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Why are we so drawn to nature?

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

As we start to catch glimpses of budding trees and flowers, feel hints of warmer days to come, and dream about refreshing outside activities, you're invited to pause for just a moment to consider what it is, exactly, that evokes such a feeling toward nature. Why are we so enlivened by the smell and sight of fresh blooms? Why do we long for warm Spring days in a meadow, salty Summer evenings by the ocean, crisp colorful mornings in Autumn, and opportunities for cozy fires in Winter? Perhaps, the answer is these experiences connect us to home; our natural habitat. Numerous studies, hypotheses, and experiences continue to confirm that humans are a part of nature, rather than merely a hierarchical consumer of it. When we are removed from something or someone we feel deeply connected to, we feel some degree of discomfort or grief. Consider how you feel when you are reunited with a loved one after a prolonged period of being apart. When your partner has been away on a long work trip, and finally returns... When your child ventures off to forge their own path in college, career, or their own family in another city... How do you feel during that first embrace?


Current Issues


It's no secret that stress is up. If only there was a way to invest in stress as we do the stock market. It would be a guaranteed investment. Oh, wait, there's the pharmaceutical industry... That's a topic of opinion for another time. In a nutshell, teen suicidal ideations, attempts, and completions are at an all-time high (9), people are reporting feeling more lonely and isolated than ever (11), people are reporting more stress from work (1) and less time/energy/resources for family and fun outside of work. With the onset of COVID-19 and the many layers of impact stemming from it - medical, emotional, financial, social, etc., we've been drawn toward paying extra attention to our health, and how it's been negatively impacted. Even violent crime saw a spike in prevalence in 2020. Let's be clear, our health has been impacted long before the pandemic. Stress related illnesses were linked to the leading causes of death in the U.S. predating the pandemic (1). Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is prevalent in more than 6 million reported cases for children (2). Mental and emotional "unhealth" is so prevalent that there aren't enough therapists to work with the abundance of requests from people in need. Just in my experience, alone, I turn away more requests than I'm able to take on, simply due to the number of those requests far outweighing my capacity and availability.

We've seen a plethora of medications, treatments, and subjective advice-driven suggestions from folks on social media. We've seen the many ways social media is negatively impacting our lives, accompanied by recommendations to mitigate these impacts (13). Yet, we don't seem to be doing much to effectively address these issues. Life expectancy has seen the largest decline since the 1920s (3). Perhaps, we're simply trying to "fix" a set of symptoms, rather than consider what is actually at the root of our collective problem. What if we start taking a look at the level of expectations we place on ourselves and receive from others? What if we use those findings to go deeper in considering why we're so attached to these expectations, and what rules or agreements we're so desperately trying to uphold at the cost of our health, or sometimes, our lives? Let's be curious before jumping to conclusions or offering fixes that profit the companies promoting them, but may not actually help in an approachable and sustainable way.


Scientific Benefits


I am not suggesting that spending more time in nature will immediately resolve all of

our issues. However, I am suggesting that it’s a great start, and will vastly shift your

ways of thinking, interacting, and being, such that the issues above will be more

sustainably resolved in approachable ways. There’s data to support this claim. In fact,

studies have shown that mindful walking or walking with awareness in nature, and

even conducing psychotherapy in a forested environment (8) have significant effects

on reducing depressive symptoms, reducing stress (15), and increasing capacity for

focused attention (7). Even significant increases in production of immune cells, called

natural killer cells, have been associated with inhaling phytoncydes emmitted by trees

(4)(10). Using Profile of Mood States (POMS) scale, folks who participated in forest

bathing, experienced improvements in negative mood and decreased depressive

symptoms identified in DSM 5. Benefits of being in nature aren’t just related to

immunity and mental/emotional health. Researchers found that participants engaging

in “forest bathing” or Shinrin Yoku, a form of forest immersion involving mindfully

walking in nature, experienced reduced blood pressure, decreased sympathetic

nervous system activity, and activation of parasympathetic nervous system -

responsible for regulation and calming (10). If the above data isn’t

enough to convince you that spending time in our natural habitat is immeasurably

beneficial, try it for yourself. Collect your own data.


