How to Use Nature to Heal from Heartbreak (Florence Williams)

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If you’ve ever experienced a broken heart, you know how dramatically it can impact all aspects of your life. The ending of a relationship or loss of a loved one can be a traumatic, emotional rollercoaster than can last years. And in the midst of it you’ll likely find yourself wondering exactly how to make the pain stop and when it will stop hurting.

Heartbreak is both the subject and title of a new book by journalist Florence Williams. You might remember Florence from her work on one of her previous books, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative. She joined us to talk about the book in a previous episode of Humans Outside. In her new book Heartbreak (and the immersive audio book) Florence pairs her own experience with the kind of research she’s known for, and in the process lays out a map for using nature to heal from a broken heart.

In this episode Florence talks about her experience healing from heartbreak by heading outside and gives us our own personal how-to on doing so in our lives, too.

Some of the good stuff:

[4:33] Florence William’s favorite outdoor space

[5:46] All about Florence’s heartbreak

[7:00] The not entirely secret story of Amy’s heartbreak

[8:53] Why heartbreak becomes a book

[12:58] Why she decided to try a nature cure

[17:01] What she tracked for her project

[23:00] Exactly how to heal heartbreak by going outside

[29:00] Can healing happen close to home?
[32:55] Why this is all actually really simple — but not immediate

[40:05] One surprising thing Florence learned

Connect with this episode:

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation on The Humans Outside Podcast. Listen to the episode on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

Amy Bushatz 0:06

No matter who you are or where you go, heading outside is always worth it. Welcome to Humans Outside where we’re using the Humans Outside 365 Challenge to build a life around spending time in nature while learning from fascinating outdoor-minded guests. I’m AB. I’ve let curiosity be my guide as a journalist for 18 years, but life, including my husband’s war injuries, has burnt us out. So we moved sight unseen to Alaska to see if a change of scenery and new focus on outdoors was just the shift we needed. Since September 2017, I’ve spent at least 20 consecutive minutes outside every single day, no matter what, to explore how nature can change my life. Ready to hear from experts and outdoor lovers who make heading into nature just a part of who they are while we work to do the same? Let’s go.

Even if a deep part of you that you don’t want to adress knows that all is not right in a relationship, the truth can still blindside you. Even if you see it coming like a freight train, heartbreak and all of its pain and anguish is never actually expected. And it’s always harder to move through than you think it will be, even in your wildest dreams or nightmares. I know that because I’ve lived through it. For me it actually physically hurt. I wanted to know how to make the pain stop and when I would feel better again. It is by far the worst, most painful thing that has ever happened to me, and I’ve been through the wringer. So what does that have to do with going outside? When we deal with heartbreak, we go hunting for something to ease the pain. If you’re someone who likes to head into nature, or if you’re searching for something, anything that can help, you might look to heading outside as a way to make it feel better. Today’s guest, Florence Williams, has, like me and like so many of you, also experienced heartbreak. Because she’s a science journalist who specializes in writing about nature and who loves going outside, she didn’t just turn to nature to see if it could help her heal. She did so with the eye of someone who would write about it. And what she found can really help all of us. You might be familiar with her book The Nature Fix. Today, Florence is going to tell us about her new inspirational memoir, Heartbreak and all the incredible lessons about healing from heartbreak she experienced through heading outside and using herself as a case study. She’s joined us for the podcast before and I’m so honored that she’s chosen to join us again. Florence, welcome back to Humans Outside.

Florence Williams 2:37

Thank you, Amy, what a lovely introduction. And it’s always so nice to be on your show.

AB 2:41

Thank you so much. So when we last spoke, we talked about your other book, The Nature Fix, well, one of your other books, and specifically about how heading into nature can improve daily life right where you are. So today we’re going to talk about this specific process of healing from heartbreak with nature. And I just want to say thank you for being willing to share your story.

FW 3:03

You’re welcome. This book is more personal than my other books for sure. So it does feel a little bit exposing that I’m out there.

