From the Archives: Spring 2008 Lupus Now magazine
Creating an Environment of Healing
by Amy Paturel, M.S., M.P.H.
Tammy Rodriguez loves camping. Since her lupus affects her lungs, the fresh air, expansive space, and night sky help her to breathe easier. Trouble was, as soon as she would return to her home in Orange County, CA, she felt like someone was sitting on her chest. Her solution: moving 75 miles to Fallbrook, where she now lives on an acre of property with citrus, peach, apple, apricot, and pomegranate trees, and gardens she tends herself.
"Since lupus causes inflammation, it can make people feel constricted and closed in," explains Donna Fremon-Powell, a certified guided imagery therapist. "But you can shift that energy by going to a calming place outdoors -- a place that’s expansive and offers infinite possibilities."
There’s no doubt Mother Nature is a powerful force, but until recently scientists didn’t realize that spending time amid trees, fresh air, and natural light actually promotes healing. The research is so compelling that architectural design teams are incorporating the natural environment into health care facilities -- building hospitals with gigantic windows that offer views of nature, ensuring that natural sunlight flows throughout the hospital, and creating healing gardens on hospital grounds.
The link between views of nature and healing was first uncovered in 1984 when a landmark study in the journal Science found that patients who had rooms with windows overlooking trees recovered more quickly and required fewer painkillers than those who had views of a brick wall -- even though all 46 patients had the same type of gallbladder surgery. Since then, countless studies have confirmed the benefits of surrounding ourselves with nature. One study found that placing trees next to freeways and roads reduced drivers’ stress levels. Others have found that viewing nature reduces anger and anxiety and enhances feelings of pleasure.
"It’s amazing when you are feeling so sick how the sunshine, plants, and the sound of water help take your mind off your pain and problems," says Beth Jones, a 50-year-old Florida resident who has been living with lupus since 1998.
Even if you can’t go outside physically or view nature through windows or pictures, you can get the same benefits by using your imagination to transport yourself to a favorite outdoor destination. In fact, a routine part of Fremon-Powell’s guided imagery practice involves having clients imagine themselves in a calming place outdoors. This exercise takes place one-on-one in her office, over the phone, or through personalized CDs people can take home.
"Since stress exacerbates lupus, it’s important for people to know how to calm themselves," says Fremon-Powell. "Spending even two minutes a day imagining yourself walking in a beautiful meadow or standing under a warm waterfall enhances the body’s natural healing abilities." And when you imagine your favorite place outdoors, you can paint the scene any way you like.
For Rodriguez, that picture-perfect destination is a beautiful beach in Hawaii. "I call it my happy place," she says. "When I close my eyes and imagine myself on that beach with the waves lapping against the sand, it has an instant calming effect." Today, Rodriguez’s lupus is in remission. She attributes much of her healing to being able to calm her system when needed and consistently using guided imagery and relaxation CDs.
Playing with the Earth
Other people feel better when they get down and dirty in the earth (think gardening). And studies show that while imagining nature and spending time in a healing garden improves health and well-being, the greatest benefits come from actual gardening.
"There’s just something about toiling in the earth to create something alive,” says Paula Black, R.N., and mother of 23-year-old Brittany Black, who has lupus. Black’s gardens extend beyond potted plants and beautiful flowers to healthful herbs she incorporates into recipes. "Brittany uses the rosemary from the garden in cooking and for medicinal purposes," says Black. "The scents of rosemary and lavender calm my whole house and really create an environment of healing."
Gardening also gives Black a chance to soak in natural light, which has been linked to improved mood and increased immunity. One recent study found that people who were exposed to more sunlight reported less stress and less pain -- and took less analgesic medication. When you have lupus, the best times for gardening are early morning and late afternoon or evening.
"I’ve created this garden that brings me so much joy -- that’s powerful," says Black. She gets a sense of accomplishment from working in the garden, but says that her real joy comes from sharing the fruits of her labor with her daughter.
"Even just a vase with a beautiful sprig of rosemary can make Brittany feel a little better," says Black. "Sometimes, that’s all she needs."
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