Consumption


Richard Louv suggests that much of our present-day disorder and stress can be traced in one way or another to humans being removed from our natural habitat (16). When we spend prolonged periods of time, especially days, in nature, we truly begin to understand his claim, and the merit it demands. We don’t typically feel a sense of euphoria, awe, comfort, calm, enrichment, etc. from being inside with no access to the outdoors for days on end. In fact, the common term of phrase is “being stuck inside.” That sentiment didn’t come from nothing. Sure, you may be able to distract yourself with a binge-worthy show or hyperactive and stimulating video game or countless online videos, but what if these platforms didn’t work so hard to keep you engaged? Why do you think Youtube and streaming apps implement features, like autoplay and suggestions for next video? They want you to continue consuming. When left to your own devices, you just may recognize that constant consumption isn’t actually what you want. It’s neither intentional nor purposeful when we mindlessly float from one content to another, or click on more content because an algorithm tells us we should. I’m suggesting that we have a pandemic, separate from COVID, that has been around much longer, and continues to grow with exponential force - Overconsumption. Consumption is our new drug. It permeates all other vices, often under the guise of productivity, connection, or simply entertainment. These are falsities with no intentional purpose. We are not designed to be productive all the time. Play and rest are important, crucial in fact (4). Social media and dating apps do not offer connection, only the illusion of connection. How much do you actually know about the people you follow? Only what they’re posting. How often do you actually talk to or see the people you’re following, or do you accept the updates in your media feed as sufficient? With well over 50,000 options for viewing, just on the top 5 streaming apps, I think this far exceeds entertainment. Perhaps, we’re venturing into overload. Many people report less freedom of availability in regard to streaming options, and more feeling burdened to complete the numerous shows they’ve committed themselves to.


Solutions


Sometimes, statistics and science can feel overwhelming, especially when the data is

alarming. I’ve intentionally left out the plethora of data on negative effects from

climate change. That’s just too much crushing information for one blog post. Perhaps,

another time. Instead, let’s shift toward what we can do with our current predicament.

Psychotherapy, counseling, and other holistic wellness approaches are certainly

encouraged and necessary. We cannot stop there, because not everyone is suffering

from a mental illness or disordered mood or thinking. Plus, therapy can be expensive,

which isn’t a problem caused by therapists’ gouging (not completely), but by a

healthcare system that doesn’t value mental/emotional health enough to pay providers

adequately. This, consequently, forwards the cost to the consumer, patient, client.

Again, that social and political crisis is reserved for another post.


The Good News is that increasing our exposure to and in nature is easier, cheaper,

more accessible, and far more beneficial than many drugs and many mainstream

remedies. Yards, parks, trails, mountains, beaches, etc. Are available and calling us

home. Perhaps, you’ll try taking a walk outside each day before you sit on the couch

with the TV or smartphone. Maybe you’ll take a breath and look out a window

between ending one meeting and joining another. Maybe you’ll introduce your

children to the awe and wonder of the life all around us by creating joy and fun

outside. Bring your social gathering to an outdoor space, or at least make it hybrid.

One barrier to re-immersing ourselves with the natural world is our belief that we

have to drive to the mountains or beach to truly experience nature. Though these

destinations are incredible, they don’t have to be your baseline. You can start small.

Bring the TV outside to watch the big game or anticipated movie. Walk around your

neighborhood if it’s safe to do so. Have lunch in a park. Walk barefoot on some grass.

Whatever you do, whether screen time or going outside, ask yourself these

questions… Does this serve a purpose for me? Am I doing it because I mean to? Am I

just doing this because it’s habitual/I’m used to doing it? How does this fill my cup?

Does this fill my cup, or just help me avoid draining it?


