Research has shown that prolonged exposure to stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide. Chronic stress has been called “the silent killer” and can lead to high blood pressure, chest pain, an irregular heartbeat, and an increased risk for strokes. It also can lead to hair loss, weight gain, or weight loss. It affects sleep, causes headaches, and is related to 90 percent of all doctor visits. Over time, our reaction to prolonged stress can turn into serious disorders that include severe depression, skin disorders, alcoholism, substance abuse, uncontrollable anger, heartburn, and other stomach and digestive syndromes, diabetes, sexual dysfunction, and many of the so-called “lifestyle” disorders and symptoms.1 Prolonged exposure to passive stress (where we are exposed to stressors but cannot respond to them) can weaken the immune system and allow other diseases to develop more easily.2 Sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? Here are two simple ways to control the negative effects of stress.

Spend time outdoors in nature

Studies have shown that being in a natural, outdoor environment is one of the best ways to improve health and reduce stress. When we are surrounded by plants, trees, soothing sounds, and fresh air, we experience a mood lift, are better able to think positively, and are able to experience feelings of internal calm. How does this happen?

• Serotonin levels are increased and mood is enhanced. In one study, runners who regularly exercised outdoors were less anxious and depressed than people who ran indoors on a treadmill, and they had higher levels of post-exercise endorphins—the feel-good brain chemicals associated with “runner’s high.” 

• Exposure to nature reduces pain and illness and speeds recovery time. In a study of post-operative patients, those who had rooms overlooking natural surroundings needed less pain medication and spent fewer days in the hospital than those who looked out onto a brick wall.

• The scent of grass has a significant calming effect on out-of-control drivers.

An attitude of gratitude

We know that gratitude has a positive effect on our health and well-being. How can we integrate thankfulness into our daily lives?

• Practice thoughts of gratitude. In a study, people who were deliberately thankful appeared to be more optimistic, pleased with their lives, and connected to others when compared to those who reflected on daily hassles or on everyday events. The traits mentioned above, such as optimism and a connection with others, are often found in people who are resilient.3

• As you grow in years, learn to thank God for everything—the good and the bad. Sometimes God’s best gifts come wrapped in unattractive paper. One study conducted on older adults concluded that the effects of stress on health were reduced for those who felt more grateful to God.4

Why not decide to spend more time outdoors in physical activity and peaceful contemplation while practicing thoughts of gratitude? Need reasons to be grateful? Here are six of them:

1. Scripture tells us we are unique and wonderfully made! (Ps. 139:13-18).

2. No matter what occurs in life, we need not be afraid because God is with us (Ps. 118:6).

3. God’s love for us overflows and is demonstrated for us through Christ (John 3:16).

4. We are forgiven, and that knowledge brings healing (Ps. 103:3, 12).

5. Feeling grateful and expressing our appreciation brings healing from daily life stressors (Ps. 57:7-11; 107:1, 8, 9; Prov. 16:24).

6. God will reveal truths to you in your daily struggles that otherwise would never have come your way. 

So, let God’s presence in nature and His Spirit, in an attitude of gratitude, abide in you, and you will draw comfort, strength, and hope as you face challenges and live each day of this new year.

1 “41 Random Facts About Stress,”
2 Neil Nedley, The Lost Art of Thinking, 118, 119.
3 R. A. Emmons and M. E. McCullough, “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2003), 84(2): 377-389.2.
4 N. Krause, Research on Aging, University of Michigan, vol. 28, no. 2, Sage Publications, 2006.

Katia Reinert is director of the Health Ministries Department for the North American Division.