Finding Serenity in Iceland (And Other Ways to Calm the Brain)

Achieving relaxation — whether by connecting with nature, receiving a spa treatment, or meditating — might be exactly what is needed to restore a sense of calm in the brain. In just a short amount of time, your mind will go from focusing on life’s daily stresses to letting go of any negativity and fear that may have festered for whatever reason. In its place, a renewed sense of purpose and peacefulness will take over. Perhaps Brain World readers should take note of the people of Iceland, who are surrounded by the immense beauty of their country.

“Our brains may be overloaded; there is so much stuff that is being fed to us via the internet, newspapers, television, and radio. We are constantly being barraged by information coming at us,” acknowledges Icelandic celebrity Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who plays the drunken helicopter operator in the remake of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” “This is why it’s so important to walk away sometimes and just be in nature. Iceland is such a visually stimulating country — I don’t bring my cell phone. I just take this time for me, and I return calm for whatever my day brings.”

In the film, Mitty (portrayed by Ben Stiller) is often in a kind of meditative pose while he fantasizes about what his life could be like. Through his conversations and subsequent adventures with local Icelandic folk, he realizes that it’s time to start really experiencing his life more fully. Ólaffson believes that getting a fresh perspective, much like Stiller’s character did, can help our mindsets. “Like, for me, when I spend time in nature — not just in Iceland but when I’m in America too — I realize how tiny I am. I am part of a huge machine; we are here for a moment, and then we are gone. It’s good to get out of one’s comfort zone. You have to be willing to take chances once in a while and be brave — your life must be one of substance,” he shares.

The film’s location manager, Hinrik Ólafsson, has the luxury of being able to be outdoors in one of Iceland’s many gorgeous areas while working. “I do conference calls with studios out in the wilderness, and there is a lot of stress in the air, but here I am scouting for beautiful locations. I feel like just being aware of my surroundings makes me more relaxed and focused,” he says. Ólafsson is also a writer-producer-director who has worked with the BBC, National Geographic, and Discovery. He is currently working on a television documentary about the common eider duck with Sky Vision UK and Profilm Iceland. “Nature has so much to teach us — even when I’m not working, I enjoy fly-fishing and horseback riding for hours. It’s a relaxing meditation for me, and I feel good after.”

There are other methods of helping people relax deeply and find their serenity. Michelle Vink, a yoga and meditation instructor from Los Angeles, chose Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, essentially a unique geothermal spa hotel, for her relaxation retreat because of its calming environment. “There is no place like it on Earth. I try to visit Iceland every fall to see the Northern Lights and relax — I have spent so many mornings meditating near the volcanic rock and mystical waters watching the sunrise. There is just something so magical about it,” she says.

Exercise in general, especially the kind that emphasizes stretching and deep breathing — such as yoga or Pilates — can make a seriousvimpact on our physical, mental, and emotional health. According to Vink, “Many people have started to enjoy the obvious physical benefits of the asana, but there is so much more to yoga than just the postures. By activating the parasympathetic nervous system through Pranayama breathing techniques, we can relax the mind and body and prevent the damaging effects of stress.

By cultivating mindfulness through a daily meditation practice on and off the mat, we start to change our perspective.” She believes that instead of worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, we should try to live in the present moment. It will help us experience fulfillment and deal with depression and/or anxiety that may be afflicting us.

Vink met her husband, Andrew House, a fireman and paramedic from Seattle, shortly after her trip. He went to Iceland with a couple of friends and stayed at the Blue Lagoon. “The soft silica mud on my skin, the volcanic rocks around me, it all just made me feel like I was on another planet. All stress seemed to vanish, and I felt so relaxed and calm. You leave feeling like a new person — tranquil, peaceful, and present,” he states. “I see so many people every day with my job [who] are dealing with the effects of stress, from heart attacks to strokes. If more people took a more proactive approach to stress and learned how to relax and live in the present moment, I think we would see less people in the ER.”

Jeanne Sunderland, owner and co-creator of Hawaii Island Retreat, believes that, during meditation, massages, facials, yoga, tai chi, and other spa services, the “significant” brain shift that takes place has the ability to quiet the mind. She explains, “When there is increased excitement to the brain either from external stimulation or internal chatter, serotonin production decreases the brain chemistry that makes us feel happy, serene, and content. With heightened levels of stimulation, it feels like the brain responds with more tunnel vision and anxiety.”

At the retreat, guests are encouraged to partake in “those meditative experiences of serenity, contentment, and joy.” They can walk the valley, visit the council stones and bask in the fragrance of flowers as the gentle breeze caresses their skin. By “experiencing the healing touch of life, massage and quieting moments in meditation, guests leave here feeling changed, full of joy, and more aware of themselves in this natural environment,” she says.

But even if you can’t get vacation time or have the money to travel, you can learn to relax at your local hair salon. “Getting your hair done can be almost as therapeutic as going to the spa,” says Erick Orellana, colorist for Sally Hershberger salon. It’s true that sitting in the salon chair as you are being pampered can be rather comforting, but there’s more to it. Since each of the salon’s assistants is pretrained to give the clients “a soothing, calming, thoroughly cleansing shampoo treatment and scalp massage” at the shampoo bowl, people tend to fall into immense relaxation right off the bat.

One of the treatments he integrates into his services is the use of infused hair oils: lavender, rose, and eucalyptus. “These oils are known for their therapeutic healing purpose and can help calm nerves, soothe irritated spirits, and just, overall, help you achieve serenity,” notes Orellana.

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