Nature has an incredible power to heal. If you’ve ever taken a walk in the park to clear your head, strolled under the trees, sat on the beach, taken in the refreshing air, or tended a garden, you know how restorative time spent in nature can be. Especially when dealing with trauma, physical or mental pain, nature can be a healer, friend, and counselor, guiding us back to wholeness.
Surrounding ourselves in the rhythms and shapes of nature can be transformative and healing. From Ayurveda, the ancient healing tradition of India, to your physician, everyone recommends spending at least twenty minutes in nature every day. Doing so allows us to experience the wonder of our existence with all our senses. Nature enables us to shift our attention beyond our egos and recognize our inextricable connection to the universe.
As children, we had a sense of connection and an innate fascination with the natural world around us. We’ve experienced openness and freedom that only nature exposure could provide. But, life somehow took us away from the soft grass, gentle breeze, and warm sun and made us live in a very different jungle altogether – the concrete one.
Although life is a glorious adventure of our souls, it often involves pain, struggle, and trauma. This, I could dare say, is an unavoidable thing. We all face challenges and have negative life experiences that leave scars. Some scars are so deep that they can numb us, leaving us stuck in our trauma.
Our bodies keep the score, and when we can’t take it anymore, we just want to run away from ourselves, jump out of our own skin. Dissociation is one of the typical and uncomfortable symptoms of trauma. People who experience dissociation chronically feel unsafe in their bodies, they ignore their gut feelings and shut off everything around them. Simply put, they learn how to hide from themselves.
If trauma and its symptoms can be summed up as the act of hiding from oneself, then, in my opinion, nature has the opposite effect. Engaging your senses and focusing on the natural surroundings is a wonderful way to ground yourself in the present moment. Grounding in nature is an easy way to bring yourself out of the re-traumatizing rumination, flashbacks, and dissociation.
Life Hurts, Nature Heals
In the early eighties, a researcher visited a local suburban hospital in Peoli, Pennsylvania. He came there to collect information about patients who had undergone gallbladder surgery and were recovering in a row of rooms facing a courtyard. Such surgery is generally uncomplicated, and most patients recover in one or two weeks. However, the researcher wondered why some took longer to recover and whether differences between hospital rooms could be the reason for their longer stay. Some hospital rooms were faced onto a brick wall, while others faced a small stand of trees. Apart from the view, the rooms were identical.
The researcher discovered that patients facing the trees were feeling much better and would typically leave the hospital sooner than those with a brick wall view. They were also less depressed and would experience less pain. Even nurses would note that those people would be less upset and wouldn’t crave much encouragement compared to patients who could only look at lifeless bricks.
Another example of nature having a powerful influence on our overall health is the wonderful book by Cindy Ross, ‘Walking Towards Peace.’ In it, the author shares the stories of veterans who, after their deployment, have dealt with PTSD. Cindy Ross explains how, through a process of ecotherapy (spending time in nature for mental and physical healing), veterans could find tools to deal with such issues as survivor’s guilt, depression, nightmares, lack of trust, suicide thoughts, hypervigilance, and lack of purpose.
Some of the veterans she talks about have even gone to such extremes as spending months on long-distance expeditions, like canoeing the 2,320-mile Mississippi river or hiking the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail. Nevertheless, for most veterans, spending even a brief time in the outdoors has done wonders for their healing. What stands out the most is their collective belief that if you suffer from devastating wartime traumas, nature can provide you with much-needed and powerful comfort and healing.
Another fascinating look into the healing power of nature comes from ‘The Nature Fix,’ the book by an amazing journalist Florence Williams in which she details the benefits of spending time outdoors. She has spent years traveling the earth uncovering the science behind natural healing. For instance, did you know that within the first five minutes of walking in the forest, our bodies and brains start to change, our heart rate slows, our facial muscles begin to relax, and the incessant mind chatter quiets down. Our productivity and creativity levels rise, and we feel more connected to people and the world around us. The smell of pine trees strengthens our immune system while birds’ song and looking at various nature’s shapes allows our brain to put out more alpha waves, making us more calm and alert. Amazing stuff, isn’t it?
Nature has a way of teaching us how to face our challenges, become stronger through adversity, and care for ourselves more, which is something caregivers know much about. When Audrey’s twin brother Cory suffered a major spinal cord surgery, she became his full-time caregiver. She had to learn how to be a nurse, PT, OT, pain manager, and while doing so, she lost the sense of her own desires and needs. But with the support and tools she gained from the No Barriers program, she managed to re-focus on herself. Spending time outdoors and facing natural challenges has allowed her to let out her bottled feelings, share deep thoughts, lift her spirit, and learn to prioritize her self-care to be a better person for her family and herself.
Go Outside and Heal
Right now, in the age of coronavirus and self-distancing, there has never been a better time and greater need for the benefits of nature. Nature has a magical way of grounding us, and according to so many scientific proofs, it can have massive healing powers, from improving our mood and boosting the immune system to experiencing less physical pain. So, put your shoes on and get outside, walk under the trees, practice mindfulness, take a sunbath, breathe.