Updated: Mar 8, 2020
How spending time in the natural world is not only good for you, it's essential
Nature is the doorway to a greater connection with self. There is growing evidence that when immersing yourself in nature, you gain significant personal psychological benefits. In fact, almost 1,000 studies are showing how important connection with nature is.
“Nature is not only nice to have, but it’s a have-to-have for physical health and cognitive functioning.”
Says Richard Louv, a journalist in San Diego whose book is largely credited with triggering this movement and who coined the term Nature-Deficit Disorder. These studies have shown that time in nature can lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduce nervous system arousal, enhance immune system function, increase self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and improve mood.
How does nature help us? When you find your way back to nature, you begin to resonate with the core “you” and feel a sense of inner peace. By taking a simple walk in the woods, you will have greater clarity, focus, and emotional stability. It helps you to disengage from any unhelpful thoughts and feelings that may crowd your conscious mind so that you can connect with your true self. Most people will attest to feeling uplifted and calmer following a walk through a park or woodland space.
Now scientific research in the growing discipline of Ecopsychology is also beginning to uncover the mechanisms behind the benefits of immersion in nature to health, stress and happiness. Policymakers, employers, and healthcare providers are starting to consider the human need for nature in how they plan and operate.
A case for reconnecting and immersing yourself in nature
The modern lifestyle, albeit comfortable in so many ways, can also make us utterly miserable. Us humans have stepped onto a non-stop production line of striving for accomplishments, ‘goals’ and the need to acquire goods. This constant stress to achieve takes a toll on health and wellbeing.
In Japan, back in 1982, Tomohide Akiyama promoted forest-bathing, or shinrin-yoku, so to counteract the adverse effects of the technological era and to remedy modern-day maladies. Similar initiatives are now gaining followers around the world. Experts and the public alike are agreeing the need to rekindle the connection with nature. By doing so, health on a physical and psychological level can be optimised. So, how does reconnecting with nature affect the brain and can it heal us?
Psychological benefits of spending time in nature
When you spend time in nature – whether hiking, camping or kayaking, your mind and body go through a clean-up. You feel energised, calmer, and happier when at one with Mother Nature. These benefits have been documented when using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) which measures brain activity by identifying changes associated with the flow of blood. Other methods also affirm the positive benefits of being in nature. Let’s examine this more deeply.
Reducing stress helps you savour the present moment
In a 2014 study conducted in Japan, researchers compared the effects of walking in nature versus walking in urban settings. They found that walking in nature was far superior for the reduction of stress. Within the study, the participants’ physiological measures highlighted improved mood, lower anxiety levels and a greater sense of relaxation. They were also less stressed overall. By reducing the stress levels in life, you stop worrying about the future and free yourself from concerns of the past. You remain in the present and are in touch with the moment and yourself.
Increasing mental focus and clarity to see your life more clearly
A study done at the University of Melbourne demonstrated that even looking at a static image of nature, was sufficient to boost mental focus by 6%. In comparison, gazing at an image of a rooftop surrounded by tall buildings caused a drop of 8%. So, it is easy to comprehend that a real walk in the midst of nature has a wonderful effect on mental clarity and wellbeing. When you gain clarity, you become more attuned to your needs and your real priorities. You begin to see life more lucidly, and gain control.
Increasing creativity problem-solving to help de-clutter your mind
A 2012 study produced a compelling argument for spending some time disconnected from modern technologies and reconnecting with nature. The study revealed that only four days of immersion in nature resulted in an incredible 50% increase in performance with creative problem-solving tasks.
A camping trip could have multiple benefits. In addition to improved clarity and relaxation, it is even possible to map out your life simply because your mind is free from daily stressors. Simply, once creativity receives a boost, day to day issues feel easier to resolve. When you’re in nature, take time for yourself. Rest the mind and body and simply become a part of the scene. Don’t think about all the things you have to do but embrace the positive feelings that nature evokes.
Relieving adverse emotions and mental blocks to free you from self-imposed limitations
Nature’s miracle touch can liberate you from your cognitive and emotional blockages. Our cognitive distortions, thinking habits, and fears often enslave us. When you set yourself free from these self-imposed limitations, you open the way forward to a happier, healthier you.
If there is a tendency to constantly mull over everything that might go wrong in life, a simple walk in nature can release this tendency. A study looking into brain activity revealed that a 90-minute walk is all that it takes to reduce obsessive, repetitive thoughts. This is very powerful. The same study revealed that a 90-minute walk will alter activity in the part of the brain that is associated with the onset of depression and anxiety.
Scientists have also discovered evidence that smelling nature — the bracing scent of forest pine or cypress, for instance — lowers our blood pressure dramatically and increases anti-cancer molecules in our bloodstreams.
Improving mental well-being by promoting physical health
Overall, spending time in nature, be it the woods or an urban green space, has been found to have positive effects on many aspects of our physical health, especially cardiovascular function. It is a reminder that we are an integral part of nature even if we feel far removed from it. We must understand the connection between the physical body and the mind and how nature can create balance and harmony through its integrative properties.
“We don’t just spend time with nature, we are part of nature”
How much each week?
How long does do you need to spend in the natural world to feel healthy and have a strong sense of well-being? At least two hours.
A European Centre for Environment & Human Health study of 20,000 people, found that people who spent two hours a week in green spaces — local parks or other natural environments — were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who don’t.
Two hours a week is hopefully a realistic target for many people, especially given that it can be spread over an entire week to get the benefit.
Ways to reconnect with nature and ourselves
If you’re new to nature immersion, you may wonder how to get the most out of your next trip into the natural outdoors. Here are a few suggestions on how to truly reconnect with nature and yourself.
Disconnect from any devices and commit to being in nature without distractions. This disconnection from social networking helps you to reconnect with others in a more meaningful way.
Ground yourself – grounding, or earthing, means directly connecting to the earth, such as walking barefoot, lying on the ground, or swimming in a lake or sea.
Embrace nature - touch the soil and the plants and ignite a child-like interest in nature. It will bring you closer to your authentic being.
Be mindful while walking – use the opportunity to practice mindful perception of everything that is going on around you - and inside of you. Stay present and feel, hear, smell, see, taste. Mindfulness itself has numerous benefits to your wellbeing.
Life can be hectic, and it can be difficult to find time to reconnect with nature but, even a brief walk in the park can be enough to help calm mind and body. From the moment you immerse yourself in nature and absorb the sights, the sounds and the scents, the pressures of life drift away. You let go of the need to multitask and embrace mindfulness in the moment.
So, take your family, your friends, or your partner for a camping trip. Spend the afternoon in a city park or go kayaking together. Just disconnect from the pressure of modern times and indulge in some quality ‘you’ time. Reconnect with nature and it will do wonders for your ability to reconnect with yourself – and with others.