AB 3:10

Yeah, you’re out there. So we’ll talk about that in a minute. And you’ve also got an audio book. I haven’t listened to the audiobook. I have read the book, but I love an immersive audio book. And so I’m really excited. I’m gonna listen to that too, because it sounds like it’s designed more like a podcast. If listeners have ever listened to Malcolm Gladwell, his podcast books, they might be familiar with the style. Sort of like that, right?

FW 3:36

Yeah, it’s what we call an immersive audio book. And it is a little bit of a hybrid in that while I was reporting the Heartbreak book over several years, I just taped everything. Yeah, I taped interviews with the scientists, I taped interviews with my therapist with my best friends. And we incorporated all that sort of live you know, in the moment tape as part of the audiobook.

AB 3:58

That’s really cool. If you enjoy listening to podcasts, you might enjoy this audio book in particular and like I said, I’m excited to go listen to that because I love me an immersive audiobook. I listened to them while I’m running. So we like to start by envisioning ourselves chatting with our guests in their favorite outdoor space. Now we’ve talked to you before in your you know, in quote, unquote, your favorite outdoor space. Last time we imagined hanging out with you by the Potomac River in the DC area. Is that where we should metaphorically go again?

FW 4:33

I think in honor of Heartbreak, let’s go to a wide sandy beach, along the Green River through Canyonlands National Park. So that is a major scene in the book and I call it the naked yoga beach, because I pulled over and did some of that on the beach while I was by myself and it’s a beautiful spot with tall red canyon walls and you can hear ravens cackling overhead and hear the sort of stream rustling by and it’s just a really lovely spot.

AB 5:07

Love it. And yeah, it’s really hot, making naked yoga very appropriate.

FW 5:18

But the water is perfect for a swim.

AB 5:21

Yeah, it’s hard to imagine, sitting here in the dead of winter, ever being hot again. But we’ll take your word for it. So, you know, like we mentioned just a moment ago, this is a very personal book, and I actually feel kind of rotten asking for you to tell us about your heartbreak. Um, well, you know, it’s just a wound that’s so personal. It’s something I want to protect in my own life.

FW 5:46

It’s par for the course, though. I’m putting it out there for the benefit of my readers. So I’m willing to share it. So what happened was, in the year I turned 50, my husband of 25 years decided that he didn’t want to be married to me anymore. There were various things leading up to that. Yeah, there probably were signs that I could have paid more attention to, you know, ways in which we weren’t as connected as we sometimes had been. I actually found an email from him – well, I wasn’t snooping – just in my own defense. He handed me his phone one day to look for something else. And I saw an email that he’d written to another woman. I mean, it’s really hard to keep a secret these days with the internet. My stomach sort of fell through my body, you know, in that moment, and didn’t come back into place, I think, for a really long time. But that’s kind of the moment where the marriage really started dissolving in a sort of permanent way.

AB 7:00

Hindsight is 20/20. So you have your marriage dissolving, and then you set out on this need to heal from heartbreak, which is not an easy thing. Well, first of all, let me just say, if people want to hear about my own heartbreak, you’re actually the only person to interview me about it before. Grateful to you for that, and I’ve done it and so I’ve never really talked about that on the podcast here. The interview with you is with my husband and I. So spoiler alert, that’s how the story ends, right. Still married, and as you as you all know, and we move to Alaska to help us heal from that. But if listeners want to hear about specifically what happened, they can listen to the Outside Magazine podcast episode with you. I’ll put a link in the show notes. So I don’t want to like make these veiled, like references to this thing.

FW 8:23

It’s a beautiful story, about healing in nature, and really grateful to you for for doing it.

AB 8:32

And thank you for being awesome and somebody I could trust with that, because that was really important to me as well. But, you know, so we use nature to heal from heartbreak, but I didn’t study it from a scientific way at all in that moment. And you did. So tell us what methods of healing heartbreak that you explored, and then ended up putting in this book.

