Let’s talk about stress.
We know too much stress is bad for us in all sorts of ways and results in all sorts of unhealthy ailments. The treatment recommendations to deal with it vary from breathing exercises to prescriptions to my personal favorite, spending time outside.
Let’s dig into that last one a bit more, shall we?
Recently, I came across some research findings that I found incredibly interesting and that support what us outdoor types already know: We are biologically and physiologically hardwired for contact with the natural world.
The research was by Dr. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and award-winning tenured professor at Stanford. One of his specialties is vision and its connection to the brain and its various functions.
The gist: what and how you see affects your health.
When you experience stress, your heart rate increases, your breathing quickens, your eyes dilate, and your vision sharpens. That sharpening of vision triggers the sympathetic nervous system. Neurons activate and dump a bunch of transmitters and chemicals that make you feel agitated and want to move. Fast.
This worked great for humans way back in the day when we had to survive sabertooth tigers. Not so much when the trigger is an irritating social media post.
But what’s interesting is that the physiology — the quickened breathing and “tunnel vision” effects — are two-way streets. In other words, since we can control, at least to some degree, our vision and breath, we can counteract the biological stress response.
This is where I had an “Aha!” moment.
Some time ago I read research about how awe-inspiring scenery had measurable effects on health outcomes, including those affiliated with stress. The study found people who experienced awe-inspiring scenes such as those from mountains or hilltops overlooking wide open spaces had improved blood pressure, increased immune function, and other measurable health benefits. But, as is usually the case with scientific research, it didn’t really get into why such effects occurred. It simply presented the findings, the data, and the usual “more research is needed” disclaimer.
Then I stumbled across this Huberman research, and it clicked. It has to do with our vision and how our visual system is tied so closely to our brain and nervous system. What we see affects our health.
Our eyes, according to Huberman, are actually extensions of our brain. They’re not just connected closely to it. In the first trimester of development, they get pushed out from the skull then connect back to the brain inside. They’re literally the external part of our central nervous system, designed to register external events and trigger the system to respond accordingly.
I’ve heard of people who wear their hearts on their sleeves, but I didn’t know we wore bits of brain right on our faces.
We’ve all probably heard of breathing exercises designed to calm us down when we’re stressed. Huberman’s research points to the same effects using our vision. By intentionally widening our view, we can trigger some of the same calming responses as deep breathing.
That must be where the awe-inspiring scenery effects come from in that other research I read. When you look at a vast expanse of scenery, you can’t help but open your visual field. When something inspires awe, we say “it takes our breath away,” right? It’s all tied together. We see a great view, our vision widens, our breath slows, gets deeper. We might even take in a big gasp and let it out real slow, uttering “wow!” in the process. Sounds an awful lot like a breathing exercise.
Internally, our brain responds by releasing chemicals that calm us down, reduce our blood pressure, improve our immune function. It’s basically the complete opposite of what it does when we stick our noses in our phones or stare at the TV, narrowing our vision, shortening our breath, and looking at things that trigger the release of the stress chemicals designed to save us from an attacking sabertooth … or politician.
Maybe we should start staging political debates on hilltops overlooking scenic valleys. Or alongside picturesque streams. Or in the middle of majestic mountain ranges. Then maybe when the politicians don’t answer the questions, we leave them there.
See, I’ve been staring at this screen too long. Getting grumpy.
Our vision affects our health.
So put the phone down, shut off the TV and go look at the wide world outside instead of the world wide web inside. Go out, take a few deep breaths and open your vision wide. Take it all in. Enjoy it. Better yet, go somewhere with truly spectacular scenery. Experience an awe-inspiring view and notice how it makes you feel.
Our eyes are where our central nervous system meets the external world. Go outside and give your system something to be less nervous about.
Chris Lee is executive director of Des Moines County Conservation. Follow his blog at OutdoorExecutiveDad.com.
Let’s talk about stress.