How to Connect with the Nature Around You
Time in nature has various physical and mental health benefits
Founder of Wild Minds Jodi Winter shares some exercises to help you connect with the natural world around you, and reap the benefits
You hear it all the time don’t you? The benefits of being in nature to your physical and mental health. But have you ever tried to access these benefits and make progress because of them? Following major knee surgery three years ago that left me having to learn to walk again, and at times in a very dark and difficult place, I used my background in environmental education to access the benefits of nature and significantly improved my mental health as a result of it. I now share what I have learnt with others, enabling other people to see the positives that nature can bring to their lives.
Roots: why does connecting with nature support positive mental health and wellbeing?
As a species, humans have always needed the land in order to survive, but as we have evolved and developed the way we live, we have deprived ourselves of our innate need for connection with the natural world and this had lead to us all being placed under stress. Time in nature allows us to reconnect those relationships we have and need with nature and develop a sense of inner peace.
Many studies have now concluded that time spent in nature not only improves mental health but positively alters our physical state. Blood pressure and heart rate are reduced, as is the amount of stress hormone cortisol we release. Our immune system is boosted by an increase in Natural Killers Cells, which help us to fight infections, as well as an increase in feel good hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin. Scientist in Japan studying the effects of time spent in nature have recently discovered the benefits of a chemical scent released from certain species of tree, which increases the amount of Natural Killer Cells we produce. These chemicals are called phytoncides and are released most heavily from citrus scented plants such as the Douglas fir and spruce. Nature really is the best doctor we have and the best thing about it is it can be accessed for free, without the need of prescription or a waiting list!
Trunk: how do I connect with nature?
There are many techniques I have tried in order to get the most out of my time in nature and you can read about a variety of different ways of forming a connection with nature in order to improve mental health and wellbeing. Personally, I find walking in nature the best way to quieten my mind and to slow down my body and find a moment of inner calm. However, I am a fast walker and in the past would be too focused on the end of my walk, rather than experiencing fully the journey. Shinrin-Yoku or Forest Bathing is a big thing at the moment, but it has been practised in Japan since the early 1980s. As a trained Shinrin-Yoku practitioner, I often use many of the invitations recommended by the practice to help others to take more time enjoying experiencing the journey of being nature.
Simple exercises such as ‘Meet A Tree’, where I use all of my senses (even taste if you are feeling very brave!) to explore a tree. Begin with sight only and avoid touching the tree. Focus on all aspects of the tree and imagine you have never seen one before, look at the tree with eyes, noticing all the shapes, textures, colours and movement the tree has to offer. Next, explore the trees scent – remember those phytoncides are hugely beneficial for our body’s immune system! We then listen to our tree and really focus on the sounds we can hear within the tree. There is also a really beautiful moment of connection when I explain how to really hear the life inside a tree. I won’t give the secret away but, do pay close attention when you listen to your tree as you really can hear it living. Finally, touch your tree and really notice the contact you feel on your skin, notice the temperature and the texture. This is a great mindfulness exercise which only takes 5 – 10 minutes and really works to find inner peace and to calm the mind of its worries and stresses.
Branches: your inner child
There are range of other nature-based exercises you can do within a woodland setting that are not all centred around Forest Bathing, but there is also a lot of overlap. The key message in any form of nature therapy is to take you time and really immerse yourself, doing any activity you like which prolongs your time within the natural setting.
Often as adults we feel silly or self-conscious if we stop to do something which perhaps we associate with children or we feel others might judge us on, but finding your inner child is a brilliant way of accessing the full benefits of nature. My wife will tell anyone – I am a big kid. I am not afraid to make a fool of myself or try new things, however, I am extremely anti-social and do not like change! I have found working in nature and sharing my experiences and knowledge with others who struggle with forms of anxiety and stress to be a wonderful way of being allowed to be a big kid! It is ingrained in adults to be serious and focused at all times and that we do not have time to play as we used to as children. The fact is, playing in nature is a wonderful way, not only to connect with nature, but to connect with your family. Simply activities such as natural art, making mud pies, building a den or creating a series of stick people are all easy, free and fun ways to spend longer appreciating nature and reaping the benefits both physically and mentally of being in nature.
Another method I use both personally and with others is outdoor meditation. During my recovery from my surgery, I was left unable to walk for a long period of time and this crushed me inside. As someone who enjoyed running and hill walking, to suddenly be wheelchair bound in excruciating pain day and night, I struggled immensely mentally. I had some experience of meditation a few years prior to this and knew that it had helped me to cope with stress when needed. So, I looked into different forms of mediation, completed some trainer courses and began exploring nature meditation. Luckily for me, my loving wife would happily drive me to the local woodland, unload my wheelchair, load me into the wheelchair, wheel me to the woods and leave me there to calm my demons. Through spending quality time in nature, taking time to focus on the details and all its beauty, I was able to find small windows of peace and a reduction on pain. Although these moments were brief at first, the more I practiced, the longer these moments became and my connection with and thankfulness for the natural world grew exponentially and has not stopped growing.
The natural world is a wonderful resource, which we all, at some stage, take for granted. Take the time to reconnect with nature and you really will feel both physically and mentally stronger. I often visit the same tree and as I stand there with my palms on the trunk, looking up to the tops of the branches, I imagine all of the things that tree as seen and withstood and I am thankful to have a strong friend by my side who can listen to my worries without judgement and provide me with the strength to take the next step forward on my journey.
Jodi Winter is the founder of Wild Minds www.wildmindsnature.co.uk