FW 8:53

I should maybe just preface it by saying I felt this incredible urgency to throw everything I could at getting better. I had never experienced heartbreak before. I had met the man who had been my husband when I was 18. So I’ve been sort of, you know, I think sheltered, sheltered from heartbreak. And I think whenever, you know, whatever age you are, it, you know, it can hit in similar ways. I really registered the pain in my body in ways that surprised me and baffled me and scared me because I started to get sick. So that’s definitely one of the themes of this book. You know, that there are these big connections between our emotions and our bodies, and that we need to pay attention to them and we need to take heartbreak and grief and loneliness, these difficult emotions we need to take them really seriously. And in fact, our bodies, our brains are putting out these emotions for a purpose. And it’s so that we do pay attention to them. And we try to get better. I immediately stopped being able to sleep, which over months really feels terrible. I lost 20 pounds that I didn’t want to lose. I felt really agitated and nervous, you know, in this way that I wasn’t used to feeling. It felt terrible. I think in the book, I described it as feeling like I was plugged into a faulty electrical socket. I almost felt like my hair was kind of like, you know, stuck on it. And every cell in my body was kind of stuck on it. After some months, I got diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. I talked to neuroscientists, I talked to a psychologist, I talked to a really fascinating immuno geneticist, who said to me, you know, your white blood cells are probably freaking out right now. Because you feel abandoned, you feel alone. And you know, as human animals, we are not really supposed to be moving through the world, feeling like we’re alone. It makes us feel unsafe, you know, we find safety in groups. And when we lose a primary attachment partner like that, we feel very exposed. And our bodies respond in the same way that they would if we were alone in the jungle, about to be attacked by a predator. So our bodies put out more inflammation, which we know is linked to all sorts of, you know, chronic diseases, including the one I was diagnosed with, which is type one diabetes, usually diagnosed in children, but I got diagnosed after the split. And so you’re right. So I was like – Okay, I need to do everything I can to get better. And I did that, in the ways I knew how, which was looking to nature. And also in a bunch of ways, I didn’t know how, but ways that had some science behind them, and different kinds of interventions and therapy modalities and stuff like that. But I think for this episode, you probably want to talk about mostly the nature of peace.

AB 12:25

Yes. I’m not a doctor, let’s start there. So I would never say, you know, going outside is the only cure for you. And that often with anything we’re facing in life, it’s a variety of solutions, right? See a doctor, combined with getting healthy, spending more time in nature – all of those things are true, even though we are going to focus on the outside one today.

FW 12:58

Right. So, you know, I had written this book, The Nature Fix, which is subtitled “Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.” So I felt like I had some tools, and I wanted to go back to that book, you know, as if my life depended on it. But in that book, I only talk about sort of immersions of nature, from, you know, nearby nature, nature on your block, you know, going outside for 15 minutes, to spending three days outside or in the wilderness. I was like – you know, I think I need more than three days, like this is such a big kind of emotional trauma, really, that I want to find out, you know, how we can be helped if we spend more time outside, or whether we can either be helped by more time outside. And so I planned a really dramatic, you know, sort of big expedition as part of this process for me. I planned a 30 day river trip down the Green River, which starts in really Southwestern Wyoming and then flows all the way through most of Utah until it meets with the Colorado River, south of Canyonlands National Park.

AB 14:12

This water stuff, you have a strong background in, something that’s really like a touchstone for you when you were young and, and things like that, right? Like this isn’t just like out of left field.

FW 14:31

Yeah, that’s right. So I grew up canoeing wilderness rivers with my dad. And then my ex husband was also a big river runner, and it was something we did with our kids all the time, something we did together. And I felt like it was really important for me to sort of reclaim this experience as my own. You know, this is something that’s part of my core identity, not just sort of my marital identity. And of course, when you’re going through a divorce like this, it’s all about accessing your core identity, rebuilding your identity, because you feel like it’s been really torn apart, for many reasons. Turning to the wilderness and turning to river running specifically, for me was kind of a way to try to hit a lot of those. But another big piece of my river trip was that I did half of it with friends and family. And then I did half of it solo. But I felt like the metaphor of paddling my own boat was really, really important to sort of my sort of recovery self concept, you know. I’d been with my husband since I was 18. So I needed to learn how to be alone, I needed to learn how to be self reliant, and take care of myself. I wanted to be able to tell myself a new story in which I could be, you know, the agent of the future, you know. I literally needed to pilot my own boat now. The metaphors of the river trip were really kind of irresistible to me.

AB 16:25

Because you and I are storytellers. We cannot resist this idea of leaning into a metaphor, or, you know, what might make a good story, which, of course, is why you recorded all this as you went.

FW 16:40

Well, and I think really all of us are storytellers, you know. Our egos are constructed that way, you know, to put ourselves front and center. And we tell ourselves stories all the time, about how we make sense of our lives and how we make sense of chaos and how we make sense of pain. It’s a natural instinct, not just a writerly one.

AB 17:01

On your journey, you spent a lot of time outside, not just wandering around, hoping it would help and observing how you reacted and leaning into the metaphor that we just talked about. But you’ve worked with top level scientists to measure that health through blood work, you know, you really tracked how this was going. So tell us what, what were you tracking? And what did you find through your work tracking that? And I would say, as somebody who loves to track things, what kind of tracking you were doing, it’s not like I wear my Apple watch, and, you know, press the button every time I do anything trackable, like, it was sort of way beyond that.

FW 17:42

Yeah, I mean, I really wanted to find the sort of cutting edge science. And so that required me reaching out to scientists, you know, who are sort of pioneering this field of the ways in which our bodies, specifically our immune systems, register social pain. So one of the sort of leading figures in this field is a guy named Steven Cole at UCLA. He’s a neurogeneticist. And he started out by looking at the blood cells, white blood cells of men with HIV. And this was back in the 90s. Some of them were in the closet, some of them were out of the closet, some of them had social support, some of them did not. And what he found is that the men without social support, who felt like they were really alone in facing this terrible illness, were the ones who progressed to full blown disease faster. They made fewer T cells, their immune systems responded in exactly the wrong way, actually. And then he started looking at healthy people who nevertheless consider themselves lonely. And there’s a large database of people in Chicago, researchers have been looking at for decades actually had followed for decades. And by looking at their blood, he was able to determine that there’s actually a suite of cells, a suite of genes, transcription factors that turn our genes off and on in our immune systems, in ways that make us more likely to produce a lot of inflammation, and less likely to fight viruses. So that’s the wrong response for HIV. It’s the wrong response for a pandemic. It’s the wrong response for chronic illnesses like diabetes, like cardiac disease, like dementia and Alzheimer’s. You know, a lot of the chronic diseases in modern life are actually really driven by inflammation. And the reason we’re so inflamed is because our bodies release a lot of stress hormones, and they keep releasing them if we still feel like we are in a threat state. So our bodies don’t really make the distinction between – Oh, yeah, you’re getting divorced. And oh, yeah, you’re literally lying in the middle of the jungle. Yeah, and hyenas are circling you, you know? Yeah, well, maybe that’s the wrong metaphor, but you’re lying in the middle of the, or the savanna. There you go, and the hyenas are circling you, or you’re about to get injured, because you’re alone. So putting out inflammation in your blood is like maybe a good response, you know, if you’re in the jungle, about to be attacked, but it’s not a good response in modern life, right? Especially if it continues for years.

AB 20:36

I’m always so surprised when I do some sort of big, physical, long term physical challenge, that my body doesn’t react the way I think it should, I think my body should say – Whoa, you are so awesome. But my body says – something terrible is happening here and we have to save all of the stores you have eaten for the last four months, just in case you’re about to die. And that’s I mean, that I’m still trying to recover from this 100 mile thing I did this summer. Because of that, like, I really messed up my inflammation response by training so hard. And you know, now I’m still paying the price for that, you know, and I’m not sad that I did that. But I’d rather not pay the price, you know, and I just always forget that, that bodies don’t know the difference between the hyenas and the ultra marathon. They just don’t.

