Barred spiral galaxy NGC 1097, imaged by a team of 12 astrophotographers.
Alessandro Ravagnin / S&T Online Photo Gallery

You know how being around certain people just makes you feel better, and calmer? Or maybe there’s an animal companion whose presence reduces your stress and makes the world feel more manageable.

Through the magic of coregulation, someone with a natural sense of ease can share their tranquility with someone in distress, by simple proximity.

Beginning in infancy, coregulation is a natural skill that helps us build relationships, deal with powerful emotions, and manage stress.

I’d argue the same holds true for the night sky.

Stargazing helps us to connect with the natural world and align with its rhythms. When I’m not encumbered by too much equipment or letting myself get frustrated about my neighbor’s porch light, taking some time to decompress under the stars dissolves much of the stress of the day. Often I don’t realize how tense I am until the pressure subsides.

Studies show that your heart rate and breathing tend to synchronize with those you love when they’re nearby. Pain and anxiety subside. Connection to others makes us feel safe and secure, and it’s one reason therapy dogs and emotional support animals are effective.

But the reverse can also be true. I have a predisposition to reflect the moods of those around me, and to take on the tone of news and entertainment media. I don’t know if that’s due to empathy, autism, or just plain being human, but it’s something I have to watch out for.

You know what’s not full of drama, intrigue, and stress lurking around every corner? The night sky.

Nature is the purest portal to inner-peace.

~ Angie Weiland Crosby

Under the open sky, I sense absolute acceptance. I am small and insignificant in the best possible way as the vast universe settles over my shoulders like a celestial weighted blanket.

The cool, clean air — when there’s not an active firepit nearby or wildfire smoke drifting in — awakens and engages my senses. Sheltered from the overwhelming sounds of traffic and television, my breathing deepens. I wish I could taste starlight; I imagine it would be more palatable than the eponymous, limited-run Coca-Cola flavor, whose taste was variously described as cereal milk, burnt cotton candy, and “floor.”

The stars don’t care about my social awkwardness when talking to a sales clerk earlier in the day. My busy brain can take a break from worrying about projects, client expectations, and deliverables. At least temporarily, that anxiety falls away.

The only deadline comes from Earth’s rotation. If I don’t manage to make out all the stars in Vulpecula or successfully star-hop to the Hercules Globular Cluster before it sets in the West — or before I have to drag myself to bed — I can try again the next clear night.

Better still, I have a new astronomy companion. We adopted a massive senior dog who doesn’t wander off, even in the dark. On the one clear night we’ve had recently, I dragged my zero gravity chair outside along with a pair of 7×35 binoculars for some low-stress, medium-bliss stargazing; Jax the dog was content to take a nap on the ground beside me. In both stellar and canine company, my heart slowed. My busy brain mellowed. My dog’s snoring blended with a chorus of singing frogs to create the perfect soundtrack for sedate, low-power sweeps across the sky.

Jax the dog
Jax is a gentle giant whose companionship makes stargazing all the more rewarding.
Jennifer Willis

It wasn’t until the last few years that I pondered the soothing nature of starry skies. This rediscovery of “celestial therapy” was one of the blessings of the pandemic. Now, as the world lurches toward a new normal, I sometimes struggle to hold on to the serenity of stargazing. The pain, confusion, and elevated stakes of daily living edge me ever closer to my limit, and a fortnight or two of overcast skies can wear me down even more.

When I’m tense, I’m liable to make things more complicated. Maybe I think I’ll relax if I have more control. I can derail my night-sky viewing with overly ambitious plans. I’ll carry too much equipment outside and exhaust myself trying to wrangle everything in the dark. Or I get caught up researching nebula filters or EAA tools during the day and find that I don’t have any energy left once night falls.

Which is to say, stargazing can be as easy or as challenging as we make it out to be. For me, the highest joy to effort ratio comes from keeping things simple.

Stargazing provides an even keel when I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Just as my dog is an instant mood stabilizer, so too I can count on the stars for cosmic coregulation. If these interminable clouds would just go away now, please, I know I can find steadiness and balance under a starlit sky.


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April 3, 2023 at 4:39 pm

Exactly right, and thank you for your eloquence.

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Jen Willis

April 4, 2023 at 11:57 am

Thanks. 🙂

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Douglas Duckett

April 8, 2023 at 2:59 pm

Amen to that!

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Anthony Barreiro

April 3, 2023 at 7:18 pm

Lovely! Thank you.

I call the "joy to effort ratio" the "hassle factor." Sometimes effort can be enjoyable, but hassle is always a hassle.

I think we would all be happier and healthier if our lives were more synchronized with natural cycles -- dawn and sunrise, morning, mid-day, afternoon, sunset and twilight, each night of the month marked by the waxing and waning of the Moon, each day of the year by the turning of the seasons. That's how we evolved, and given half a chance our bodies, minds, and spirits settle back into those rhythms.

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Jen Willis

April 4, 2023 at 11:58 am

You're not wrong. I'd be happy if we started by at least eliminating the twice yearly time change.

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Douglas Duckett

April 8, 2023 at 3:05 pm

I could not agree more!

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April 3, 2023 at 10:49 pm

Finally! The words to how I feel. Thank you!

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Jen Willis

April 4, 2023 at 11:59 am

That's lovely—thanks. 🙂

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