By Nikki Rollo, LMFT

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” ~Lao Tzu

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Advancements in technology such as computers, phones, and the Internet have massively changed how we live our lives and relate to people and the world around us. We now fully live in the digital age. In so many ways, this has benefited our society and our growth as a culture. We have immediate access to information and connection with people across the globe, as two wonderful examples. In other ways, it brings us great challenges and loss. What comes to mind for me is the way in which we increasingly grow up in buildings with less green space around us and engage in indoor technology based activities over those that open up pathways to connect with nature. In fact, a study from the University of Illinois, Chicago found that Americans spend 25% less time outside now than in the late 1980’s. I would like this article to serve as a reminder of the ways in which nature is our classroom and how we can not only learn life lessons from the world around us, but also experience deep support in our unique healing journeys.

 

While we have known anecdotally or in our clinical wisdom as therapists that nature has inherent healing properties, with its peaceful landscapes and ability to make us feel a part of something bigger than ourselves, studies have been conducted that indicate this is more than just a subjective experience, but that we can be both grounded in and nurtured by nature. Two in particular I want to call attention to are:

 

  1. Shinrin-yoku: A researcher in Japan Yoshifumi Miyazaki has been studying forest medicine and a concept called Shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing”. This involves spending a short, but leisurely time in a forest setting, taking in or really absorbing the forest’s healing properties. In a recent study on this activity, researchers found that a walk in the woods greatly improved stress levels, blood pressure, and heart rate in comparison to those who spent time in an urban setting. “Forest Bathing” or making contact and taking in the atmosphere of the forest is a simple practice. It involves either walking at a relaxed pace or sitting and gazing at the trees, inhaling the aroma of the bark and needles, and listening to the movement of the leaves from the effects of the wind. One need not make effort to try and relax or meditate….the thought behind this meditative practice is that the forest will do that work for us, linking us to itself through our five senses. One of the key elements is deep relaxation- resting deeply with the trees.
  1. Garden Gazing: A study published in 1984 by Roger Ulrich demonstrated that gazing at a garden can help speed healing from surgery and is beneficial to patients who are in a hospital setting. Stress affects healing and this study showed the restorative power of nature and therapeutic landscapes as well as a discussion on the possible benefit of lively landscapes. Gardens, trees, alcoves of greenery can encourage healing, reduce anger, anxiety, and pain as well as induce relaxation…just 3-5 minutes a day spent looking at that landscape can induce a contemplative calm. This can be done with being in the actual garden or if this is not easily accessible to you, even looking at pictures can bring tranquility to a busy life.

 

Interacting with Nature

Clinebell, who wrote about ecotherapy, says that this kind of therapeutic approach refers to both the “healing and the growth that is nurtured by healthy interactions with the earth”.

Let’s explore some possibilities for these interactions:

  • Use Your Five Senses by intentionally interacting with nature through sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. Feel the breeze blowing your hair in the wind, wiggle your toes in the grass, let the snow melt on your tongue, hear the crunch of the leaves under your boots, observe the tree branches moving in the breeze, smell the aromas of the flowers, or look at the intricacies of a leaf.
  • Bring the Outside Inside through things like bringing a plant in your house or office or if this isn’t possible, perhaps a nature landscape screensaver on your computer or framing a picture of a place in nature that you feel a connection to and place it by your bedside. Another idea would be to draw or paint what you saw or experienced in nature and hang it on your wall as a reminder.
  • Create Nature Within by visualizing a comforting landscape and meditating for a few moments each day on something in nature that feels sacred to you and opens up possibility for a transcendent experience, beyond the limitations of only that which we can touch in service of expanding our sense of self and interconnectedness with nature. Perhaps you even consider meditating or praying at the river, ocean, or another sacred space. If you can’t go outside, envision the clouds, stars, planets, trees or flowers to promote relaxation and rest in your body.
  • Tend to Nature by participating in restorative experiences of caring for plants, trees, and flowers. Something like gardening can foster resiliency and sense of purpose in caring for something growing and getting your hands in the soil of the earth…and perhaps even growing and eating fruits and vegetables that you nurtured and allowing them to nurture you in return.
  • Spend time with Animals in honor of your interconnectedness with all living beings and to take advantage of the therapeutic affects of animals such as emotional balance, decreased anxiety, increased social interaction, and decreased loneliness.

Disconnection from the natural world can further feelings of anxiety, depression, or stress. Reconnecting with nature through things like forest bathing, garden gazing, playing with an animal, or bringing a plant into your indoor space can positively affect these symptoms, decreasing alienation and isolation often present in this digital age and increase our capacity and openness for the joy of connection. Tending to our relationship to nature is interconnected to our well-being and tending to the relationship with our own souls, allowing ourselves to be nurtured by nature.

References

Clinebell, H. (1996). Ecotherapy: Healing ourselves, healing the eatth. Minneapolis: MN: Fortress Press.

Greenleaf, A. T., Bryant, R. M., & Pollock, J. B. (2014). Nature-based counseling: Integrating the healing benefits of nature into practice. International Journal For The Advancement Of Counselling, 36(2)

Juyoung, L., Bum-Jin, P., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2009). Restorative effects of viewing real forest landscapes, based on a comparison with urban landscapes. Scandinavian Journal Of Forest Research, 24(3), 227-234.

Pergams, O. W., & Zaradic, P. A. (2008). Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation. PNAS Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, 105(7), 2295-2300

Richter, W. (2011). Forest bathing: Good for the spirit–and the body. Alive: Canada’s Natural Health & Wellness Magazine, (348), 46-51.

Todesco, T. (2003). Healing Through Wilderness. Trumpeter: Journal Of Ecosophy, 19(3), 90-104.