The Power Of Nature

“You didn’t come into this world.
You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean.
You are not a stranger here.” 
Alan Watts

It was like a weight had finally been lifted off my shoulders. As the days ticked onward, my breathing began to slow, and my inhalations deepened – though it took about three days before my nerves finally started to relax and unwind themselves. And then, almost magically, my mood shifted and I felt a sense peace wash over me that had been eluding me for months, if not years.

What had caused these positive changes to occur? I guess you could call it “forest bathing”, or shinrin-yoku , a term the Japanese have coined to describe time spent in the healing atmosphere of a wooded area. It’s long been known that spending time outdoors can help to relieve feelings of depression, anxiety and stress. However, any physical benefits have taken longer to be recognized. That is changing. According to a study published last year, spending time in a forested area can also improve the health outcome of any stress-related condition, such as coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or even type II diabetes.

No one knows precisely how this works, but the mere act of sitting outdoors seems to naturally lower the stress response. And once stress is reduced, any stress-induced symptom would also be affected. Should this surprise us? Throughout human history, we have always spent large amounts of time outdoors, walking through wooded areas and sleeping under the stars. It’s only been recently that we’ve transitioned to a largely indoor existence, sitting in dark homes with artificial lights beaming down on us. But it’s not just that. When we sit outside in nature, we are also given the opportunity to get outside our own heads. Reminded of the abundant life that surrounds us, our view is expanded and our individual problems are put in better perspective. How could this not reduce stress?

In this, latest study, nearly 20,000 British people were surveyed by scientists from the University of Exeter in England and the Uppsala University in Sweden. Participants were asked how much time they spent in nature, whether or not they suffered from a health condition, and then, if they were satisfied with their life, which is a standard question used to measure well-being. Those people who spent at least two hours outdoors in a natural setting felt significantly happier, with fewer health complaints than those who didn’t. And the health benefit was significant too. Researchers said it was similar to the effect you would see when you perform the recommended 30 minutes of exercise each day.

Although this research has yet to be confirmed by further studies, it is an intriguing piece of the health puzzle that has, until recently, been overlooked. We’ve long focused on diet and exercise as a way to improve our lives and increase longevity, but what if time spent in nature is equally important? Interestingly, in the study, the time spent outside did not even need to be particularly active. Many of the respondents did not hike, swim or run during the time they spent outdoors; they merely walked to the park and sat on a bench. So, this particular bit of health advice is very doable, for people of all ages and abilities.

As for me, all it took to feel that incredible reduction in stress was a week-long trip camping outdoors with my family. It’s something that, until now, I’d always been afraid to try. Yet, aside from the lack of bathroom, and the harassment of mosquitos, it’s something I think I’d like to do every year from now on. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so calmed and at home within myself. And all it took was a strong dose of nature to achieve it.