Dr. Gates is Talking About...Being Wired for Nature

April 06, 2023

The following piece was written by Wood River Health's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jonathan Gates and published in the Westerly Sun in April 2023.

April showers bring May flowers is one of the ways we think about April. Trees start budding, but those daffodils and crocuses (croci?) aren’t waiting for May to open up. Yet… April is stress awareness month! I wasn’t able to find an explanation for this choice, but I can see how the month of April can serve as a great reminder to start reducing stress by reconnecting with nature and reawakening your “self”.

Modern life has become a dazzling, flashing, noisy and distracting world. There is constant competition for our attention through ads and pop-ups, and our entertainment is filled with as much as 50% commercials. Social media, proven to worsen teen’s psychological health and increase stress, is rampant, and uses our information to further target ads, services, and “attention-getting” information. For brief periods, this kind of stimulation can be an effective and welcome distraction from other kinds of stress – work, relationship, or financial.

When technology becomes pervasive – and screen time increases – something unfortunate can happen: a variant of Alert Fatigue. We start to become numb to all but the most flashy, persistent ads, and the arms race for our attention must escalate. Sorting through this barrage takes mental energy – weeding through all the stimuli – and it obscures our inner voice, that reassuring one that tells us we can choose what happens next. Check your screen time report; does it say four hours a day? That’s equivalent to a half-time job spent staring at a little screen in our hands!

Mental attention works on the basis of change from the current state to a new one; we mentally transition from one thought-space to another, and there is a time of flux where perceptions are influenced by the previous and the future state. Just so, if your hand is held in ice-cold water for a while, then dunked in tap water, it reports, “you’re in a hot tub!”.

When we are repeatedly cranked up on artificial attention grabbers, we can lose the warm normalcy of human interactions – our connections are “out-of-range” just when we most need, in its best sense, the feeling of home. Our ancestors spent millions of years learning to manage, play, and survive in the natural world. We are, in our hearts and in our minds, wired for nature.

What does this have to do with April being stress awareness month? To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau: we are rich in proportion to the number of things we can afford to leave alone. Walk unplugged in nature, leave the headphones at home, and observe the slow yet vibrant renewal of April and May. Reset in the natural world; if Robert Frost’s road less travelled catches your attention, it is almost always meaningful, intriguing, and inspiring.

So, I dare you to turn off the Wifi once a month. Go out for dinner with phones left at home! Tell your friends to knock on the door if they need you, and if you still have one, use “The Land Line”. Enjoy the conversation and true connection that nature brought us so long ago – maybe even around a fire, while cooking dinner. Then, take note of how relaxing this untethering can be.

About Dr. Gates

A South County native, Jonathan Gates, MDCM has served as Wood River Health’s Chief Medical Officer since January 2023. He trained at McGill University Faculty of Medicine and completed residency at Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine. Board certified in Internal Medicine, he formerly served as Chief Medical Officer for Accountable Care at Providence Community Health Centers. During his tenure, Dr. Gates garnered over $24 million in net-new Medicaid revenue for the center while increasing patient safety and equity of health care access using proactive care management and flexible processes for primary care teams.