When I first stumbled upon the story of the Paoli Memorial, I never expected how much it would change the way I viewed nature and its impact on my health.
In the early 1980s, a researcher interested in the dynamics of healing visited a local suburban hospital in Paoli, a small town in Pennsylvania. The researcher was interested in factors that affected the recovery time of patients.
Why would some patients who underwent the same surgical procedures recover much faster than others?
It turned out that some rooms in the hospital faced a brick wall, while others offered a view of a group of trees.
I could easily envision the end of that story. Exposure to nature provided not only mental comfort to patients who recovered in rooms with a natural view, but also contributed to their physiological well-being. Patients in rooms that looked out on the brick wall took longer to recover, experienced more pain and at times felt depressed.
This led me to reading up on natural therapy, which has long been recognized in countries like Germany and Japan. The Japanese practice shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, basically translates to a long walk in the woods. Similarly, the German Kneipp therapy was based on physical exercises performed in forest clearings.
The benefits of natural therapy are clear: lower pulse rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels lead to a boost in well-being and reduction of stress.
I always assumed doing sports would be enough to alleviate the tension that accumulated in my body during the day. But instead of using natural settings in this way, I’d simply head off to the nearest gym.
My research into natural therapy led me to believe that nature has a much more powerful impact on our bodies and minds than we give it credit for.
I’ve decided to have regular walks in the forest and switch my gym routine to jogging in a nearby park. Here’s what I learned from my experience.
1. I felt more alive.
Spending all my time indoors left me feeling flat and dead inside. When I needed to recharge my batteries, I’d just lay down on the sofa and watch something on Netflix.
Spending more time in natural settings taught me that nothing gives the same boost of energy like connecting with nature. Being surrounded by trees, I felt a sense of vitality, which helped me go through a difficult time at work. I’ve built resilience, and never felt more alive.
2. I noted a memory boost.
Research demonstrates that connection with nature has a positive impact on our cognitive function.
It turns out that interacting with nature on a regular basis can improve short-term memory by 20 percent!
And it definitely worked for me—I was more focused at work and the usual distractions seemed to fade away from my consciousness as I concentrated on my tasks. I stopped writing down everything on post-its, which usually surrounded my desk. I felt calm and energetic.
3. I let go of social pressures.
One way nature helped me to deal with troublesome social situations is by giving me a broader picture. I could see myself not as an individual actor on the scene, but a part of a large ecosystem of intimately connected beings—not only humans, but also animals, plants, and minerals.
Removing my ego from the picture helped me to access a sort of collective consciousness and feel a sense of unity with other living beings. I found myself more understanding toward my partner, and ready to forgive others for things that would normally irritate me to no end.
4. I escaped time.
We lock ourselves in time by dedicating it to various activities. I used to spend my free time browsing social media or mindlessly flicking the TV, looking for more information and stimuli to numb my mind.
Getting away from all this helped me to get free of time constraints. I stopped the overactive thought process that flooded my mind, instead thinking about one thing at a time.
Spending time in natural settings also helped me to let go of my need for control. When surrounded by nature, I realized that all this beauty doesn’t need a reason to be—it just is. And I was part of it, so I deserved to be left in peace, at least for a while.
5. I experienced a deep feeling of belonging.
Facing natural beauty, I felt humbled by its power, but also experienced a sense of belonging in the world.
It’s as if my eyes were opened to a new reality. I could see the symmetry, balance and color in nature. I could smell it and touch it—I became part of it. And with that feeling, my regular low self-esteem problems seemed completely unreal.
Now I know why nature makes us feel so calm. We’re bombarded with so much stimulation at our workplaces, schools, cities or public transport, that our minds are unable to bear it all and come away unscathed.
My regular interactions with nature taught me that the environment is the best cure for stress.
It helps to develop a distance toward the trials and tribulations of our daily lives, and reminds us that we belong to a greater whole. And that is something I would like us all to take home and apply into our everyday routines—the love, appreciation and gratitude for the power of nature.
Author: Kate Thora
Image: Timothy Marsee/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman