By Sara Hunter, MS, LCMHC
Sara Hunter Counseling, PLLC
For me, spending time in nature helps me slow down – in my body and in my thoughts. When I am in nature I am more connected and free from distraction. When I walk into the woods I hear the sounds of wind, water, birds, leaves underneath my feet, and squirrels in the understory. In nature we are not distracted by the overwhelming stimuli that our society has created. I am free of emails, my phone buzzing, the need to respond to someone, screens, traffic, and work. I am able to let the stress of daily life go for a bit and tune into the presence of the world around me. I am also usually smiling.
Before reading on, consider what you let go of and what you are more present with when you enter the forest.
Scientific studies show that when we are in nature:
- Ruminating thoughts decrease
- Feelings of fear and stress decrease
- Attention is more focused on the present
- Working memory increases
- Heart rate decreases
- Creativity increases
Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the control center of our body – a component of the peripheral nervous system that regulates involuntary physiologic processes such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and digestion. Our ANS helps us survive – it is the part of our body that tells us to run from tigers in 1/10 of a second upon noticing the tiger. In our modern world, most of us have no exposure to real tigers but instead our “tigers” have become stressful situations at work, conflict with our loved ones, the news, etc. This requires our ANS to constantly respond to stress from a variety of external stimuli. Our ANS is designed to fluctuate between activation and settling but our modern day “tigers” often keep our system too activated. In psychology terms, we refer to this as overactivation of our sympathetic nervous system. Time in nature helps us recalibrate. When we walk into the forest we are able to engage the parasympathetic nervous system which helps us slow down and be present, grounded, and engaged. The forest is a natural co-regulator that helps us soothe when we are feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated.
As humans we are a part of nature. But our modern lifestyle often disconnects us from the natural world we evolved to be a part of. When we walk into the woods we reconnect with the natural world, with ourselves.
A mindfulness of nature activity for you to try out if you’d like:
Next time you are in nature, find a spot that draws your attention and curiosity. Zoom into a small square inch of space (a portion of a leaf, a small section of bark on a tree, a rock in a creek, etc.) and notice what you see, smell, feel when you touch it. Zoom out just a little to a space the size of your hand. What do you notice here? Feel the sensations in your body as you zoom out a little. Now put your hands on either side of your eyes and notice what you see in your field of vision while keeping your first item in your view. Notice what you see, what you feel. Now release your hands and open your vision up to all that you can see. What do you notice in your body? How do you feel? How have your sensations changed over time?