Nature Connection: Coping mechanisms

By: Mary Richmond

Mary Richmond photo

If you’re a regular reader you know I cope with stress best when I can get outside and give myself some time and space to let things settle and think things through. Others may pour a cup of tea or coffee and read a chapter of inspirational prose or poetry while others put on their running shoes. We all want to get away from the source of our angst and have a chance to regroup.

Lately, there have been many causes for stress on a daily basis. This has been going on for months and we are tired, frazzled, exhausted and maybe even confused. In addition to dealing with an ongoing threat of illness we are regularly witnessing anger, lies, accusations, denials, and confrontations. This is tough on our nervous systems and our fight or flight reflexes are on constant high alert.

Nature deals with stress all the time. It is interesting to take note of the ways she does that. Many animals and birds are under constant threat of death and yet they carry on with remarkable calmness. It’s not that they are unaware. Careful observation will attest to the fact that they are alert and watchful, even while carrying on the most mundane tasks of their daily lives.

If you are out and about on woodland trails at any time of year, you may have noticed that it is difficult to see many animals and birds if you are walking noisily, walking with a dog, or talking. Without thinking about it, you’ve sent out the message that possible danger is afoot, and nature has taken notice. Nature is there. It’s just not letting you see it.

Many birds and animals cope with danger by immediately stopping what they are doing and staying very still. Most of them are camouflaged, blending into their surroundings. Predators look for movement. Knowing this, prey will stand still as long as it can. The predator also stands motionless to take in its surroundings, making it hard to see as well. If a predator begins moving closer to the prey, the prey will take off, hoping to outrun or at least outsmart the predator.

If you, too, stop moving you may see nature begin to stir around you. Deer may appear. Rabbits, squirrels and even mice may begin to venture about once again. Foxes, weasels, and other small mammals may also resume their activity, sometimes surprisingly close to you.

Many woodland birds aren’t bothered by humans, but some will become quiet and stealthy especially around nesting season. They don’t want to give away the locations of their nests and some will actively try to lure you in the wrong direction.

This inclination to stop their activity and blend into the background isn’t unique to mammals and birds. Snakes, frogs, dragonflies and even fish and crabs do it. Plants don’t budge from where they’re planted, but they react to stress by slowing or stopping their own growth. They may produce more seeds, drop leaves early or curl up the ones they retain. Some stop photosynthesizing earlier than usual, conserving energy anyway they can.

We humans like to pretend we’re not part of the natural world, but we are. Anyone who has felt the hair on the back of their neck stand up or felt goosebumps rise in scary situations is responding the same way many animals do with the same sorts of stimuli. We are pretty sturdy by nature but like our wild relatives, our instinctive responses are strong. Stress is a natural reaction to fearful or unfamiliar stimuli. It can usually be dealt with in the same gradual and easy ways we all learned as kids. These days, we are overstimulated from every direction and for long periods of time. Uncertainty is the word of the year and not knowing what to expect or how to react or respond in a helpful and productive way is weighing on our psyches.

As we navigate our way deeper into the fall, we may feel our stress levels rising even more. We can get angry and yell at the TV or the people that zoom into the parking space we felt was ours but in the end, that probably only raises our own blood pressure.

Perhaps we should take a page from nature’s big book of survival tips. Stop, look, listen, and proceed with caution. Run like heck if we have to, but first, take a good look around us and stay still. There are worse things than blending into the trees and pine needles. This doesn’t mean we can’t be alert and observant. All good deer will tell us that’s how they survive hunting season. Just take a minute or two to assess the situation. Be quiet. Take stock of our options before we act. Focus on a positive outcome.