FW 21:36

That’s interesting.We know that people who do exercise heavily, for a short time, pulse out more inflammation. That’s true, and it may not be a bad thing. It’s probably good for our bodies to practice, you know, pulsing out, you know, inflammation, yes, there’s stress here, but then recovering from it. So as long as you’re sort of recovering, then the stress actually can be really adaptive and helpful, and your body’s working really well. But if you do something super extreme, you know, like a 100 mile race, it may not be such a quick return to baseline.

AB 22:15

Hey, humans, did you know you can officially join the Humans Outside 365 Challenge and score some really cool and exclusive challenge swag, including a finisher medal and decal on You’ll also get an outdoor challenge guide written by me for you, and exclusive challenge tracker insider info all year long. You don’t want to be left out of this, there is never a wrong time to join the Humans Outside 365 Challenge. So get going and join it today. Go to to learn more now. Now, back to the show.

So break it down for us. Can you heal from heartbreak by going outside? And if so, how?

FW 23:12

Right, great question. I kind of feel like I have a three part heartbreak cure. And I’ll just say what the three parts are, and then we can sort of go into it. But I think that nature actually does potentially help with all three pieces, but it also isn’t really the whole magic bullet. So the first piece is you have to calm down. Or else healing is just not going to happen.

AB 23:40

Right? Go back to your inflammation thing we’re just talking about.

FW 23:43

If you’re in a fight or flight state, you’re just not going to be able to benefit from the healing that needs to happen. The first piece is calm. The second piece is connection. And the third piece is purpose or meaning. And I think particularly for those first two pieces, nature can be really, really critical. And I mean, I was prone to like that, you know, kind of solution. But it was really hammered home for me when I visited a psychologist at the University of Utah, named Paula Williams. And Paula Williams said to me, yeah, you know, we know that the health outcomes for people who get divorced are really bad. You know, you have a 23% increased risk of early death. Great. Well, you were at greater risk of heart disease, greater risk of, you know, again, feeling lonely, which is linked to all these other things, greater risk for depression. You know, it goes on and on. In fact, we think divorced people have worse health outcomes than widows and widowers and they also have worse health outcomes than people who never married, who are just single and you know, happy to be single.

AB 25:01

That’s fantastic.

FW 25:04

But she said to me – but these are based on large population studies, these are just trends in the general population. We know that some individuals are able to really be resilient in the face of heartbreak, and they can get over it really well. And their bodies can return to normal. And I was like, please tell me, who are those people? And what are their traits? And how do I become one? And, what she said was super interesting. It really surprised me. She said – You know, when we look at the signs of who does, one of the traits that really stands out is this personality trait of openness. People who are curious, people who are able to find beauty, and sort of thrive, people who are prone to feeling all the emotion of awe. And, you know, she’s really drilled down on different qualities in her lab. And it’s really this, this ability to feel awe and beauty, that’s kind of like the main thing that helps people recover. And that just knocked my socks off. And I was like – wow, okay, I like nature, you know, I can find on beauty there, you know, for someone else that might be, you know, hearing music, or, you know, look going to a cathedral, you know, how, you know, whatever it makes you feel this kind of sense of awe. And, interestingly, when you feel that kind of beauty, it does calm you down in some interesting, unexpected ways. But it also makes you feel connected. So that’s that second piece, that connection, makes you feel connected to the world around you. Imagine like, you know, lying in a field looking up at the Milky Way, you know, suddenly, you feel like a small little grain of sand in the universe, you feel like your ego, your problems, they’re just, you know, maybe they’re not quite as big a deal as you thought they were, you get sort of humbled in this really beneficial way. And then interestingly, when you feel connected to the world around you, the science shows that we also tend to feel more connected to other people. So you know, especially for sharing that moment, but just in general, we may feel less ego driven, and more community minded, which is really interesting and really healthy. So nature can obviously provide that sort of connection piece. And give us perspective, it’s just basic perspective giving, like literally, we feel smaller. And we know this from the science, where researchers will take a group of people to look at, for example, Yosemite, you know, Half Dome in Yosemite, and they’ll gaze up at this incredible majestic landscape. And then the researchers asked them to draw a picture of themselves in the landscape. And then they do the same thing, while people are just looking at an urban setting, like Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, which is just a name, you know, kind of a pleasant streetscape. And then they ask them to draw themselves. And the people who are looking at Yosemite, literally draw their figures as 30% smaller than the people who are looking at Fisherman’s Wharf. So you know, this perspective taking it’s like, literal, like you literally feel less significant. And it’s not a self esteem kind of problem. You know – oh, I don’t, I’m nothing, right. It’s actually that everything else feels really significant and beautiful and wonderful. It’s context, but it’s, it’s just really healthy. I’m not that much more significant or important than everything else in the world. Like, we’re all sort of in it together.

