This morning I got up early so that I could go for a short hike in the redwoods before facing the masses at Costco. I had been feeling kind of blue the night before, as all of the kiddos were at sleepovers, and I was by myself in the house at night for the first time in almost 3 months.
I had thought that I would celebrate the time to myself, but not so much! I was still feeling rather wistful.
My mood started lifting on the drive to Wunderlich County Park, one of my favorite places to hike because of its well-marked trails and multiple redwood groves. I was already smiling a mile away. I didn’t think too much of it. I parked, put on my hiking boots and began my climb up the hill to my favorite spot, Alambique Flats.
I said hello to the horses in the corrals, waiting for the day’s riders, stood for a moment at an ancient majestic tree, and watched for deer. It wasn’t until I was sitting on the bench in the Flats listening to the creek that I realized something new about why I love hiking and being out in nature so much.
I never feel lonely when I’m out in nature.
For all my appreciation for the trees, birds, waves, and space, the feeling that they give me is what fills and rejuvenates me every single time. I feel a fellowship and a companionship with nature that sometimes eludes me when I’m in a house full of boisterous teenagers or in a crowd, let alone spending an evening by myself. .
As I sat on that bench, I might have been the only human, but I certainly wasn’t the only being. We were all chillin’ together.
Now I know why I feel so darned good when I’m out with the trees or sitting on the beach, and I will be more conscientious about tapping into nature if I’m feeling the loneliness blues. It’s funny how we can do something intuitively — like going out into nature to feel better — without knowing or caring about the science behind it (if there is any).
When it comes to getting out into nature, though, the science is starting to pile up.
Henry David Thoreau knew what he was talking about when he published Walden in 1854, describing how nature could be the answer to incivility in society.
Perhaps you’ve recently heard about physicians writing “nature prescriptions” for their patients. My friend and colleague, Dr. Maya Shetreat, a pediatric neurologist in New York, has been doing this with her patients for years.
In October 2018, Scottish docs were “officially authorized” to prescribe nature for a whole plethora of illness and disorders, from anxiety, depression and high blood pressure to heart disease and diabetes. Doctors in the United States are also starting to see the wisdom in nature, thanks to programs like the Integrative Health Fellowship at the University of Arizona that teaches providers to look beyond pharmaceuticals.
Japanese doctors call it “forest medicine” or “forest bathing,” (shinrin yoku), and it’s been considered official medicine since 1982. Much of the research behind the benefits of the forest has come out of Japan since the late 1990s. Among the many physiological gains from hanging out with the trees are increased natural killer (NK) cell production (leading to a more effective immune system), lower overall blood pressure, lower cortisol levels, and decreased depression.
It’s not about Exercise
One of the most important conclusions of the Japanese research is that you don’t have to be exercising to reap the benefits of forest bathing. In fact, they recommend that you don’t exercise but rather find a comfortable spot under a tree and breath or have a picnic.
This is not to say that exercising in nature won’t benefit you; on the contrary, we have plenty of evidence that it will, so get your body moving in whatever way you’re able! I know two therapists from a local medical center who took a group of wheelchair-bound patients to do seated T’ai Chi under the redwoods at a local accessible park. It was transformational for them.
On the other hand, inability to walk should not prevent someone from getting out into nature. One of the biggest complaints I hear from people whose loved ones are in skilled nursing facilities is that they are not allowed to take their friends and family members outside of the building for fresh air. This is a tragedy and counter-intuitive to what we know about healing and well-being. Getting out into nature —even into a tree- and flower-filled garden — will benefit even the most infirm physical body.
Give the Gift of Nature
This holiday season, consider giving someone the gift of nature instead of a material item. Bundle up an elder or child against the cold and take them outside, whether to a park, a beach, or a local garden. Many of the larger city, county, state and federal parks have accessible trails and benches where anyone can enjoy the splendor of the environment. If you still want to wrap a present for them, take a selfie of the two of you out in nature and give them a framed copy.
If you don’t have any loved ones to take out into nature, and you’d rather not go alone, consider volunteering to clean up a trail or beach. My friend, Melissa, organizes a New Year’s beach clean-up day in Santa Cruz every year. We all reap the benefits of the sea air while getting rid of old cigarette butts, broken glass, and trash that people leave behind. (Thankfully, she provides gloves for all of us!) There are different organizations you can join throughout the year to plant trees, clear away brush, and meet like-minded people.
Nature really is the gift that keeps on giving.
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