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Stressed, Worried, or Overwhelmed? Soft Fascination Can Help

Soft fascination won’t solve the problem. But it can help you cope better.

Key points

  • When you're feeling stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, or sad, “soft fascination” can help you get some relief.
  • Similar to but different from meditation, soft fascination is a technique for engaging with the natural world.
  • In soft fascination, our minds are allowed to relax through contact with nature.

Randi* started her session with a huge sigh. “Let me tell you about my day so far,” she said. “I was up at five to get in a quick workout. I made my kids’ breakfast while I listened to the horrible news about the terrible things going on in the world, then turned off the news and got them fed, dressed, and off to the school bus. I got to work at eight, prepped for a nine o’clock meeting, and I haven’t stopped. When I get home, I’ll make dinner, which the kids do help with, and they’ll help with cleanup, but then it’s homework, baths, and, if I’m lucky, I’ll get in bed and sleep through the night.”

Marielle* has a full-time, high-pressure job, a spouse with cancer, and elderly parents who can no longer take care of themselves. “My life is just one crisis after another,” she said. “There’s no time off, no vacation to look forward to.” She added, “I know there are terrible things going on in the world, but I don’t have the bandwidth to find out about them. They just meld with the pain and chaos in my own life.”

Howard,* who also has a high-pressure job, has just started couples therapy with his wife. He told me, “She says I work too much, and she’s right. I’m so tense all the time. But it’s not just work. The world is a terrible mess. How do we keep going?”

We live in a stressful world, with complicated jobs and relationships, illness, uncertainty, and horrifying world events. Some stress can be good for us, but too much can be…well, too much. But what can you do?

There is no simple solution for this problem, which has many different and complex sources. But there is a surprisingly simple tool, called “soft fascination,” that can help you get some relief. It’s close at hand and easy to use.

Attention Restoration Theory

Initially developed by environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan as part of their attention restoration theory, or ART, soft fascination is a way of calming and soothing ourselves and restoring our stressed-out brains by spending time in nature and allowing our focus to be gently engaged by the natural world around us.

Similar to but different from meditation, soft fascination is something you’ve probably already done many times in your life—for instance, if you’ve ever spent time sitting on the beach, quietly watching the ocean, or staring unthinkingly into a fire. Or have you ever looked up into a night sky and felt awed by the canopy of stars over your head?

Research has shown that just being in nature is often restorative, which is something most of us already know.

In a terrific post on the topic, my PT colleague Virginia Thomas writes, “In nature, our minds are allowed to drift, gaze, wander, and be immersed in the moment. We aren’t focused on one specific thing; rather, we experience the world using multiple senses—sights, sounds, smells, sensations—instead of working so hard to filter things out in the name of productivity.”

Finding Nature in the City

The practice is not a cure-all, but a way of relaxing your brain, your body, and your whole self. It allows you to let go of the focus and attention that is part of everyday life these days. But if you, like me, are often in a big city, you might wonder just where you’re going to get that hit of nature. Even places like parks and rooftop gardens are all too often filled with other people, noise, and city distractions that make it hard to let go and restore ourselves.

I love the energy of big cities, but that energy itself can be draining to an overworked self. And even if you don’t work or live in a city, your busy schedule may make it impossible to take time to go searching for some quiet time in nature.

The good news is that you don’t have to go off on a trek in the mountains or a week at a secluded island to take advantage of soft fascination. If you can take a minute out of your busy day to softly focus on the sky over your head, a bird outside your window, or even the lowly snake plant you brought to your office, you can reap the benefits.

"Houseplant Therapy"

Randi, for instance, told me that during the COVID-19 pandemic she had found it calming and nourishing to repot her houseplants. “I never thought of that as a way of being in nature, though,” she said. In fact, research has shown that simply touching some houseplants can have a calming effect on humans. I suggested that Randi bring a houseplant to work and allow herself some moments to both look at and touch it. She laughed. “My co-workers are going to think I’m nuts,” she said.

Grumpy Cow Studios/Shutterstock
Source: Grumpy Cow Studios/Shutterstock

Instead of thinking she was nuts, some of her co-workers were so impressed by the way that Randi’s “houseplant therapy” seemed to refresh and calm her after a difficult interaction with a client that they brought in their own houseplants. “Suddenly there are green plants everywhere,” she said. “It’s kind of amazing. Just seeing them and watching my co-workers watering and tending to their own plants has a soothing effect on me. And I don’t think it’s just me. There’s a different feel in the office these days. A quietness that never has been there before.”

Soft fascination will not undo all your troubles, make up for a hectic, harassed lifestyle, or change the terrible things happening in the world. But every time you soothe yourself and quiet your mind, you give it a chance to reset. And a calmer mind is better at problem-solving. Try it next time you're feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or frightened. It won’t change everything, but it might free your mind enough to come up with some new solutions.

*Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy

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