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Nature and Therapy – a prescription for connection

Nature and Therapy – a prescription for connection

Sarah Ariss
May 2021

Sarah Ariss is an experienced QCH practitioner based in Hertfordshire and now working online with clients from all over the UK. Her approach is warm and friendly while at the same time professional and with an emphasis on client care and connection.

Over the last year or so of Covid, with our world plunged into a pandemic that none of us have experienced the like of before, Anxiety is something we have probably all suffered at some stage. The overthinking, catastrophising, beating heart, sweaty hands, dread, dizziness, pain…..and more. The figures from Anxiety UK tell us that in 2013 there were 1 in 6 of us suffering from Anxiety. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that a global pandemic and the uncertainty, fear and practical implications connected to that, will have increased those figures. Certainly, in my own practice, as a QCH practitioner, clients have come to me with symptoms born of that Anxiety, along with low mood, uncertain as to what to do, where to turn.

Now, it may well surprise you to read this, but in Japan those clients may well have been prescribed Shinrin Yoku, or Forest Bathing, as part of their cure, even by their GP. This does not, I can reassure you, involve heading down to the nearest pond in your local woods, wearing little more than an old swimsuit and a pair of goggles. It is, rather, the connection to Nature, at a deeper level, achieved in a myriad of ways. Its modern incarnation started, as Shinrin Yoku, in the 1980’s, but this connection to Nature, the healing immersion into all things natural has been used, by many peoples, for centuries. Research undertaken by psychologist Terry Hartig showed that people exposed to a natural environment, as opposed to an urban area, were calmer, less depressed and felt more positive about their lives. A further study by Roger Ulrich showed that intensive care patients, when just shown pictures of trees and water, experienced a reduction in Anxiety and needed less pain medication.

Connection to Nature – part of the bigger picture.

It sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? How great to be able to feel better just through looking at pictures of Nature? But isn’t that too easy? Too simple? It’s not ‘proper’ therapy is it? Well, I would argue that it’s part of a bigger picture. For me, as a therapist working every day with clients who are suffering from Anxiety, it’s a very useful tool that can be balanced alongside the other work we do.

The reason we feel anxious is because our sympathetic nervous system has been triggered by the perception or neuroception of threat. In simple terms, we are either aware of danger in the form of something obvious or we have an awareness of threat coming from somewhere or something about which we are not too sure. Our system is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol which allow us to act instinctively, to run away or fight. Those chemicals make our hearts beat faster, make our breathing quicker and divert blood to the big muscles which will enable us to take flight or defend ourselves. That reaction is an amazing tool for survival and protection and we want it to be there, to work. The thing is that sometimes it protects us from situations where the danger is misunderstood, isn’t real. If we’re being triggered by everyday events then our systems are constantly flooded with those stress hormones for no good reason. And that needs to change to allow us to feel calm and safe again. That change is not achieved by ‘thinking’ our way out of this response, but by first giving our bodies the physical message that we are truly safe.

Moving towards life

If you have experienced Anxiety or low mood you may well be aware of how small your world can become. You might not want to go out, see people, do things you used to love. We become disconnected. Part of recovery is to re-connect. This is done alongside talking therapy which helps to find out where the particular issue has come from. It’s done alongside practical tools and techniques to help in the moment. Re-connection is part of the creation of an environment of safety. An environment of safety stimulates the release of the chemicals which tell us we are no longer under threat. We re-connect to people, ourselves, exercise, creativity, learning…. and Nature can play a huge part in this.

How often are we drawn to the sound of birds, the smell of freshly cut grass, the glint of sunshine on water? Forest bathing is this re-connection. Being outside and being aware of the Nature around us is the starting point. That could mean, for you, sitting in a park, a garden, on a balcony…. Or it could mean heading out into the woods, the fields, the wilderness. It’s not about striding purposefully through Nature, but ‘being’. It’s a slowing down and a connection to all our senses, a re-connection to life.

How to connect

So, how do we start to connect? Each of us, as individuals, will have different needs. For some, relaxation and calm comes from sitting with a cup of tea in the garden, listening to the birds. For others, it might be gardening, feeling the earth between our fingers, the joy of seeds germinated, plants thriving. For another person it might be noticing the changing seasons in the woods, touching the bark of a gnarled, old tree or dipping a hand into the water of a woodland stream. We all have something to which we might be drawn. The important thing is to become aware of that draw and take time to stop, smell the scents of Nature, hear the sounds, feel the sun, the breeze, the rain, the dew. Stop and breathe.

In that oasis of still we begin to calm. Our breathing becomes slower. Our heartbeat steadies. We return to a simpler time, a slower pace, a more connected way of being. We are no longer fleeing from seen or unseen danger, but at one with the natural world, at one with a simpler, safer way of being. Over time, research has shown, our blood pressure can lower, our immune system rally, our emotional wellbeing return to a place of calm. And all these physical signals show our minds that we are safe. The fight or flight response can stand down.

Begin connecting

How does that sound to you? Is it something that you might begin to put into place? Even if you feel that you don’t need therapy right now, the connection to Nature is something that is available to all of us. It can make a difference, here and now. And it’s free! Just imagine how it would feel in your life if you began to make the connection that felt right for you. If just looking at pictures or videos of Nature can reduce Anxiety then how much stronger will the effect of the real thing be?

You just need to begin. Today. And whether that’s standing outside your front door listening to the sound of the breeze or going for a walk…or something else… doesn’t matter. The more you do, the more you’ll want to. Having a system of connection that feels right will create, moment by moment, day by day, an environment of safety in which you feel better in yourself.

But it’s a pandemic…

Yes. Sometimes there is real or potential danger in our lives. The pandemic is something that is a threat potentially. It has touched so many of us in ways that we could never have imagined. And yet, when we reflect, life has always been out of our control. It has just felt as though we had some say in things. We have never known whether we might become ill or be in an accident. Things haven’t really changed, it just feels a bit more intense because it’s a new situation, uncertain. So, bearing that in mind, why not do everything within our power to help ourselves? As part of that we can make a positive choice to do all we can to connect with those things which have been proven to help. Being in Nature helps. Connecting, with all our senses, to those simple pleasures of plants, trees, water, wildlife, weather…in a way that’s slower, simpler…bathes us in feelings of content, calm, clarity. We are in the moment. Safe.

It’s worth trying it for yourself. And if you still don’t feel quite right then help is out there. Here at the QCHPA there are therapists experienced in working to help clients be free of the fears, anxieties and limiting beliefs which have entered their lives. Many of us use self-care, connection to Nature as part of that work and you might like to get in touch and have a chat. You are not alone.