Over time, researchers have shown how powerful natural environments are powerful in relation to our wellbeing. From what we see smell and hear to more importantly, how we think, sense, and feel in places such as our own backyards as well as community gardens, parks, woodlands, beaches and dense forests, mindful time spent in nature is beneficial to our body, mind, and soul. Such experiences are also important when considering our stress levels as well as our sense of connectivity with each other and the other-than-human world.
In the current pandemic situation, the time people are spending on screens has rapidly increased, which means exposing ourselves to nature is even more critical to our emotional and physical wellbeing than ever. It’s also an opportunity to support and bring communities together.
Here are a few organizations aiming to get people safely outside.
The Woodland Presents is an environmental not-for-profit in Southwest England responding to the neglected state of British woodlands and working to connect people to trees and timber in meaningful ways. They have built various community wellbeing hubs, setting up a maker-space for woodworkers, an outdoor woodland venue for courses and events, and created a reforestation community benefit society that aims to plant over 10,000 trees a year.
One project, launched in response to the pandemic, is named ‘Woods for Wellness’. As Sylvia Mohabir, one of the organization’s co-directors says “our Woods for Wellness project was created to help those struggling during COVID-19, to increase health and happiness, and combat isolation, loneliness, and other wellbeing issues the pandemic may have caused.” The project brings people together to help restore and connect with woodlands, slow down, learn and share skills, and discover transformative experiences in a natural environment.
Another UK mental health not-for-profit organization Mind shares that “ecotherapy involves getting outdoors and getting active in a green environment as a way of boosting mental wellbeing. Whether it’s taking regular walks in the park, flying a kite, or participating in a gardening therapy project, green exercise is proven to have huge benefits for mental health”.
In a study run by the initiative, 95% of those interviewed reported their mood improved after spending time outside, changing from depressed and anxious to more calm and balanced as nature has a soothing effect on people’s nerves.
Aligned with that philosophy, forest bathing (also known as Shinrin-yoku) originated in Japan in the early 1980s and is regarded as a form of nature therapy that supports our body, mind, and soul, helping us cope with pain, suffering, and discomfort. Immersing oneself in a forest and just being is a simple and yet, very significant act of self-care, and some believe it works as preventative medicine.
And honoring this ethos, whilst attempting to boost the immune system, better our sleep, and lower blood pressure, as well as depression, social prescribing of forest bathing is a movement gaining strength due to how effective, inexpensive, and beneficial it is. The non-medical therapy provides patients with an opportunity to attend to their health and overall wellbeing by getting involved in social activities, such as gardening, connecting with and befriending those who are most vulnerable, practicing a sport or simply forest bathing.
Another growing global movement, ecotourism, aims to provide people with an opportunity to enjoy the natural habitats whilst preserving them.
In Lisbon, for instance, Breath Portugal, is a project offering “healing experiences in nature”. Focused on ecology, mindfulness, and mental health, the agency is popular among those wanting to relax, as well as being creative.
Richard Louv, the bestseller author of the book ‘Last Child in the Woods’, defends why we need more nature where we live, learn, work and play. Bringing attention to the term ‘nature-deficit disorder’, Louv documents how the decrease in the exposure of children to the natural environment has contributed to obesity rates, lower self-esteem, social anxiety, and many other issues related to physical and emotional wellbeing, and how addressing such issues can support one’s creativity – and sense of freedom.
Considering the effect on people’s quality of life in urban environments, a US study set out to investigate how people who live in two Chicago public housing developments, surrounded by trees and green spaces, were affected by it. Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that “natural elements such as trees promote increased opportunities for social interactions, monitoring of outdoor areas, and supervision of children in impoverished urban neighborhoods.”
These findings are now influencing public policies around housing developments as well as green spaces for the benefit of people – and the wildlife. Ecological corridors are a way to support and connect spaces separated by human activities or structures, so the fauna has a better chance to survive – and thrive – especially in densely populated areas.
The nonprofit, Tress for Life is also working to revitalize wild forests in the Highlands of Scotland, “providing space for wildlife to flourish and communities to thrive.” Relying on volunteers, the organization has planted an impressive two million trees as well as developed a number of projects that help conserve and restore the Scottish Highlands wilderness.
In Brazil, Reconexão Amazônia (Amazon Reconnection) is an initiative offering spaces to educate Brazilians about the largest forest in the world, which inhabits 59% of the tropical country. The organization’s founder, Karina Miotto, uses the principles of deep ecology, which at its core considers human life as just one of many equal components of a global ecosystem, as the starting point to reconnect people to the wonders of nature, and says “the human soul longs for freedom and nature is our ally on this path.”
The recently launched documentary ‘The Beginning of Life 2: Outside’ offers insights on the importance of experiences in the natural environment throughout childhood. Claiming that “genuine connections between children and nature can revolutionize our future”, this film shows how such connection can be “part of the cure for the biggest challenges facing humanity today and the construction of a happier life with a greater level of wellbeing.”
Bearing in mind how many people might not have access to a garden or a park nearby, it’s important to report that researchers have also found that even having a plant, an inspiring picture of a landscape around or simply listening to the sounds of nature can bring benefits, and support people to relax. For instance, Tree FM is a free online resource that allows people to listen to sounds from forests all over the world.
After all, reconnecting with nature is like resetting our brain. As author Eckhart Tolle shares “nature can bring you to stillness, that is its gift to you.”