Hello from Ottawa!
It is the most beautiful long weekend of the year here in Canada, Victoria Day weekend. This blog post is not about traveling, sightseeing or discovering new places, it is about an amazing book – Forest Bathing -written by Dr. Qing Li. As a society we suffer from nature deficit disorder. Dr. Qing Li invites us to spend more mindful, intentional time around trees. The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. Shinrin-yoku is their way to promote health and happiness.
I would like to invite you for a short walk with my little granddaughter and my daughter Barbara. We will try to discover the impact big trees have on us, especially on young children. All thoughts in this post are taken from Dr. Qing Li’s book.
The good news is that even a small amount of time in nature can have an impact on our health. A two-hour forest bath will help you to unplug from technology and slow down. It will bring you into the present moment and de-stress and relax you.
When you connect to nature through all five of your senses, you begin to draw on the vast array of benefits the natural world provides. There is now a wealth of data that proves that shinrin-yoku can:
- Reduce blood pressure
- Lower stress
- Improve cardiovascular and metabolic health
- Lower blood-sugar levels
- Improve concentration and memory
- Lift depression
- Improve pain thresholds
- Improve energy
- Boost the immune system
- Increase anti-cancer protein prodution
- Help you lose weight
As well as having a higher concentration of oxygen, the air in the forest is also full of phytoncides. Phytoncides are the natural oils within a plant and are part of a tree’s defense system. Trees release phytoncides to protect them from bacteria, insects and fungi. Phyton is Greek for ‘plant’, and cide is ‘to kill’. Phytoncides are also part of the communication pathway between trees; the way trees talk to each other. The concentration of phytoncides in the air depends on the temperature and other changes that take place throughout the year. (…) The concentration of phytoncides is at its highest at temperatures of around 30 degrees Celsius.
There is also a substance in soil that we breathe in when we walk in the forest and which makes us feel happier. This is a common and harmless bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae. (…) The soil stimulates the immune system, and a boosted immune system makes us feel happy. Every time you dig in your garden or eat a vegetable plucked from the ground, you will be ingesting Mycobacterium vaccae and giving yourself this boost.
Nature also has the power to help us solve problems and to break through creative blocks. The researchers at the universities of Utah and Kansas concluded that there ‘is a real, measurable cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time truly immersed in a natural setting’, and found that spending time in nature can boost problem-solving ability and creativity by 50 per cent.
Is it any wonder that the Buddha found enlightenment sitting under a tree?
Several studies have shown that, when we connect with nature, we are reminded that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Faced with the awesome vastness of the universe, we can feel flooded with gratitude. We become less selfish and start to think about others.
And even more amazing is the fact that not only do the beautiful and magnificent sights of nature make us feel better, they can actually improve our health. Research has demonstrated that positive emotions of the kind we experience when we look at nature can increase our levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines. These are the proteins that tell the immune system to work harder. And anything that makes our immune system work harder is a boost to our health.
There is no medicine you can take that has such a direct influence on your health as a walk in a beautiful forest.
The sounds of nature are a link to the environment and to ourselves. In the forest, we can learn once again to listen to the landscape we were built to hear. When we are quiet we can tune in to the natural world. Immersed in nature, we are in a whole new dimension, a restorative sonic landscape. Being still and quiet, we can hear the sound of silence and begin to relax.
The more time we spend in artificial light, the more discomfort we can experience. Our eyes weren’t designed to look at screens, and long hours at our computers can cause headaches, eye strain and technostress.
Our eyes weren’t designed to look at cityscapes either. Studies on the effect of colours on emotions have shown that we find the blues and greens of nature the most restful. They make us less anxious and reduce our stress. The greys of an urban scene, however, have been shown to make us unhappier and more aggressive.
But nature is not just green, it’s also beautiful. Nature creates beautiful patterns everywhere we look: in the petals of a flower, in the branches of a snowflake, in the spirals of a shell.
These natural patterns are called fractals. They are seen in ocean waves, lightning, coastlines and rivers, as well as in flowers, trees, clouds and snowflakes. A fractal is a pattern that repeats itself over and over again and looks the same at any scale. They are everywhere in nature.
These infinite patterns of nature are scientifically proven to relax us, no matter how complicated the pattern may become.
Professor Richard Taylor has discovered that we are visually fluent in the patterns of the natural world. Because we evolved in the scenery of the natural world, we can process its patterns easily. And it is this fluency that relaxes us. We enjoy looking at the patterns in nature because we are good at it!
However, patterns in nature do more than simply relax and comfort us. They can also amaze us and fill us with awe. As Aristotle said, “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” Many people think that it is precisely this sense of being awestruck that makes us feel better in the forest.
A sense of awe helps us to slow down and stop worrying. it transforms negative emotions into positive feelings. It gives us pause and brings us joy.
In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv came up with a term to describe the gap between children and nature. He called it a ‘nature deficit disorder’, and he has linked the lack of nature in young people’s lives to the rise in behavioural disorders. depression and obesity, in addition to the lack of vitamin D and the increase in short-sightedness that we see when children don’t spend enough time outdoor.
Louv tells us that it is not so much what children know about the natural world that is important as what happens to them when they are in it! Children learn better outdoors. And they are better behaved. When children with ADHD are exposed to nature, their symptoms disappear. Nature is good for their mental and physical development. They are less likely to become ill or stressed if they spend time outside.