Is the stress of 24-hour COVID-19 news coverage taking a toll?
Taking a walk outside, playing with pets, puttering around in a garden — this is all good medicine in times of uncertainty and stress, according to a local expert.
“It’s called bio-filia. Bio means nature; filia is love," said Dr. Jean Larson. "The flip side is bio-phobia, or fear of nature, which is what we feel if a snake suddenly drops down in front of us, or if we see a spider."
Jean Larson is founder and manager of the Nature-Based Therapeutics Services Program at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen.
The biophilia hypothesis suggests that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life.
In one study, researchers put images of spiders on toy blocks which they presented to children. Most of the children showed fear, demonstrating that there is innate knowledge humans have acquired over time. Biophobia is essential to human survival, Larson said. In the distant past, our ancestors learned that spiders bite, and that information was passed on, collectively over time.
The same applies to our love of nature, Larson said. “We learned that being near water feels good. Walking outdoors, with trees and plants feels good. That information was acquired over time and imprinted in our brains."
Larson used this example. “Think about time as a clock with 24 hours,” Larson said. “At 23 hours and 56 minutes, that’s when the human species emerged. We emerged in the last three seconds and, as humans on the planet, we’ve done so much work in the last three seconds as we’ve advanced our quality of life to disassociate from nature. But biologically, we still react as animals evolving in nature.
“For example. You’re sitting at your computer and you get an email from your boss. You immediately get a sinking feeling, which is the same kind of cortisol flood you’d get if a snake dropped in front of your face. In our contemporary times, we’re disconnected from nature, but we’re responding as if we’re still back in the primitive world. We’re in dissonance. Right now, the coronavirus is our biophobia. Our antidote is to be in nature.”
Larson said she’s always been aware of the healing powers of nature in her own life.
“I have a learning disability. Back in the day, I was in special education for dyslexia. I had trouble with school. But I knew being in nature helped me. I grew up in Lake Elmo, where I had a horse and my folks just knew being in nature and with animals did me good.
“My learning is very experiential, and nature lends itself to that,” Larson said. “For me, learning is very tactile, because reading was difficult. The idea of being physically involved with the learning process made a difference for me. Instead of listening to a bird call on the computer indoors, I learn from being outdoors, seeing the bird, hearing the bird.
“It’s a different way to help students, especially those with learning disabilities,” Larson said. “Active learning is restorative to the learning process.” In college, Larson wrote her own degree combining studies in sociology, psychology and biology. She earned a Ph.D. and was twice a Fulbright Scholar.
“I wanted to bring out the healing benefits of nature, especially for those with intellectual cognitive disabilities. I had worked in the field and had powerful experiences with folks out in nature.”
In 1992, then-Arboretum director Peter Olin asked Larson to create a program at the Arboretum. “I was originally hired to develop and start the horticultural therapy program. It turned out that it was just the tip of the iceberg,” Larson said. She’s been with the Arboretum for 28 years.
She expanded the programming, in partnership with the Bakken Center for Integrated Healing to teach courses in nature-based therapies like horticulture, wilderness, animal-assisted therapy and equine-therapy. Her students come from all disciplines — from math to music.
She initiated the Arboretum’s Sensory Garden in 1996. Larson wanted “to bring a little bit of the Arboretum all in one place for people unable to ambulante all the way through the Arboretum.” It’s located below the Wilson Rose Garden.
“Plants were chosen for their sensory magnification and textures,” Larson said. “The fragrances of some plants and flowers change throughout the day. Some plantings like tall grasses make sounds in the breeze.”
The sensory wall backing the garden provides different textures as does the variety of pavers and containers that give visitors ideas on how to organize a raised garden. Under the grass, are specially designed tiles that allow the grass to grow through honeycomb spaces, providing a stable surface for wheelchairs.
Larson also initiated the Arboretum’s Dog Commons, which opened to Arboretum members and their dogs in June 2016.
“We know there are health benefits from spending time with our pets,” Larson said. “Over the years, we’ve had numerous members interested in being able to enjoy the Arboretum and bring their dogs. We addressed that by creating the Dog Commons to the west of the Arboretum grounds.”
The Dog Commons is 65 acres offering two on-leash trails of one-mile and a half-mile. It requires an add-on to a membership, and is open from April to November. (The Arboretum remains closed until further notice due to the pandemic.)
“It is an intentional part of the nature therapy programming,” Larson said, “having an entire experience of being outside with your dog, shifting the mindset from walking your dog as a chore to walking your dog as a mindful, restorative experience. You are investing in yourself by restoring your own health and well being as well as bonding with your dog.”
“Being physically active now helps lower stress, provides you with fresh air, and vitamin D,” Larson said. “It also helps with your sleep. Natural light helps our bodies sync our circadian rhythms. Give yourself permission to go outside and restore yourself to help you deal with whatever the pandemic is bringing to us. As long as you’re keeping yourself six feet apart from others. Biking is another good one. Even going out and sitting outside. it doesn’t take much to have restorative effects. Turn off the computer, and turn off the brain.”
Still feeling stressed?
“Think about how much time you’ve spent being stressed,” Larson said. “Ask yourself, ‘What am I saying "no" to in the meaning and value of my life?' What matters most to you? Take that energy, because we only have so much emotional bandwidth and ask yourself, ‘What are my values, my prevailing principles?' It’s probably not COVID-19. It’s family, friends, animals. Interrupt that process. Ask yourself, ‘Really, do I need to worry?’ Go outside. Nature will restore you physically, mentally and emotionally.”