Hard-wired to nature

Posted by Karen in health benefits of nature

As modern life drives us away from our anchor with the natural world, I can’t help but think, are we grossly underestimating how vital nature is for our mental and physical wellbeing.

In all these years of working with clients outdoors in green space, I have read a great many reports that examine the effect nature has on our psychological, emotional and physical wellbeing. But do we really need science to prove something we already know – that nature is good for us and what’s more, we need nature?

Nature – a restorative environment

There have been many experiments showing the benefits of nature on our wellbeing: a classic one is to have a group of people walk along a busy road and another group walk through nature. Blood pressure, cortisol levels, concentration span, creativity and stress levels are measured before and after.

The result is always the same: those who spend time in nature show considerably lower levels of stress and cortisol, and higher levels of creativity and concentration.

The American couple Rachel and Steven Kaplan developed the Attention Restoration Theory. Their theory distinguishes two types of attention: directed and involuntary.

Directed attention requires mental effort and concentration and the individual must focus hard to process information and stay with a task, for example at work.

On the contrary, nature captures our attention involuntarily, it happens effortlessly, thereby providing a ‘restorative environment’. Rachel and Steven Kaplan called this process ‘soft fascination’, however, what exactly happens inside of us that causes this soft fascination, triggered by nature, they don’t explain.

But do we really need scientific evidence to explain something that we have always known?

There’s a lot to (re)learn from nature, from its rhythms, variations and inter-connections with all life.

In the words of Margaret Atwood, Canadian writer and environmental activist: Our ancestors did not go into Nature for a weekend of relaxation: they were in Nature, and Nature was in them. (Resurgence Magazine, Issue 268, p 11).

Nature is our place of origin and spending time in nature has a wealth of beneficial impacts on our psychological, emotional and physical wellbeing. This goes back to the ‘biophilia hypothesis’, advocated by the biologist E.O. Wilson, that humans have a hard-wired disposition to connect with the natural world.

It is for this reason, I believe clients who come to me for life coaching while walking make a sigh of release and draw a deep breath of relaxation when we start the session in green space. For me it’s always very rewarding to witness and it confirms my own experience.

Being under the open sky surrounded by natural light and colours and breathing fresh air gives me a sense of inner and outer space and a heightened sense of perspective. When I am in nature, I feel safe and grounded. When I feel connected to nature, held by nature, I also feel connected to myself. I feel a deep sense of contentment – nothing else is needed.

Often when we allow ourselves to open up to natural surroundings, new insights emerge. We are able to look at important things in our life differently, perhaps gain a better understanding of some things or find a new way forward. I often say that clients walk their way out of a problem and into solution.

Just by walking, touching the earth, being surrounded by life and green space makes people relax and open up.

Natural settings like local parks, nature reserves, gardens or the countryside are healthy spaces to be away from traffic noise, pollution and the pressure of everyday life.

I leave you with a powerful quote from one of my heroes, John Muir, an American-Scottish naturalist, conservationist and environmental philosopher:

I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. 

As always I am curious about your thoughts. Do drop me a line. I offer a free 30-minute coaching taster session in Victoria Park, East London.

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