Summer used to be my favorite season. Long days, beautiful evenings, and incredible time spent on the coast growing up in Maine were landmarks of my favorite season. I would cherish every minute with my friends who traveled from other states to spend time on the Island I lived on. And as September neared, a bittersweet feeling that winter was approaching would sink into my bones and a sadness would begin to sink in as I realized how fast the time had flown by.
Flash forward 20 years, and I am finally unravelling this myth that summer is my favorite season whilst living in Southern California. It finally dawned on me this year that for about 5 years, every summer, my husband and I experience a sense of angst, edginess and urge to flee from southern California between the months of June-September. Traffic, crowds, rude people, recent increased heat and humidity, lack of peace, congestion at the beach, massive wild fires, and many other external environmental stressors would thwart my best attempts to enjoy my once favorite season.
This year these uncomfortable feelings were felt even more strongly as I felt stranded at my house post-operatively from a back surgery. Calm walks on the beach in the evening were replaced with defensive fear that a teenager and a Smash-ball or frisbee would come careening into me and knock me off my fragile balance that I was trying to rebuild from my injury. The heat from our supposed ‘non-existent climate change’ (eh-hem) stifled my creativity at home as I huddled around our air conditioner. I meandered to our community pool to try and cool off, only to be disillusioned by murky grey pool water and shrieking (as they should be) children who were cannonballing into the pool with utter joy. My soul began to crave with insatiable desire space, fresh air, nature, human connection, peace, solitude and calmness.
I spent about a week in early July trying to convince myself that this feeling/desire/need was far reached and not real. I have everything I need right here, I kept telling myself. Be more grateful I told myself. Stop complaining, I sneered back to my soul. My inner conflict wasn’t resolving itself, and the more I tried to quiet the need for space and nature, the worse it got. So I stopped fighting it, got quiet, and decided to listen. Maybe my body DID know what was best. I started pondering this concept of environmental stress1, which at the time, I didn’t realize was something that is thoroughly studied and a very real concept. I thought about how medical research discusses the negative impact of chronic stress. I thought about our sympathetic fight or flight response and how I always attributed that to situational events… work, family, money stressors.. But, I thought, what if our environment increases our baseline stress to the point that it puts us into a chronic stage of fight or flight. The thought started to make sense to me, and I stopped trying to fight the voices in my head that my feelings about summer in southern California were irrational.
I started to dig into a little research from psychologist Judith Orloff from her book The Empath’s Survival Guide 2.Orlow, who holds a PhD in psychology relates how certain people whom she coins as empaths live with more sensitive nervous systems. These people are often more sensitive to certain situations such as confrontation, people with negative emotional output, or simply overstimulation, resulting in complete overwhelm or energetic drain. I believe as Orloff does that there is a spectrum of sensitivity, which depending on where you genetically may fall, can make something like a busy summer season, filled with packed beaches, shrieking children and stray frisbees, congested freeways and overfilled parking lots combined with late night noises from neighboring barbecues seem utterly exhausting.
So what does one do???..
I questioned. I wrestled with my feelings of fear to retreat to a more quiet environment because of work, needing some of the amenities offered in a busier city, and for me, I also have Seasonal Affective Disorder, which I wish wasn’t real, but dang it… it is. So I find myself in a quandary. I know that cold, grey and cloudy climates (which tend to be slower paced places) don’t seem to suit me, but neither does hot, muggy, and busy. I find myself wishing I was more ‘normal’ and could tolerate crowds better.. I curse the depression that I know so well that can come up in the long grey skies that I knew them growing up in Maine (and San Diego this past winter too).
I can reflect on all the times I have ‘left’ San Diego to relocate to less crowded, cooler, cheaper, more water-flourished areas… only to find myself coming back to north county San Diego by mid-winter when it seems to be heavenly compared to sub-zero temps found in the northeast or the mountains. Why the hell are you so freaking sensitive Shane..?
Grow a pair.. How have you been here on Earth nearly 40 years and you’ve been able to ‘fight’ this until now? What are you going to do, live in 2 places..?? Wait a minute.. Is that a solution to this?