AB 28:45

Yeah. So okay, so it’s easy to see how you could find that context, standing under Half Dome. Or looking at the Grand Canyon. Is it possible to find that context while being in your backyard?

FW 29:01

Doesn’t have to be Yosemite doesn’t have to be the Grand Canyon, we can find moments of awe, and this is something I have really worked on. You know, in cities, we can find them in our backyards. You know, you can always look up and see the sky and really pay attention to it. You can see the moon, you know, you can see the color is changing on the leaves, you can see, you know, animals and birds wherever you are. Or it can be like from a house plant, even if you really attend to it, and watch it change and bloom, it can be from playing with your children. You know, how many times do we feel sort of awed by our children and sort of that they come out with these surprising sort of brilliant things to say or do or be? We feel all the time I think in the context of, of our social lives, too. But what’s important is to not let those moments just pass by right? Or not to be looking at our, you know, social media, instead of actually attending to the blooms on our amaryllis or whatever, right. And so it’s a cultivated practice, sort of like meditation, learning to sit with these moments of awe, and learning to look for them. Our studies show that when people do this, it actually is really good for their well being.

AB 30:25

So it’s a practice of being intentional. And taking the time to step back from the other things occupying your brain space. Social media is one we like to rag on, but it could be work, it could be anything. It could be my grocery list, in fact. I think back to, I think it was the first year I was doing my outside time, my 20 minutes a day. And I was walking through the woods outside behind my house in the wintertime. I had a text message, picked up my phone, and started to respond to this text message. And look up just in time to see I was maybe 20 feet from a mama moose and her kid. They weren’t looking threatened. They weren’t being threatening, but getting close to a moose and her baby is not recommended.

FW 31:38

Yeah, that is a surprising moment.

AB 31:43

So let’s say I hadn’t been looking at my phone, walking through the woods, which I now try to do because of this experience. I would have not only not put myself in a precarious position with this moose, I would have seen her soon enough to stop and just watch. I could have stood there and experienced looking at this, you know, amazing, humongous animal and her baby and just really enjoyed that without disturbing them. Talk about panic, right? Now my outside time has turned into an adrenaline rush because we almost had a moose encounter. Um, that’s a really dramatic example. But there are lots of situations where you’re outside and you’re not noticing the things that you could be, because you are distracted by whatever else is going on. It’s a thing in modern life, I’m sure it was a thing before modern life. People had grocery lists forever.

