Author Heather Goodspeed-Walters calls the simple act of connecting with nature "re-wilding," but it goes by many other monikers, including Shinrin-yoku, mindful mindlessness, and even "brain enema." Whatever you choose to call it matters less than simply doing it. Here, the writer shares why nature might be the best prevention, and the best cure for whatever ails you.
I have a new favorite word: Re-wild. I love the idea of re-establishing a relationship with the great outdoors. And I love the hope that is insinuated—that a relationship with nature actually exists and that it can be made strong again.
Perhaps there is no "re-" or "again" in it for you, but I believe that we are drawn innately to the natural world. Harvard University biologist, Edward O. Wilson, PhD, coined the term "biophilia" in the 1980s to describe this very phenomenon. We are calmed and left with a sense of wonder when an image of an expansive sea or mountain range cross our paths. Urban-dwellers flock to city parks for a dose of much needed greenery. Watch a child play outdoors and there you witness pure joy. In fact, I venture to say that we can learn a lot from watching children in this beautifully unstructured environment.
We humans have spent many, many thousands of years adapting to nature around us, and only a few hundred years navigating urban habitats. For the first time in 80 years, urban growth is more rapid than sub-urban growth. We are dependant and addicted to technology, many of us spending upwards of 8 to 10 hours a day looking at a screen. The world wide web has simultaneously opened and closed down the world around us.
The good news is that I think we have reached a turning point. As a society, we are becoming more aware and mindful of the effects (and ridiculousness, I dare say) of being constantly plugged in. Can we put our devices down long enough to sit through a meal, or even use the restroom without feeling the detox of disconnectedness? A cartoon image that I once saw comes to mind: A teen-age boy and girl sitting on a park bench, the boy is face down in his phone, updating his Twitter status, as the girl looks up to the trees around them, joyous at the sight and sounds of birds of Twitter-symbol likeness. We have all been both of these characters at one time or another: Face down in the phone, oblivious to a beautiful world surrounding us, or catching that momentary glimpse of nature that leaves us in awe and craving more.
Studies on simply looking at nature are seemingly endless. Students with a natural setting outside their windows perform better on tests. Patients in hospital rooms with a natural setting view recover faster. Prisoners with such a view report less headaches, digestive stress, and sick calls overall. In the office setting, workers with a natural view report higher job satisfaction and less perceived stress than those with either no view, or an urban view. On simulated driving tests, subjects whose routes took them along nature dominated drives recovered faster (heart rate, pulse, blood pressure) after simulated stressful events than those who drove along urban routes. It is clear that nature has a positive effect on us, both mentally and physically.
Even the World Health Organization, in their 1986 Charter, concluded that natural environments, and conservation of natural resources where people live, learn, work, and play, must be included in any well-rounded public health promotional strategy.
At the forefront in the study, and actualization of health-via-nature, is the country of Japan. In 1982 the Japanese government coined the term shinrin yoku, which translates as "forest bathing." Japan's Forestry Agency currently oversees 48 Forest Therapy trails, designated for shinrin yoku, with plans to expand to 100 trails over the next 10 years. The Japanese government has also spent $4 million in forest bathing research. Forest ranger cabins double as research stations where visitors can have vital signs, oxygen levels, salivary cortisol levels, blood hemoglobin, and the like monitored. And this is not fringe science: It is estimated that between 2.5 to 5 million people use these trails every year. The results continue to overwhelmingly support the benefits of creating more outdoor space.
The great news is that South Korea and Finland are following suit, with more countries bound to climb on board.
Taking in to account the Buddhist and Shinto practices that inspired shinrin-yoku, let us explore what I like to call the "mindful mindlessness" of nature therapy. Find your nearest park, wooded area, beach, or garden. Remember that we are here to unplug, to restore and rejuvenate our senses, and to recover from the mental fatigue associated with overstimulation and constant attention-giving. We are not merely exercising outdoors. Exercise most often comes with a goal: fitness, weight loss, etc., and many of us are using heart-rate monitors, watches, and various apps to record a variety of performance parameters, or even listen to music. Rather, simply take the time for a quiet, not necessarily silent, meandering stroll, without thought to distance or time.
Nor are we here to capture the moment digitally. As a recovering Instagram addict I know the pull, the mental anguish practically, to want to photograph the moment and share with the world. Let us instead practice living in moment. If anything, take the time to absorb the scene around you so that it is wholly committed to a wonderful memory to be drawn upon later.
Use all of your senses. Take in the sounds and scents around you. Appreciate the beauty. Be like a child and touch the leaves, the ground, the trees. Pack a snack and taste the Earth. Acknowledge that you are eating a root, a leaf, or perhaps a berry or fruit. Give yourself a brain enema: Let your thoughts flow, without attachment to them. Breathe deeply.
Studies show that the positive effects of 20 minutes of nature therapy can last up to three days. This is wonderful news, making the healing benefits of the outdoors entirely with our reach. Let's go get wild again.
"Students with a natural setting outside their window perform better on tests. Patients in hospital rooms with a natural setting view recover faster. Prisoners with such a view report less headaches, digestive stress, and sick calls overall."
"The Japanese government has spent $4 million in forest bathing research. Forest ranger cabins double as research stations where visitors can have vital signs, oxygen levels, salivary cortisol levels, blood hemoglobin, and the like monitored. And this is not fringe science: It is estimated that between 2.5 to 5 million people use these trails every year."
"Find your nearest park, wooded area, beach, or garden. Remember that we are here to unplug, to restore and rejuvenate our senses, and to recover from the mental fatigue associated with overstimulation and constant attention-giving."
Heather Goodspeed-Walters is a chiropractor, food photographer, marathon runner, yoga instructor, wife, and mother. She has sustained a 75-pound weight loss for 18 years through healthy eating and is passionate about teaching others the joy and deliciousness of healthy foods. Dr. Heather lives, works, and benefits from the beauty of nature in California's Sierra Nevada foothills. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.