Invitation


Take the next five to 10 minutes to step outside. If you’re close to a trail or wooded area, even a park, go there. If wooded areas aren’t available to you, look out your window, toward greenspace, or even gaze at a live plant inside. Believe it or not, there is research showing benefits for “green gazing” out of windows (6) and having live plants inside your living and working spaces (12). Allow yourself to be drawn to a welcoming spot outside among the trees, along a creek, or simply in your backyard. If you’re able, sit gently in your spot. Get acquainted with your surroundings, engaging all of your senses. For the next 5-10 minutes, just allow yourself to be curious. You’re not squirreling about, jolting your attention to anything and everything that moves. Instead, allow yourself to be curious about what you’re noticing. Shift your attention or focus with intention and purpose. Perhaps, you watch a squirrel or ant or leaf for several minutes. Maybe you curiously examine the intricate design of a leaf or flower. Maybe you even listen to a tree. Depending on where you are, the trees may be hundreds of years old. You could be curious about what they’ve seen, heard, experienced in their lifetime.


During this meditation, remember to breathe. Check in with your breath to allow for

smooth, slow pace and cadence, but this is not your point of focus. If you notice

yourself being bored, stay present anyway. Boredom is actually where creativity lives.

It’s not the enemy, despite what infinite access to distractions, like social media and

streaming, lead us to believe. We’ve simply become so uncomfortable with the

discomfort of boredom, we avoid it. Michael Easter discusses in his book, The

Comfort Crisis, his experience with having to navigate through boredom, rather than

distract himself from it. This point, and the entire book, are worth further

contemplation. Seriously, go read that book.


If you're interested in connecting with nature in a more meaningful and healing way, thereby deepening connection with self and others, you're invited to join me in a 1 to 3 hour Mindful Nature Connection.











References


(1) https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2019/t1105-aces.html

(2) https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/data.html

(3) https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/why-life-expectancy-in-the-us-is-falling-

202210202835

(4) Independent Administrative Agency Forestry Research Institute. Comparison

of therapy effects in different natural environments and research on familiar

forest therapy effect. In: Forestry Research Institute Grant Project Research

Outcome Collection, vol. 46; 2011. p. 1–42. (in Japanese).

(5) https://www.independent.ie/regionals/wicklowpeople/lifestyle/the-wellbeingbenefits-

of-rest-and-play-37003316.html

(6) Int J Qual Health Care 2019 Dec 31;31(10):798-803.

(7) Kaplan S. The restorative benefits of nature: toward an integrative

framework. J Environ Psychol. 1995;15(3):169–182. doi: 10.1016/0272-

4944(95)90001-2.

(8) Kim W, Lim SK, Chung EJ, Woo JM. The effect of cognitive behavior therapybased

psychotherapy applied in a forest environment on physiological changes

and remission of major depressive disorder. Psychiatry Investig. 2009;6(4):245–

254. doi: 10.4306/pi.2009.6.4.245.

(9) https://www.latimes.com/science/la-sci-suicide-rates-rising-teens-young-adults-

20190618-story.html

(10) Matsubara E, Kawai S. Gender differences in the psychophysiological effects

induced by VOCs emitted from Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica). Environ

Health Prev Med. 2018;23:10. 10.1186/s12199-018-0700

(10) Park BJ, Tsunetsugu Y, Kasetani T, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y. The physiological

effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing):

evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environ Health Prev

Med. 2010;15:18–26. doi: 10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9.

(11) https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/why-americans-are-lonelier-and-itseffects-

on-our-health

(12) Pegas PN1, Alves CA, Nunes T, Bate-Epey EF, Evtyugina M, Pio CA. J

Toxicol Environ Health A. 2012;75(22-23):1371-80.

(13) https://www.thesocialdilemma.com/

(14) Tsunetsugu Yuko, Park Bum-Jin, Miyazaki Yoshifumi. Trends in research

related to “Shinrin-yoku” (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing) in

Japan. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine. 2009;15(1):27–37.

doi: 10.1007/s12199-009-0091-z.

(15) Ulrich Roger S. Behavior and the Natural Environment. Boston, MA: Springer

US; 1983. Aesthetic and Affective Response to Natural Environment; pp. 85–125.

(16) Louv, R. (2010). Last child in the Woods. Atlantic Books.

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