, those things often end up being a huge distraction, and sometimes even a cussing-fit inducing source of frustration! However, when I make the conscious decision to leave all that junk behind and head out to the wilderness, or even a not-so-wild area of nature, with only the bare essentials of survival (if an emergency should arise) something quite different happens.

Upon taking just the first few steps into the natural world, I notice an almost instantaneous, overwhelming feeling of tranquility and relief, as if taking off a heavy backpack that I’ve been carrying for days. The tightness in my chest and shoulders loosen immediately. My soul is cleansed, like the surrounding leaves that have been washed by the gentle wind and rain. I unconsciously exhale a massive breath of stress-filled air from my lungs. In a matter of mere minutes, I feel like I’ve been worked over by the skilled hands of a massage therapist. As time passes though, and I enter deeper into the solace of nature, I begin to notice a flow of constant, distracting thoughts…much like the ‘rusty water’, I described in the previous paragraphs.

The silence one experiences in nature is a means of great soul searching and healing.
The silence one experiences in nature is a means of great soul searching and healing.

Many theologians have said that the distractions we experience, especially in prayer, come from one of three sources: God, ourselves, or the devil. No matter how you define or label the sources of distracting thoughts, it is true that they are positive, neutral, or negative. When I experience that flow of random, distracting thoughts while out in nature, they are usually at first neutral: “What am I going to eat for dinner? That movie sure was lousy the other evening. I need to change the oil in my Jeep. I wish my dog would stop barking at the neighbor’s kids. Look at that cool rock! Etc., etc.” After all the random, neutral thoughts have run their course, I next seem to get those negative thoughts: “God doesn’t hear me. Why am I wasting my time? God doesn’t love me. He’ll never forgive me. I might as well give up. My life is a mistake. Everyone hates me. I can’t do anything right. I’m a failure. Etc., etc.” Such thoughts come when we are most vulnerable and they appear to be very convincing. But, do not be deceived! Whether one wants to label such destructive, negative thoughts as coming from the “devil” or not, the fact of the matter is that they are indeed evil! They are the thoughts that if dwelled on and entertained too long can lead us to ruin. But hey, don’t feel bad, the same happened to Jesus while fasting in the desert for 40 days before beginning his ministry. When such negative thoughts come, cease and desist immediately! They are lies!

Finally, after letting all that rusty, mixed-up ‘water’ flow out of our minds and hearts, we begin to experience the fruit and real purpose of silence…we begin to hear and deal with those thoughts that have the potential for great good: “I really need to be a better spouse. I need to have that difficult talk with my son. I need to ask my sibling for forgiveness. I need to treat my employees or coworkers better. I have got to break that bad habit once and for all. I desperately need to change jobs. I think I’ll write a book. Etc., etc.” These are the kinds of positive “distractions” that come from God. These are the kinds of thoughts that one should spend time meditating on, journaling about, and ultimately take action on. These are questions and suggestions that spur us on to growth and development as human beings, and in the end, alleviates our stress, fills us with gratitude, and envelops us with the peace and contentment we are after.


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