“Nature is one of the most underutilized treasures in life. It has the power to unburden hearts and reconnect to that inner place of peace” Janice Anderson
With all the Covid restrictions, it’s not an easy time to become close to fellow humans. Whilst the argument for social distancing is understandable to limit the threat of the virus, it does mean that many people are yearning for some kind of connection. So can nature provide the answer?
There are a growing number of psychologists and doctors that believe that we are losing our connection with nature to a point where it is causing us anxiety. What can we do about this, and are there ways in which we can re-connect with nature, and what are the benefits?
The Icelandic Forestry commission believes they have an answer. They are encouraging their citizens to go out and hug a tree (https://tfb.institute/tag/iceland-forestry-commission/) They claim that just 5 minutes hugging a tree can make a big difference to our moods, relieving depression, anger, fatigue etc.
In his book “The last child in the woods” Richard Louv claims that tree-hugging increases the levels of Oxytocin which is responsible for feelings of calmness and social bonding. According to Icelandic forest ranger Þór Þorfinnsson, when you hug a tree “you feel it first in your toes, and then up your legs and into your chest, and then up to your head”
So, if you are missing that big hug off someone just go out and find yourself a tree, and according to Þór Þorfinnsson any size will do, from a young sapling to an ancient mighty oak.
Since the 1980’s the Japanese have been practising Shinrin-yoku, briefly translated as Forest bathing. They believe in its benefits so much that it’s actually prescribed by doctors as a treatment for a number of ailments such as anxiety and depression.
The idea of forest bathing is simple. Switch off all your mobile devices and cameras and spend 2 hours simply walking in the forest or any other nature reserve. By doing so all 5 of our senses are utilized ;
We can hear the sounds of birds or wind rustling through the trees. We can see the colours and movement of plants, trees, and animals. We can smell the trees, the grass and plants. We can touch trees, plants, water and soil. And finally, many people claim to be able to taste the air in a forest.
According to researchers the benefits of forest bathing are far-reaching, it lowers blood pressure, reduces anxiety, helps to lose weight, improves concentration and memory, improves pain thresholds and boosts our immune system.
Forest bathing is now being taken quite seriously all over the world, not just in Japan. In the University of Derby are conducting research into this topic (derby.ac.uk/research/centres-groups/nature-connectedness-research-group). Whilst the study is in its early stages, the initial results have been promising, and more research is being encouraged.
Digging in the dirt
In 2004 Mary O’Brien, an oncologist at the Royal Marsden hospital in London, injected lung cancer patients with a harmless soil bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae. It was tested for its abilities to prolong life by improving the patient’s immune system to fight the cancer. Alas, it failed. However, there was a very interesting side effect, it actually improved the patient’s quality of life. It was found that patients were happier, expressed more vitality and had better cognitive functioning.
Apparently digging in the dirt really does lift your spirits (just ask any keen gardener). Digging in the dirt stirs up microbes in the soil which, as Mary O’Brien discovered, simply inhaling these microbes leads to the production of serotonin which in turns helps us feel more relaxed and happier.
For the last 2 years, I’ve been involved in a local project called “Parks in Mind” (bournemouthparksfoundation.org.uk/our-projects/parks-in-mind). Once a week I turn up at a local park and help clear invasive plant species and replace them with common British species. Whilst no official research has been done to the effectiveness of the project, all of the volunteers I’ve spoken to have expressed a big increase in their mood after just a few hours working in the Park.
Running up that hill
Many years ago, I went away for a weekend rock climbing in North Wales. The climbs were at the “easy” end of the scale, but even so, there was a tremendous feeling of achievement when I reached the top. Although I enjoyed the climb, I felt the real pleasure was sitting on top of a cliff face looking out at the valley stretching out below. It turns out that what I was feeling was an experience of awe.
The biologist E.O Wilson argues that humans are hard-wired to feel a special connection with natural systems which he calls “biophilia”. He believes human evolution has hardwired at a cellular level to connect with the rest of life, which is why we feel awe when looking out at a landscape.
Teams at the University of Berkeley and UC Irvine have found that feeling awe might make people help each other more. Paul Piff, and assistant professor at UC Irvine, claims “our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function” he goes on to say “By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others.”
Apparently, you don’t need to climb a cliff face in Wales to experience awe. Just taking time to notice the things around you such as a starry night, or beautiful scenery. And it’s not just our ethical behaviour, recent studies have found that awe can boost our immune system, make us more creative, and can make us feel we have more time to get things done.
When people experience awe, they have a natural desire to share that experience with others. According to Paul Piff “Maybe this is yet another way that awe binds people together – by causing people to want to share their positive experiences collectively with one another.”
Whether you decide to hug a tree, walk in the forest, dig in the dirt or climb a mountain, it appears nature has a way of replenishing us, lifting our moods, and generally improves our life. If you live in a large town or city, it may be hard to find a forest or hill to climb, but as I’ve discovered volunteering for Parks in Mind, just a couple of hours spent in a local park is often all it takes.
Find out more about Steve Emery and read more of his articles HERE