MY PEACEFUL PLACE
Picture the scene. You are sitting on a sturdy, exposed root of a sycamore tree, above a sandy beach next to a low weir by a peaceful river. It’s early April 2020 and you’ve been self-isolating in lockdown for over three weeks. Just then you hear a punchy exclamation of “kingfisher” from your husband, who is standing behind you. A flash of brilliant, bright blue flickers from a low hanging branch on the opposite side of the river bank and finds a resting place in some lower bushes a few metres further along. You feel your heart lighten and lift at the rare sight of this natural treasure. Up until now you have been quite literally locked in your house and wary of setting a foot out into the world – natural or otherwise. Locked in a spiral of worrying about catching the virus. Locked in a warped compulsion to follow the 24/7 news cycle in an attempt to learn how to protect your family and yourself from COVID-19. Locked in a limited grey and dull world, bereft of any release, colour or beauty.
This was me, just over two months ago and it got me thinking. If the glimpsed sight of a beautiful bird had the power to elevate my spirit in this manner, what’s the science behind it?
THE CALMING EFFECTS OF NATURE
Environmental scientist Ming Kuo may have the answer. In an article published in 2015, she reviews a number of scientific studies in order to list the benefits of nature on our physical and psychological health. One conclusion is that “images of nature reduce sympathetic nervous activity and increase parasympathetic activity.” The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the body’s fight or flight response, whereas the parasympathetic nervous system stimulates the body to rest, relax and conserve energy. By ‘images of nature’, she seems to be suggesting being in nature and experiencing a natural landscape. As well as this Kuo points out that the “sounds of nature played over headphones increase parasympathetic activation.” In fact, birdsong has been shown by other studies to encourage relaxation and to aid the eradication of stress.
As an eminent Professor at Stanford University, David Speigel has also shown that hypnotherapy reduces the function of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex – a section of the brain that is highly active when you are anxious. Tapping into the potential of real or imagined experiences in a natural environment provides the perfect technique when tackling stress and anxiety disorders, and in fact anything which requires you to relax and attain a new perspective.
Often the first with progressive ideas, the Japanese harnessed the healing power of nature in 1982 when introducing and coining the term ‘Shirin Yoku’, or as it’s now known in the west - forest bathing. Obviously, this idea stemmed from ancient practices and an appreciation of nature spanning back centuries. The approach requires total and full immersion of the senses in the atmosphere of the forest. This is said to bring about feelings of comfort, release and healing.
The positive benefits do not end there, as further research has found that trees and plants release natural aerosols and oils called phytoncides that are anti-microbial. Exposure to such compounds increased the number of natural killer cells, which in increase anti-cancer proteins in the body for up to 7 days after a visit to the forest. Perhaps if nothing else, consider rehoming some plants in your home that emit natural soothing aromas such as lavender and rosemary, or plants which purify the air such as aloe vera and succulents. They will fill your indoor space with an invisible array of beneficial natural gases which will create valuable effects for your health.
GARDENING'S HEALING BENEFITS
On this latter point, the healing properties of plants are very much the focus of two eminent British institutions. The BBC’s popular Gardeners’ World television programme and the RHS consistently convey the message that nature, via gardening, enhances feelings of wellbeing. A recent episode of Gardeners’ World visited the Blackthorn Trust, a social enterprise which specialises in using nature therapy to treat PTSD, anxiety and chronic pain. The April edition of the RHS’s publication “The Garden” included an article entitled “The Healing Power of Gardens“. Within this piece, the writer emphasised the growing body of evidence to suggest nature enriches our lives. It cites a Dutch study of over 340,000 people, which found that there is a 33% higher chance of experiencing depression, and a 44% higher chance of experiencing anxiety disorder if you live in an area without convenient access to green space. Furthermore, the feature details how nurturing plants and developing your own patch of land increases feelings of control, responsibility and connection, leading to an increase in self-confidence and positivity.
Personally I know that my daily dose of nature has played a vital part in calming and soothing the background anxiety that I felt in lockdown and beyond, and this must be true for countless others. Without our daily family walks to the river and surrounding woodland, I would have missed out on the much needed feelings of joy, awe and tranquillity. I am grateful to all those who have helped me in the writing of this article, and most especially I give thanks to that exquisitely coloured bird that I briefly glimpsed one morning in April.
Geraldine McGrath is a Clinical Hypnotherapist, Teacher and founder of Embracing Anxiety for Women. Check out the group of the same name on Facebook for further help, support and empowerment.