FW 32:55

But they definitely I think, in pre modern life, there were a lot of stresses and in daily life, but there were also these sort of built in stress recovery experiences, you know, because at the end of the day, you would, you know, sit around the fire and look at the fire and sing and tell stories and, you know, look at the Milky Way and watch the sunset every single night, you know, when you’re living in the cycles of nature, a lot of it is sort of built in. And for us now we have to make a huge effort, as you say, it’s kind of an intentional mindfulness practice. But I do have kind of little tip for how to access that. I was actually part of a study that was called the North Bay Awe study that asked us participants to practice something they called the acronym of A W E. And the a is, you know, you know, go for a walk or, you know, sit with your house plan or whatever, and just pay attention. So the A is attention. And then the W is wait. So, you know, really be present with that beautiful thing that you’re tasting or touching or experiencing or looking at, and then the E is for exhale. So just you know, sit with that beautiful thing for two or three breaths that’s it you know, do that a couple times a day. The researchers in the study did find, in fact, that it was significantly linked to improvements in well being. It’s hard to believe that, like, you know, just three breaths of looking at something pretty can make you feel better about yourself or about your work and better about your family. It was incredible.

AB 34:47

I did an interview for the podcast, people could have listened to it in December with an expert, Dr. Michael Terman who studies Light Therapy for dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder. And he basically said – This is so simple, it’s crazy that people don’t do this, you purchase a box light of a certain strength and a certain position, for example, having one slightly above your head versus straight in front of your face, because slightly above your head mimics natural sunrise and straight in front of your face is just staring a light. Um, and you use this for, you know, 15 minutes in the morning, at the time that your body would naturally be waking up. And it has marked measurable improvements for feelings of depression, whether that’s actual SAD, in the wintertime or just feeling sad. And it’s crazy that people don’t do this. And I’m sitting here like – I should do that. I still haven’t done it.

FW 35:58

But you might do it sort of like I do it. Well, you live in a dark place right now. But I go for walks early in the morning, right? Almost every morning. So I am doing a version of light therapy, but I’m just doing it outside. And not only does it help with mood, but there are studies showing that you know, when your circadian rhythm is, you know, it’s kind of where it’s ready to be, um, it has cascading effects and all kinds of biological processes in your body. Yeah, so hormones release all that stuff.

AB 36:26

Absolutely. So it’s just one of those things that it’s like, so simple, that it’s that you’re like – that’s crazy, that can’t possibly help. I’ll take a million vitamins, you know. We have this propensity to make things more complicated than they have to be.

FW 36:44

Just going for a 15 minute walk in the morning is hugely, hugely helpful. And that was definitely part of my heartbreak recovery, too. You know, it wasn’t just the wilderness, it was like, I actually live in the heart of the city in Washington, DC. So I have to figure out, you know, how to do it on an almost daily basis where I am.

AB 37:00

So we just talked about your daily morning walk. Anyone who has ever experienced heartbreak, like we’ve been talking about today, knows that desperation to make it feel better. You and I talked about how we really just wanted to fix it as soon as possible. I have to believe that that’s a common feeling.

FW 37:27

Yeah, and it’s just unfortunately, it’s just not that easy.

AB 37:30

I remember right after my, you know, sort of, like you mentioned earlier, this one event that triggers this cascade of heartbreak. And I remember being on the phone with somebody who’d also had a similar experience, and specifically asking her – Okay, so on which date will this stop hurting? Like, can I mark my calendar for when this is going to stop being so incredibly painful?

FW 37:59

I was so determined that it would just be like, one year. That’s it, right? Give it one year?

AB 38:04

There is not a common experience how long this lasts, but you don’t necessarily realize the day that happens.

FW 38:19

Yeah, and there may not be a, you know, a sort of gatepost marking the land of being totally better. Yeah, you know, we expect this kind of neat resolution or neat closure to our heartbreak. And unfortunately, or fortunately, in some ways. You know, our emotions are just more layered and, and it’s really interesting, actually, than that, and living with some scars, living with some memories, living with, you know, some moments of regret, you know, these things are gonna keep popping up. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing. You know, it reminds us that we’re human, it reminds us that we have, you know, in some ways, frailties that can be turned to strengths, if we learn how to kind of open our hearts instead of just numbing out.

