A respite in nature is a well-known and scientifically validated de-stressor. But, how can you infuse yourself with nature’s power if you’re too sick to spend much time outside? To answer that need, clinical oncology social worker Sydney Siegel, MSW, Simms/Mann UCLA Center of Integrative Oncology, developed a unique workshop called Tree of Life Fulfillment.
“We blend imagination with mindfulness and the expressive arts to help patients experience the emotional and physical benefits of nature” explains Siegel. “After the workshop, patients report feeling more relaxed, less pain, and better able to cope with their medical situation.”
Carol Mason is one such patient. She had recently received news that the chemotherapy and its accompanying nausea, vomiting, and intense fatigue she had been enduring for months to treat her metastatic breast cancer wasn’t working. Mason, 70, needed to quiet her mind and her fears, and marshal her energy for the road ahead. She was open to anything that would give her a vacation from her current nightmare. That’s when she heard about this new approach to traditional mindfulness training.
During a Tree of Life Fulfillment workshop, Siegel takes participants through a guided meditation that asks them to envision themselves as a tree going through life. She explains that there will be storms. Trees will lose leaves and perhaps some branches. “It’s a metaphor that mirrors the loss, pain, and grief of the human experience,” says Siegel. “For everyone it’s something different, but we have to make room to expect and grieve losses.” One of the main takeaways of the workshop is the focus on roots, which help keep trees grounded and strong. “Our roots are our personal values,” explains Siegel. “Core values help us feel resilient. And it’s what remains when other things are lost.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
- Closely observe trees outside or from a window. Note the shapes, colors, and textures.
- Define your values and imagine them as roots that ground you and give you strength to persevere.
- Try to accept the inevitability of storms as well as to appreciate spring flowers as symbolic of your strengths.
Like many others who have taken the workshop, Mason reports that imagining a forest and drawing trees helped her feel more at ease.
“I felt the dense woods’ strength and stability. It’s just what I needed to counter the vulnerability my cancer has imposed on me,” she says. “I also sensed a timelessness in the tree’s slow-moving life force that calmed my anxiety about my future.”
A Scientific Look at Nature
Researchers have long investigated forests as therapeutic landscapes and have found that just a few hours spent with nature has numerous health benefits. For example, a study of a quarter-million Miami-Dade County Medicare beneficiaries showed that higher levels of neighborhood greenness, including trees, grass and other vegetation, were linked to a significant reduction in the rate of chronic illnesses, particularly in low- to-middle-income neighborhoods. Study findings, based on health data reports, revealed that higher levels of greenness are associated with a significantly lower chronic disease risk, including diabetes, hypertension, and lipid disorders. The findings were published online April 6, 2016, in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
University of Louisville researchers investigated the impact of neighborhood greenspaces on 408 people of varying ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic levels. Their study is noteworthy for collecting participants’ blood and urine samples then assessing for risk of cardiovascular disease. They reported that living in areas with more green vegetation was associated with:
- lower urinary levels of epinephrine, indicating lower levels of stress
- lower urinary levels of F2-isoprostane, indicating better health (less oxidative stress)
- higher capacity to repair blood vessels.
The study appeared in the Journal of the American Heart Association in December 2018.
A Living Metaphor
Relating your life to the experience of trees is a metaphor that parallels the human condition. Trees reflect the whole of the life—absorbing sun and rain; experiencing new leaves as well as broken branches. “Thinking about yourself as a tree can be very therapeutic,” Siegel says. “It may sound silly at first, but patients find the idea of rooting themselves with values can help them find calm and strength.” The next workshop is planned for April 25. For more information go to www.simmsmanncenter.ucla.edu/.
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