Lifestyle Medicine for Stress | Part 4

Creativity, Nature, & Relationships

Dr. Aaron Hartman

June 13, 2023

Lifestyle Medicine for Stress: Creativity, Nature, & Relationships

Today in this last post in my series on Lifestyle Medicine for Stress, I’d like to introduce three more interventions that can effectively help us to manage stress, reduce cortisol, and help our bodies better respond to challenges.

Tapping into Creativity to Reduce Stress

Lifestyle Medicine for Stress: Creativity, Nature, & RelationshipsDid you know that using our creativity has a huge impact on cortisol and our ability to handle stress?

I first learned about this when I was working in the hospital. Occupational therapists would work with my patients who had experienced strokes and heart attacks. The occupational therapists would help them work on creating handmade art such as painting and drawing. The benefits were much more profound than just the physical fine motor coordination improvements.

These kinds of creative activities actually affect our cortisol and the sympathetic nervous system, which is radically different after a heart attack or stroke. Whether it’s woodworking, painting, drawing, knitting, doing puzzles, or any other creative endeavor, using our creativity can be therapeutic for chronic health care issues and can also help us to better cope with life’s challenges.

As a personal example, my wife loves painting, and she finds that it has a very relaxing and calming effect. These kinds of activities help us to tap into a flow state, when we lose sense of time and get lost in the activity. This is, in itself, a kind of mindfulness practice, where we are completely focused on the present moment.

What do you do that puts you into the flow state?

Time in Nature to Reduce Stress

Lifestyle Medicine for Stress: Creativity, Nature, & RelationshipsNature exposure is another powerfully calming intervention with much impressive research behind it. It is sometimes called forest bathing and there are a lot of different terms used to describe it. Basically, the idea is that just being in nature alone has a very powerful, calming effect.

Did you know that you can get a PhD in on forestry medicine in Japan? This is a study of the mechanisms and benefits of how being outside improves our health.

I’ve noticed in my practice that many men who love to hunt and fish tend to have more OCD and anxiety. I believe that they intuitively know that it makes them feel so good to be outside, away from the pressures of society and stress. They are drawn to the outdoors to be able to take a deep breath and relax.

We’re learning more and more about the ways that being outside can affect our physiology. For example, just looking at the sky, trees, and grass improves our sense of calm.

Did you know that being outside triggers powerful effects through our sense of smell? When we’re outside, we breathe in small amounts of essential oils from trees, grass, etc. Who doesn’t love the smell of pine trees or fresh-cut grass?

Being in nature by also boosts your immune system, can increase your natural killer cells, and is related to a lower risk of cancer. There is now a plethora of literature backing up the many benefits of simply spending time outdoors. If you’d like to learn more, check out this book on our recommended reading list, The Nature Fix, by Florence Williams.

Social Support and Relationships

Lifestyle Medicine for Stress: Creativity, Nature, & RelationshipsThe last thing I want to talk about in this series is the importance of a social support network. It’s important for our physical health and mental wellbeing to have access to family, friends, local religious groups, or social organizations that we know will support us in a time of need. A social network, or even the perception of one, helps us to deal with stress in a more healthy way and recover better after a stressor or life event.

Meaningful relationships are a huge leverage point that helps our bodies respond appropriately to stress.

You have probably heard of the French Paradox. One theory is that the reasons that the French people are generally healthier than Americans, despite risk factors such as smoking and alcohol consumption, is because they are very family-centric and tend to have a strong social support network. The French generally have a lower risk of heart disease than Americans do. In our culture, we tend to lack that strong social support, which has a huge impact on our health and longevity.

Empowerment to Manage Stress More Effectively

I hope that the evidence-based interventions that I have provided in this series have given you a menu of options as you consider how you would like to better manage stress. We are all exposed to stressful situations in life, whether it be a long-term health issue, a relationship problem, work stress, financial difficulty, or various other problems in life. While we don’t always have control over these situations – or the power to change them – we do have tools that can help our bodies and minds deal with them in a healthful way.

Each of these tools are backed by research and proven to actually improve longevity and health span – meaning that we can live longer without chronic disease such as cancer and heart disease. These techniques are also accessible to most of us and easy to add in to our lives.

So get outdoors, make meaningful relationships, find a hobby, do a breathing exercise, get moving, or give yoga a try. these are all all powerful interventions that can change the trajectory of your health, longevity, and well being.

Which of these tools is your favorite way to feel better and manage stress? Leave a comment on Instagram or Facebook to let us know!


Since 2010, Richmond Integrative and Functional Medicine has been helping people to restore their health and hope with an integrative approach to conventional and alternative medicine that’s entirely science-backed. We at RIFM believe everyone is made for health. We offer a comprehensive, in-person patient membership program to ensure you get access to the care you need to thrive.


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