Then I started to think about migration.. our ancestors migrated, Native Americans moved from place to place based on weather and resource availability. What if we have a genetic predisposition to migrate, but over the years of evolving, we temporarily shut down our genetic coding for this survival strategy? We have built our cities and communities to offer all the basic resources that we need, creating stability in staying put in one place, with a single employer and school, and over time perhaps we have convinced ourselves that our environment wasn’t part of our DNA anymore. I dug further and found that there are newer research studies that specifically link the environmental changes that are occurring with the need for humans to respond with plasticity in their behavior 3.
What if environmental overwhelm actually was a legitimate contributor to our overall mental and physical well-being? What if those pangs we feel to escape are there to protect us rather than taunt us. What if genotypic expression of dis-ease could be mitigated by environmental adaptation or plasticity? We have begun to see clearly the link between chronic disease to prolonged fight-or-flight, stress, or even eating poorly. Yet, we have not acknowledged as a culture that for some of us, ‘one size fits all’ location may be just as much of a long-term stressor than some of the more obvious choices.
By mid July, I had processed enough, listened to my body enough, that I decided that there was no better time than the present to explore this inner conflict and find resolution. I packed a small bag and headed north with my husband to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Upon arrival there, my whole body exhaled a sigh of relief. The bright blue skies contrasted against the majestic and jagged stance of the Tetons was mesmerizing. I felt a deep sense of peace being able to stare out at the valley floor covered with wildflowers and observing bison in their true habitat (as opposed to the imported ones I’ve been used to living on Catalina Island) was the medicine my soul really needed.
I thought a week of connecting with nature would be sufficient. I thought that the recharge would get me through this little speed bump of frustration I felt at home, so I came home to San Diego. But, upon returning home, I couldn’t help but to continue to crave more solitude with every crowded interaction and energetic environmental overwhelm that I was feeling.
Again, I felt myself tense up: stop living in la-la land and get back to reality, come on.. But then I realized, this is my reality. I am healing my back injury. I have to remember day in and day out, that it’s not just the physical structures that are healing from a 4 hour surgery, but the energetic wounds that developed over a 10 year course of burnout and exhaustion. Rather than fight the urge to go back to a peaceful environment, filling myself with hatred for my sensitivity towards ‘summer’, I opted to listen and went back to the mountains.
So here I am.. with indefinite plans to stay here with my husband until I feel the desire to return back to the warm climate of San Diego, or perhaps stay here indefinitely. I don’t really know. I wake every morning and remind myself to live today, in the moment. Do what I need to do TODAY to feel good, live, nourish and heal.
This summer, I have truly learned that nurturing your soul is a critical health maintenance issue that we tend to neglect because our productive, formal, on-paper lives demand that we do. Don’t forget, though, our body remembers and keeps score. There are countless research studies that delve into the benefits of resetting our nervous systems through connection to nature 4-6. Each one of us lives at a certain spectrum of sensitivity, and so for some, thriving may mean living in the center of a bustling city, and for others, full time in a small town works. My point of this is that there is a spectrum, and some of us may fit somewhere on that line between each of those extremes.
Shine & Nature Your Light
Regardless of where you are living, based, or trying to get to though, I believe that in each and everyone of us is genetic code that pulls us towards nature. Over time and evolution we can mixup productivity from our true calling, our creative side, and from spending time in harmony with nature. When we are thirsty, we drink water. When we feel stifled by crowds, bored or frustrated, it's a sign it's time to find our true north again.
1) Evans, G. W. (Ed.). (1984). Environmental stress. CUP Archive.
2) Orloff, J. (2017). The empath's survival guide: Life strategies for sensitive people. (Midwest Best Sellers.)
3) Wong, B., & Candolin, U. (2015). Behavioral responses to changing environments. Behavioral Ecology, 26(3), 665-673.
4) Baum, A., & Davis, G. E. (1980). Reducing the stress of high-density living: An architectural intervention. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38(3), 471.
5) Jiang, B., Chang, C. Y., & Sullivan, W. C. (2014). A dose of nature: Tree cover, stress reduction, and gender differences. Landscape and Urban Planning, 132, 26-36.
6) Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of psychosomatic research, 57(1), 35-43.