How Connecting to Nature Helps Chronic Pain
Keegan, my husband with AS, always has loved being outside. When I first met Keegan, I was surprised at the 30-minute ride in the hills of southeastern Ohio resulting in a very rural home. His family lives on a few acres at the top of a hill near Zaleski State Forest in Ohio. It's a beautiful part of the country, and to this day Keegan continues many of the traditions of connecting to nature that he started as a kid.
Going outside is like a meditation
I asked Keegan tonight whether being outside did anything for his ankylosing spondylitis and chronic pain. Immediately he responded, "Oh yes." He described how going outside, even just for 10 to 15 minutes allows him to connect his mind and body back to the present moment. Feeling the breeze on his skin, feeling the heat of the sun, hearing cars go by. They all help him remember to connect mind and body.
Nature helps us de-stress and move, which often helps pain
I couldn't help myself but Google whether there could be some kind of connection between nature, stress, meditation, and chronic pain. A news article from 20171 talks about the physical and mental benefits of walking or exercising in the woods. Not only is it a great place to find a physical activity appropriate for the individual, but also a way to de-stress including detaching ourselves from our phones.
I tend to forget how bad the cell service is at Keegan's house. However, it is a benefit of our wellbeing when we visit. I rarely check my phone, and we often go on long walks down the dirt roads through the hills.
That said, sometimes walking isn't always the easiest for Keegan, particularly during flare-ups. Running, skiing, etc. has never been in Keegan's toolbox, but when he's healthy, walking is our go-to to get physical. Even during flare-ups, we find other ways for him to get outside. Now that our daughter is a toddler, we've set up some toys and a slide for her. So even when Keegan is watching her, he can enjoy it while being outside.
Stress may cause pain to worsen
The other benefit to de-stressing may be the link to pain. I found a recent article 2 describing how doctors are unsure of the connection, but more and more evidence is finding that pain management and stress management go hand in hand. Neck, shoulder, and back pain all could stem from muscle tightness, which can directly benefit from stress reduction. Other research is looking into whether anxiety and the "flight or fight" response worsens pain. Researchers are exploring if our nervous system may continue pain when it's in a more "reactive" mode when we're anxious.3
All this to say that for us, finding a connection to the outdoors has helped our family. We can play together, walk together, and become more present. Anecdotally, I know Keegan finds both less pain and stress when we spend more time outside. This year, we've devoted a little time and effort to redo our back yard. We've bought zero-gravity chairs, planted a vegetable garden, and hung up some nice string lights. When our daughter is napping, we'll recline our chairs and just spend a quick 10 minutes enjoying the sun. Even for someone without a chronic illness or pain, it helps bring me back to the present moment and enjoy more time with my family.
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