Green Investment – Parks offer healing, antidote for stress

Green Investment is an occasional series about the positive impact of Ottawa County parks on the quality of life in West Michigan, presented by the Ottawa County Parks Foundation. 

Parks offer healing, antidote for stress

One crisis phone call can be plenty of stress for any one of us. Dealing with hundreds a day, as do the staff at the Ottawa County Central Dispatch Authority, pumps up the cortisol to high-stress levels.

Fortunately, dispatch staff have an antidote just down the street: Ottawa County’s Pigeon Creek Park.

The dispatch office handles more than 800 calls on a typical day, and far more if there’s a storm or other major problem. And at any time, calls can be literally life and death – fatal car crashes, shootings, drownings.

Photo credit: Mike Lozon

“It’s a unique type of person who does this,” explained dispatcher and training officer Crystal Bakker.

Staff are well-trained, and during a crisis they might go on autopilot. But afterward, they also need to take time to be mindful, to decompress, to work out the stress.

So, after Bakker or fellow dispatchers have a particularly rough call, or just extra busy day, you might find them meeting co-workers or family at Pigeon Creek. Or Hemlock Crossing. Or Connor Bayou. Or many other of Ottawa County’s 39 parks and open space lands.

“It’s amazing what just going for a walk with kids, or going to park with spouse, can do for you,” Bakker explained. “Hiking a little bit, taking a little walk, can be a great stress reliever.”

The dispatchers’ experiences are backed up by science. Numerous studies around the world show less mental distress, better heart and metabolic health and lower incidences of some 15 different diseases in people with increased exposure to nature and green space. Exposure to nature lowers cortisol and stress levels, researchers believe, which has a positive impact on all those other health issues.

With that in mind, the Peer Support Team at the Dispatch Authority this fall focused on county parks in a wellness program called SPARC, for Self-Preservation and Renewal Challenge. Staff are encouraged with prize drawings and other rewards to record park experiences and other opportunities for relaxation.

“We’re trying to encourage mindfulness and gratitude, and the whole idea of self-care,” Bakker said.

Dispatchers tend to focus on helping other people; a reminder to help themselves can be important. Other benefits have emerged, as well. Shift members get together outside of work to hike, to exercise, to do yoga, which is building a stronger sense of community in the department.

“It’s been good for a lot of people just to be active, and it’s decreasing negativity in the center, people being able to talk about a good time they’ve shared,” Bakker said.

Good times for Bakker have included park visits with her family.

“I love the parks and love taking my kids to them,” she said. “It’s fun to see them explore and see the parks through their eyes. It’s fun to be outdoors with them.”

Pigeon Creek is a favorite close to home, and the stairs at Mt. Pisgah are a family challenge.

Even a few hours of outdoor fun a week makes a significant difference for stress relief and mental health, experts say.

“Compared with people who have lousy window views, those who can see trees and grass have been shown to recover faster in hospitals, perform better in school, and even display less violent behavior in neighborhoods where it’s common,” notes an article called “This Is Your Brain on Nature” in National Geographic.

Pediatricians in Oakland, Calif., were trained to prescribe park visits for young children and their families. In Finland, high rates of depression, alcoholism and suicide have researchers recommending a minimum dose of five hours of nature a month. In the high stress culture of South Korea, the government is developing “healing forests.”

That’s nothing new in Ottawa County, where tax funding and the work of the Ottawa County Parks Foundation support nearly 40 parks and open spaces – “healing forests” of our own, a green investment in the mental as well as physical health of the community.

This article was published in the Holland Sentinel on November 4, 2018.