A Walk in The Woods: My Natural Anti-Depressant

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I know it is time to head into the woods when I wake up thinking about being surrounded by nature and those thoughts stay with me through my work day. Yesterday was one of those days. So when my workday ended, I did just that. I headed outdoors for a hike in the woods with my water, walking stick, camera, and a notebook as I always do.

When I go into the woods, I go to clear my mind, talk to God (or myself, the animals, and the spirit world all around me), and to be surprised by what wildlife I see. I also go to move my body which I know is my personal calming and healing medicine. Yesterday, I was blessed with a cloudless deep blue sky, high near 80 degrees, and a gentle breeze – the perfect day to take a long walk.

After the first mile, I knew I’d made the right decision. My senses were alert with the aliveness of the woods. I was in awe at how much green there was, even though it had only been two days since my last hike. The view through the woods is now filled in with the fullness of leaves on the trees and undergrowth. My sense of smell sharpened as everywhere along the edges of openings, berry bushes are in full bloom so every few steps their sweet fragrance promises a great berry harvest in August. Mingling with the fragrant blossoms, the smell of the earth reminded me with each step how much I am part of this natural and wild world. Listening to the birds overhead and chipmunks scurrying along as the dominant sounds along with my own breath and footfall as I walked uphill. A special treat was noticing a Luna Moth gracefully flying overhead — a rare and breathtaking sight!

The first mile is always the most challenging. My legs, breath, and body work hard before gradually settling into a rhythm. More importantly my mental chatter begins to slow down from my workday self-talk of to do lists, questions, worries, and concerns. Each step feels as though I am unraveling those thoughts and setting them along the path. With delight I begin to notice what is around me such as the huge mushrooms growing on a nearby tree trunk, a hawk flying from branch to branch just above me, or a turkey stepping through the woods. Wonder fills me.

I like to spend the first mile or two finding my rhythm as my legs warm into the movement and my senses open to beauty. Though sometimes painful on a steep uphill, I savor the transition from an active mind to an active physical experience. When I reach the top of the first long hill I already feel lighter, freer, and calmer. For a short while I slow my pace, allowing my cells to open even more to the magnificence of what surrounds me.

I continue one step in front of the other until I reach the point where I feel it is time to turn back toward home or (if it’s a day off) keep going to walk a while on the Appalachian Trail on the long loop that also takes me home. Once home, I relish my quiet mind and my body buzzing from the longer-than-usual hike. I am now ready to do what’s next — feed my animals, water my garden, and make dinner.

Hiking in the woods is my regular and drug free anti-depressant. A mountain of research supports my choice — people who exercise more and spend time outdoors experience less anxiety and depression. Both the physical movement and the Vitamin D our body produces from exposure to sunlight are prescriptions for greater happiness and calm. Of course, there are also the physical benefits of improved fitness, a stronger immune system, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure, and weight loss. When we exercise regularly, we often make healthier food choices to support feeling good.

For me, the calm, the mental clarity, the meditation in motion walk, feeling aligned with the natural world, and gratitude for being a part of it all are enough to keep me putting on my hiking shoes as often as possible.

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Canine Massage – After the Event Notes

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Here is a follow up from my Canine Massage workshops at Camp Unleashed over Memorial Day weekend — which is very exciting, I might add! So please keep reading!

Let me begin by saying that Saturday night was HOT, the room was even hotter and there wasn’t a breath of air moving! The people were uncomfortable and the dogs were panting endlessly from the heat — I walked around the room giving the dogs pieces of ice, which they were grateful for. On the second night, Sunday, the temperatures were more bearable as it had rained earlier in the day.

I’ve been teaching these canine massage workshops for more than ten years. Each one is different — many of the people are now regular attendees of Camp Unleashed and always with new faces wanting a weekend devoted to everything dog. For our canine massage workshops, we set guidelines — when the workshop begins the door is closed and everyone is asked to remain in the room until the end of the workshop. We set up these guidelines because a room full of dogs become alert, bark, and the calm in the room is disrupted whenever someone enters or leaves the room during the workshop. At least, that’s how it’s always been until now.

This weekend, I added a new element to the class — eye contact with our dogs and teaching about how oxytocin (known as the cuddle hormone) works in our bodies and contributes to both our health and leads to a calm-and-connect response in both people and our animals. I’ve taught about the role of oxytocin before in much less depth. This time I drew from the work of Barbara Fredrickson, in her book ‘Love 2.0’., where she talks about the importance of eye contact in releasing oxytocin and creating Positive Resonance in each person as eye contact is held. She also presents the science that supports creating micro-moments of love throughout our day when we experience Positive Resonance through eye contact. Her work is important and foundational in the science of Positive Psychology and positive emotions (any of you who know me, know that I am committed to the study and practice of Positive Psychology).

I was excited to present this new material in the workshop even though I was a bit uncertain of the outcome since much of the research is between people and other people or animals and other animals. I was taking a leap to do the exercise between people and their dogs. Now that the weekend is finished, I am even more excited that I presented the eye contact practice and the oxytocin connection that led to the calm-and-connect response.

This was the first weekend, in years, that people needed to leave during the workshop because of the heat. Here is the important observation: It was also the first weekend that when people and their dog needed to leave, the room didn’t go ‘crazy’ with excited dogs becoming alert, barking, and disrupting the calm in the room created by learning and doing massage!

I believe it is because of the eye contact we practiced with our dogs at the beginning of the workshop and returned to it throughout the massage. Through the eye contact, oxytocin was released in both the dogs and their people which led to a calm-and-connect response in the room. I felt myself participating in a love fest being witness to a strengthened bond between people and their dogs! Because of the calm-and-connect atmosphere, when someone needed to leave, the dogs did not need to become excited into a stress response that is closer to the fight-or-flight response we are all familiar with.
I was amazed at the difference in the room! Because I led the workshop both Saturday and Sunday night, I was even more convinced when I witnessed the same calm-and-connect atmosphere in the room when someone needed to leave then as well.

Of course, now I wish I had another canine massage workshop to lead this weekend. I’ll need to wait until the end of the summer to try it again. And, I will do it again! In the meantime, I am taking the time to make eye contact with my own dog (and cat) and loving the experience of our positive resonance. I’d love to hear your thoughts as you might be inspired to try out this exercise with your own animals.