Healing in Nature
Our world is in quite a chaotic, stressful state right now. We have front row seats to everything that is happening – exactly when it happens. Technology dominates our lives and leaves us with no escape. Truthfully, our brains are fried from the constant onslaught of fear and negativity. Knowing this, you would think we would put our phones down and take a break. Instead, it appears that we are hooked on the headlines. So how do you soothe your savaged soul?
The solution is surrounds us. Nature shows us how to be resilient through natural disasters. In the western United States last year, vast swaths of forests were destroyed by massive forest fires. This year new growth is starting to appear. Nature heals the land, restores habitats, and new forest will return. Nature has the power to heal us too.
Research has revealed that nature is good for our health. Whether it is a stroll through an urban park or a hike through deep forests, nature has been linked to a host of benefits. These benefits include improved attention, lower stress, better mood, reduced risk of psychiatric disorders and even upticks in empathy and cooperation. Being in nature increases dopamine and serotonin in our brains – chemicals that are associated with improved sense of satisfaction and motivation. Nature reduces anger and aggression. Nature is a powerful antidepressant. Most research has focused on green spaces such as parks and forests, and the researchers are now beginning to study the benefits of blue spaces, places with rivers and ocean views. I find sitting lakeside doing nothing but gazing at the lake to be immensely calming.
“There is mounting evidence, from dozens and dozens of researchers, that nature has benefits for both physical and psychological wellbeing,” says Lisa Nisbet, PhD, a psychologist at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, who studies connectedness to nature. “You can boost your mood just by walking in nature, even in urban nature. And the sense of connection you have with the natural world seems to contribute to happiness even when you’re not physically immersed in nature.” (Weir, K. April 1, 2020. https://www.apa.org)
Besides the emotional benefits of nature, there are cognitive benefits Mother Nature expends to us. Adults assigned to public housing units in neighborhoods with more green space showed better attentional functioning than those assigned to units with less access to natural environments. And experiments have found that being exposed to natural environments improves working memory, cognitive flexibility and attentional control, while exposure to urban environments is linked to attention deficits (Current Directions in Psychological Science (https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721419854100), Vol. 28, No. 5, 2019).
In 1982, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries created the term shinrin-yoku, which translates to ‘forest bathing’ or ‘absorbing the forest atmosphere’. The practice simply encourages people to spend time in nature. The goal of forest bathing is to live in the present moment while immersing your senses in the sights and sounds of a natural setting. (Kaiser Permanenta, December 19, 2022).
The benefits of forest bathing are being recognized by the development of parks, trees, and pockets of nature mixed throughout the streets of some of the largest cities in the world. The in-depth practice of forest bathing has been found to lower blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of harmful hormones, like cortisol, which is the body’s primary stress hormone. Studies have found that spending 10 – 20 minutes outdoors can lead to increased wellbeing and happiness – and decreased amounts of stress.
How to Practice Forest Bathing
As quirky as this practice sounds, there is very little special knowledge or equipment required. Take a trip to a local park, your favorite trail, the beach, or a natural setting. Required – turn off or silence your phone or other devices. This is your time to commune with nature. The key is to practice mindfulness – being present and fully in the moment.
Once at your destination, take a few deep breaths and center yourself. Focus on what your senses are taking in – the scent of pine trees, the birds chirping, or the cool breeze coming off the lake filling you with peace and contentment. Spend a few moments really looking at your surroundings. Sit and watch the trees, walk at an easy pace, and let your mind and senses wander. Enjoy the environment. A good starting rule of thumb is to practice forest bathing for at least 20 minutes every day. If this time commitment is too much, then shorten your time. This is supposed to be a time to relax and detach from the technology driven world. It should not feel like a chore.
Look for moments of awe. In the spring I am so inspired by the tips of daffodils and other spring plants popping up from beneath the snow cover. It is a small sign of spring but such a powerful one for me. Chirping birds are going crazy right now. After the quiet of the winter, it is a gift to hear them again. The practice of forest bathing just calms my brain. Thank goodness.
Kaiser Permanente. (December 19, 2022). Forest bathing: what it is and why you should try it. Retrieved from https://healthy.kaiserpermanente.org/health-wellness/healtharticle.what-is-forest-bathing
Singing River Natural Medicine. The healing power of nature. Retrieved from: https://singing-river.com/the-healing-power-of-nature/
Weir, K. (April 1, 2020). Nurtured by nature. Vol.51, No. 3. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/