AB 39:09

Yeah. And, you know, as we’ve been talking about today, that acronym of AWE that you just mentioned a little earlier, and using nature to make yourself feel better from the heartbreak can also be tools that you have now in your pocket, something you’ve learned to deal with, you know, a wide variety of challenges from life. Life is full of that. And isn’t it nice to have the tools to take care of it?

FW 39:38

Exactly, exactly. But having said that, you know, at the time I was like – I really want this river trip to heal me. I’m gonna end this river trip and I’m going to be all better. That was a year after the split. And honestly, it just didn’t quite work out that way.

AB 39:56

Okay, so It didn’t work out that way. But what happens next? What’s the end of that story?

FW 40:05

Well, so, you know, my intentions for the river trip were to access bravery. Because I was so afraid of my future. It was to learn how to be alone and learn to be self reliant. And also to sort of tell myself a new story about who I was going to be on the other side. So again, just sort of continued that metaphor, like I was leaving the sort of the broken badlands of my marriage and flowing to this new place, that I hoped would be sort of light-filled and wonderful. And that I would emerge as the sort of heroine ready to take on the rest of her life. And also to calm down, right. So we did a blood sample before the river trip. And we did another blood sample after the river trip. And what was so disappointing is that my blood really didn’t look any better. After being in the wilderness, I did feel like I had achieved some of my goals, you know, like, I did feel more self confident, I felt a little bit less afraid, I felt like I had a lot of time to reflect, you know, and that was somewhat helpful, although, I could also go down these kind of negative rabbit holes of emotion, and then there was no one to kind of, you know, pull me out of it. Because my best girlfriends weren’t there to say – Florence, you’re being an idiot. Then the other piece, you know, is that I was alone. So, that is good for a lot of things, it’s good for self confidence, maybe, but it’s not so good for calming down your nervous system. Because we’re not really supposed to be alone in the wilderness, right? We don’t feel totally safe when we’re alone. We have to always be a little bit on edge, we have to be hyper aware of our surroundings. You know, when you’re in the wilderness without a road, without another person, without a phone, you can’t screw up. I couldn’t like cut myself, or, you know, tie my boat in badly and have it flow down the river without me. So I had to just be like, on alert all the time. And that’s, that’s important, and you’ll survive that way. But, it’s not really going to make you feel calm, it’s going to make you feel like – oh, my, okay, I’m out here alone, I’m going to survive. I’m going to get through this. And so that was reflected in my immune system, which was still pumping out a fair amount of inflammation. So when I talked to the neurogeneticist after this, he was like – Well, you know, really, there are other things that you can be doing to calm down, like, don’t be alone. Don’t be alone outside. Be outside with your friends, if you’re feeling, you know, afraid. And then he said – also, we know what’s really, really helpful for improving people’s immune systems is this third piece of the heartbreak solution, which is the purpose and the meaning. Like, go do some stuff that makes you feel like you’re helpful to other people. Do stuff where you feel connected, tell yourself a story where you’re learning something from this, that you can take into the future to help other people. So he said – when we do that, with these populations that we study, it’s the people who don’t necessarily report that they are happy and cheerful. Or that they’re even like, particularly social. It’s the people who have meaning and purpose in their lives. Those are the ones who have the best immune systems. So I thought that was really fascinating. And kind of unexpected.

AB 43:51

We have come to the end of our time with you. Which is sad, because I think we could talk about this with you all day. It’s such a broad and important topic. And I just want to say first of all, thank you for your transparency and for writing about this because even though that’s kind of who you are as a person to who I am as a person, it ‘s an act of bravery, being willing to put yourself out there.

FW 44:26

Thank you for saying that. And thank you for having me on and for sharing my story with your listeners. I’m really, really privileged and pleased to do it.

AB 44:38

Thanks so much for listening to this week’s episode of Humans Outside. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, give us a little love and leave a rating and review to make it easier for others to find the podcast too. What you say matters. It really truly does make a difference. And until next time, we’ll see you out there.

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