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walking in nature

Explore Nature as a Healer

I was touched recently by a documentary that I watched called Mother Nature’s Child. In one part, school children were given an exercise to sit outside and journal about what they could learn from nature in relation to a problem in their lives. One of the girls reported how she watched the wind and realized it had many sides, it could be soft and gentle and also strong and scary in a storm. She said that she realized from listening to the wind that she could also have many different sides and that she did not always need to be happy or sad and that there was a time and place for everything. I was left wishing that I had had such a soft and gentle lesson like that when I was going through all the turmoil and confusion of pre-adolescence. And it made me think about all the ways that nature can teach us and support all of us if we just have some quiet moments to sit in nature.

As this shows, nature or the natural world can be a wonderful source of healing. From my own experience, when I am feeling stressed or down and I make the time to go outside and sit under a tree or feel the sun on my face, I feel better. Sometimes, when I am overwhelmed, even opening the door for a few minutes and breathing in the fresh air is enough to focus and calm me and help me reframe what is positive in my life. When I am by myself in nature, I feel most accepted, and most like myself, like I don’t have to try to be anything different than who I am. And when I come back to my busy life, after being in nature, I feel more alive. This makes sense, as we evolved as a human species living outdoors. Nowadays, most of our lives are spent in front of technology in climate controlled rooms.

Much research has been done to show that being in nature, even for short periods of time, can improve our mental health and productivity and decrease our stress levels. For example, in Japan, researchers showed that people who walked in the forest (called forest bathing) versus a city streets had decreased stress hormones, improved immune systems as well as more cancer fighting cells after their walk in the forest. In another study, people who were in nature for one hour had a 20% improvement in their memory and attention, making nature connection also valuable to employers.

So what does connecting with nature mean? Well, it can mean any way that we can connect with our natural world. Certainly, having the opportunity to be in a green space is ideal, but research shows that even by looking at pictures of nature, our mental and physical health can be improved. For example, people who looked at pictures of trees in hospital rooms were found to have improved health and used less pain medication. Just listening to nature sounds can also have a positive impact on our mental health. People who listened to nature sounds on a CD were also found to have reduced stress levels.

If you are looking for some ideas of how you can begin to use nature to heal, reduce your stress or just add to your wellbeing, here is a list of activities you could try:

  • Go for a walk in the forest or a park with trees.
  • Spend some time outside on your lunch break and set aside your technology.
  • Look at awe-inspiring pictures of nature and post them in your office or home. Research shows that pictures of nature that were more awe-inspiring had a greater impact on our health.
  • Listen to sounds of nature on a nature CD or have a tea with the window open and listen to the sounds of birds.
  • Instead of meeting indoors, do something in nature with friends or families. The Children and Nature Network has great resources and ideas for helping families to spend more time in nature.
  • Take some time to sit in nature quietly and contemplate a current problem you are having. Let yourself notice everything around you and journal about what nature might be able to teach you about what you are struggling with.
  • Let yourself do something that invites childlike curiosity, playfulness or passion such as lying in the sunshine, looking at the clouds, splashing in mud puddles, collecting berries, or going fishing. There are so many possibilities! If you never had the chance to do these things as a child, watch other children as they play in nature and see what you are drawn to.
  • Spend some time caring for plants, whether in an outdoor garden, a pot on a balcony or plants in your home.
  • If you are dealing with grief, you might like to try finding a comforting place by water and talking to the water about your grief. Water can be a safe and soothing place to express your feelings.
  • Finally, you may also notice that you feel a grief about what is happening to your world environmentally. If this is something you relate to, you may find it fulfilling to join an event that helps clean up our environment for example or connects you with other people who also care about our natural world.