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Elan Vitae

magazine

  • Michael Scholtz

FRACTALS OF RESTORATION




All living things need restoration. Rest is a part of the natural ebb and flow of our planet. And winter is the perfect time to contemplate the importance and impact of taking a rest. In cold winter months the molecules in the air move more slowly. Much of the Earth’s flora becomes still as photosynthesis decelerates and growth ceases, allowing plants to fall into dormancy and await the first signs of spring. Some animals slow their activities to conserve energy and reduce the need to hunt or forage for food, while others take an “all-in” approach, spending the winter months in hibernation.


Look closer and you will find smaller examples of renewal. At night the Earth cools. Tree branches droop. Leaves of trees and flower close. Plant respiration slows while new cells are formed, and enzymes are topped off. This behavior resembles sleeping, a behavior seen in almost every other living thing on Earth. In fact, mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, and even insects are known to fall asleep. And each adapts their rest habits to their individual needs. Sleep can come at night or in the heat of the day, and in cat naps or deep slumber according to what is best for the sleeper.

Still, there is more to these cycles than rest. Rejuvenation is only the counterpoint, the other side of the energy see-saw that life necessitates. Rebuilding stores and capacities allows living things to work, hunt, gather, pollenate, socialize, collaborate, grow, learn, and play.


As I thought about the myriad of recovery cycles displayed in nature, I was struck by how they resemble fractals, those recurring patterns in nature that remain constant even as the structure itself gets ever more tiny. You can see this repeating pattern in our respiratory and circulatory systems and in river systems, succulents, ocean waves, pinecones, snowflakes, and of course trees. In fact, as I turned this idea over in my mind, I began to see a tree as the perfect metaphor for how you might view your own needs for recovery.


The Tree Trunk

Metaphorically, the trunk of your recovery tree is a season of rest. Winter provides a natural time for this reset to occur. It is a season to pause and reflect and heal. Longer nights give you the chance to get more sleep. If you have a less demanding work schedule, you can take a break and work fewer hours with less pressure. There may be chances to connect with loved ones, or to seek solitude and quiet, or to curl up with a fire and a good book. Take on less. Say no more. Save your precious energy and time for those people and actions that mean the most.

Of course, another way to strengthen the trunk of your recovery tree is to take an extended vacation. More than just a day or two off, this is a time that you truly unplug from work and other responsibilities and focus on taking meaningful downtime. The intention of this time off is to return feeling more emotionally relaxed, mentally sharp, and physically energetic.


And the outside world is a powerful ally for achieving this sort of recovery. Scientists who study the impact of various “doses” of nature point to the tremendous benefits of going to a wild natural spot with zero urban intrusion for several days at a time. Studies of people who take a 3-day hiking or rafting excursion, with no electronic contact with the outside world reveal that these experiences lower levels of anxiety and depression and increase mental acuity and problem-solving ability.


Limbs


Expanding your metaphorical recovery tree, the larger limbs represent a break that you give yourself each month. Taking a long weekend can impact your feelings of restoration dramatically. And the definition of what represents “long” is up for individual interpretation.


For example, you might give yourself the gift a break from work, and screens, and chores from the end of the workday Friday until you go back to the office on Monday morning. Do only the activities that give you pleasure and rebuild your physical and psychological resources. If your schedule and resources allow, you might also take a Monday off and take an extended weekend trip to a favorite location.

And of course, no matter what you plan for your long weekend, the more nature you can include, the more impact you’ll feel on your overall restoration. The recommendation is at least a weekend per month in a restful natural area with minimal urban intrusions, such as a national park or a secluded area with forest, lakes, or rivers.


Branches


Your recovery tree branches are the ways in which you rest each week. Free time after work in the evenings or on the weekend fits here. You might work in your garden, read, play games, exercise, or settle into a deep conversation with a friend. And if you’re looking for the added boost from nature, experts say a total of 2 hours per week in a city or state park large enough to have minimal exposure to urban scenes or sounds will suffice.


Twigs


Finally, you arrive at the small twigs. These smallest of branches are where the leaves grow. It’s on this level of your recovery tree that you’re experiencing everyday life. Your daily work/rest balance comes into sharp relief. Taking a pause from your computer, and your work chair, several times per day has been connected to lower mortality risk. Pauses to allow your mind to rest from the constant bombardment of stimuli add up to a much less stress at the end of your week. And, of course, a little “nearby nature” can give you a bit of an edge. From a walk in your own backyard, to sitting on your porch, or even looking out your window at trees and flowers, about 20-30 minutes per day will lift your spirits and even boost your immunity.


Winter often seems a little bit quieter than the rest of the year. Perhaps it’s the combination of more dark hours, a bit more time off, and people retreating indoors. And for those fortunate enough to experience it, the pillowy hush of snowfall is a tranquil addition. This winter season, take a moment to think about your personal recovery tree and how you can help it flourish in the coming months. And when winter returns this time next year, you might find you have a bit more spring in your step.




References:

Stamatakis E, Gale J, Bauman A, Ekelund U, Hamer M, Ding D. Sitting Time, Physical Activity, and Risk of Mortality in Adults. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2019 Apr 30;73(16):2062-2072.


Mandelbrot, B. & Wheeler, J. (1983). The Fractal Geometry of Nature.American Journal of Physics, 51, 286.


Park, B. J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T. & Miyazaki, Y. The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environ Health Prev 15, 18–26 (2010).


White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J. et al. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci Rep 9, 7730 (2019).


The Comfort Crisis. Easter, M. 2021. --- Hunter, MC. Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers. Frontiers in Psychology. 2019.

The Comfort Crisis. Easter, M. 2021. ---Liisa Tyrväinen, Ojala A., Korpela K., Lanki T., Tsunetsugu Y., and Kagawa T. The influence of urban green environments on stress relief measures: A field experiment. Journal of Environmental Psychology. June 2014.

Photo credit: Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski from Pixabay



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