Slow Down: How Our Fast-Paced World Is Making Us Sick
Not so very long ago, humans -- like the rest of the animals and plants on earth -- moved through our natural cycles at nature's pace. Time was marked by the passing of the seasons, the life cycles of human, animal and plant life and the yet grander cycles of the moon and the other celestial bodies.
Homo sapiens, a late-appearing species in the long history of our unimaginably ancient planet and universe, evolved during the recent (as the universe views these things!) Pleistocene era, adapted for a life intimately connected with and expressive of our natural surroundings on the African savannah and beyond.
And this is how we lived for millennia.
In the last 150 years, however, the human relationship with time has radically changed. Some say the problems started earlier, with the development of agriculture or writing, but it was really the Industrial Revolution -- the rise of the Machine -- that put humans in thrall to mechanical processes and machine time. And the recent exponential speeding up into Cybertime has accelerated the process still further. Industrial time was bad enough (Charlie Chaplin did a wonderful job of visualizing that "cog in the wheel" feeling in his film "Modern Times") but Cybertime can be dizzyingly discombobulating for a Pleistocene primate.
And that's how many modern people feel -- completely frazzled and out of synch with our deepest selves.
The results of this disconnection from nature and nature's pace show up in therapists' and doctors' offices every day. Living under unnatural time pressures causes a myriad of psychological, social and physical ailments. Delinked from the natural rhythms of our bodies and the rest of the planet, we struggle with diminishing success to adapt to the strange mechanical and disembodied world we have created.
As a practicing psychotherapist and ecotherapist, when I see patients who are suffering from depression or anxiety I ask them to keep a time-journal in which they record the hours and minutes spent each day outside, as well as the hours spent inside in front of a screen. My clients are often shocked to realize how disassociated they have become from nature and our species' natural ways of living, and the effect this disconnection is having on their psyche. In fact, a 2007 study from the University of Essex shows that a daily "dose" of walking outside in nature can be as effective at treating mild to moderate depression as expensive antidepressant medications that can sometimes have negative side-effects.
Time poverty is now a recognized psychological and social stressor. In a speeded-up, highly complex society, there just isn't enough time for everything: our demanding jobs, our interlocking bureaucratic responsibilities (taxes, insurance, legal issues), our loved one, kids, our community (including the rest of nature), plus commuting and keeping up with traditional media and endless 24/7 online communications. Constantly rushing to keep up as we inevitably fall further behind, we find ourselves destroying not only our own health, but our habitat and the habitat of the people, plants and animals with whom we share the planet.
In my recently published book, Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind (Sierra Club Books, 2009) therapists and experts from many backgrounds discuss some of the ways that nature can help to heal problems like stress and anxiety. What suggestions can ecotherapists offer to help us slow down to a more natural pace of living? Here are a few simple things that can make a difference:
- Reconnect with place. We can learn to resist the constant rushing around and settle into and tend a beloved location, taking time to learn its secrets and hear its whisperings.
- Reconnect with companion and wild animals. Animals slow us down to our natural animal rhythms, which is why animal-assisted therapy works so well at lowering blood pressure and healing psychological ills of many kinds. The simple act of petting a cat or watching the birds flit through the trees is profoundly healing.
- Reconnect with plants. A simple pot on a windowsill slows us down to the pace of a seed, a seedling, a leaf and a flower. A tree on the street, if contemplated and touched, offers its blessings during a busy day.
- Reconnect with the cycles of human life. Instead of demanding that we remain in perpetual-teenager mode (the preferred state in our society, it seems), allowing ourselves to become true initiated adults and then elders honors the natural pace of human life rather than fighting it. Nature teaches us that seeds emerge, plants flourish, bloom, fruit and then wither and slip away -- valuable wisdom for our own lives when we encounter the inevitable transitions in our own and others' lives.
- Reconnect with our wild bodies. Untamed nature is to be found not only in far-away wilderness but in the wilds of our bloodstream, our digestive processes, our breath. Any practice that brings our attention back to our bodies is wilderness ecotherapy. Yoga and ecstatic dance offer release from the controlling modern ego and access to what ecopsychologists call "the ecological self." And once we reach peace with our animal bodies, our souls naturally open up to the larger Spirit in which we are embedded.
- Spend more time outdoors in wild nature. Most of us are indoors most of the time. Our bodies and souls cry out for long walks on a beach, contemplation in a forest or a few minutes in a nearby vacant lot near a stream. These times slow life down to a healing, natural pace.
Making just a few of these simple changes can radically shift how we feel. Ecopsychological research is now proving that reconnecting with nature and more natural living performs a host of psychological miracles, including lowering depression, improving our sense of well being, calming our anxieties, raising self-esteem and giving us a sense of belonging to the great whole of which we are a part.