Why is nature so effective in relieving stress and anxiety?
By Dr. Andrea Sibylle Claussen, June 28, 2020
Since many years I am wondering:
Why is nature so effective in relieving stress, in inspiring us, relaxing us, motivating us and even heal us? How does it benefit our wellbeing?
Why do Japanese and Scandinavian doctors prescribe something like “tree medicine” instead of pills?
And why – in my personal observation - do people respond better to coaching that is done in wild nature than in office buildings or boardrooms, gaining insights that stick with them for a long time - sometimes even for a whole life.
When I started I am Wilderness Leadership Experience, people asked me: Why nature? What is the benefit?
The answer was simple.
Nature was my saving grace when I felt my whole world falling apart, and through this connection I managed to not only rebuilt my life but make it better by understanding certain core principles.
Wild nature, the forest, the mountains and especially the ocean – because I am a freediver - were always places I chose when I needed to think, when I was stressed or when I was sad.
I had to make one of the toughest decisions of my life, and I am sure many of you listening can relate. We all – at least a few times in our lives – had to take a painful decision.
For me it was to decide to leave an unhappy marriage – and my son was only 8 years old.
One December evening I was so desperate. I did not know what to do. So I decided to go to Nepal for 2 weeks. I just HAD to go into the mountains – alone – so I did solo trekking in the Annapurna mountain area.
And it was there that my breakthrough came:
I was sitting on a plateau in the Annapurna region, something clicked in my soul and I had a pure aha moment regarding my life, my marriage, my child, the decisions I needed to make going forward.
When I came back to Germany, I knew what I had to do. Retrospectively I had the answer in me already – but it was locked in fear, shame and guilt.
And nature helped me to connect with what felt right and to overcome my fear.
This was 20 years ago and I still recall the sound of the wind, the praying flags, the breathtaking views and the smell of the air – pure air -and the sense of clarity and freedom…and a feeling of “being one with nature”, without quite knowing how to explain it to other people. But my feeling was: no more doubts, no more fear, no more tension. I felt trust, confidence, calm and acceptance in everything that might happen now or in the future.
Years later, when I summited Mount Kilimanjaro with my second husband and my sons – I had a similar experience. I felt overwhelmed by a sense of belonging to nature. And it happened again when freediving with a humpback whale and with wild dolphins in Mozambique.
Diving or swimming with a marine animal in a way that the dolphin or whale accepts you in the pod, swims with you, is interested and not afraid of you – this is a highly emotional experience - when somebody who lives in the ocean believes that you belong there too.
These deep experiences just happened to me, as a surprise, as a gift – and not as something I wanted to HAVE – but in the contrary – it came when I expected it the least.
Did you ever have a connection with nature so deeply that it stayed with you? What exactly happened – outside and inside of you? I mean mentally, physically, emotionally, maybe even spiritually?
Or perhaps you spend a lot of time in the outdoors running or biking but merely enjoy the scenery without ever slowing down your pace or even stopping for a while - and giving deeper attention to nature and the environment itself?
In my work as a coach and a medical doctor, I currently diagnose more people with stress, anxiety and tension than ever before. Between 2007 and 2016 the average use of antidepressants in Germany increased by 114% in men and 98% in women. And this was already before the actual lockdown, the uncertainties of the COVID 19 pandemic and the rising ecological concerns in the ongoing climate crisis.
People worry a lot. And many don’t understand what is going on in this world. They feel helpless and there is a tendency to numb this discomfort rather than diving through it and connecting with the emotions that come along with it. Work through it and come out at the other side.
I find the root cause of this collective reaction to uncertainty and complexity is that many people are not willing to leave the comfort of what gives them stability, safety and a sense of control.
The price for not leaving the comfort-zone is that mental and emotional capacities to deal with the “unknown” are underdeveloped.
It´s like a muscle that you do not use. This muscle will shrink. The medical term is “atrophy”.
So when we are in wild nature, this muscle is trained because being in wild nature means to constantly deal with uncertainty and some risks: weather-changes, thunderstorms, heat or cold, wild animals, insects, unfamiliar sounds. Basically it is an exposure to external adversities that create the ability to deal with adversities better and better every time.
The mind and body adapts to the uncomfortable part.
You start experiencing more joy: exposure to the soil, the air, the grass, the trees, wind, water, birds, bugs etc.
Nature is real all the time. There is no politics, no hidden agenda, no gossips, no bad thoughts in nature. It is real.
Being in wild nature teaches us to bear with and adapt to the discomfort of not exactly knowing what will happen in any minute and to learn to function effectively in every moment.
Resilience and the ability to cope with uncertainty, can be learned – because we have it in our DNA. Every human being has a wild aspect in him or herself that is linked to intuition and instinct.
Nature makes us reconnect with our ability to accept and embrace what is happening in any given moment and gain more self-confidence and calm in ourselves.
Many people have forgotten how observing a sunset or taking a swim in the ocean or a lake, even in cold water, can create a deep sense of happiness and fulfillment.
Being in wild nature gives us back the ability to trust in ourselves and in our innate ability we call intuition. In the most basic of its description intuition merely means our own ability to know what is good for us. Intuition – that gut-feeling.
Scientist have identified a connection of our gut and certain parts of our brain and vice-versa. Some people are even considering that our soul is rather located in our gut than in our brain.
So our intuiton and gut feeling is the place from which connection takes places without us ever being able to explain it from an intellectual level.
Who of you has ever fallen in love with someone and no one could explain why. All you can say: I am in love, I cannot explain it. Well here we are.
So this is how it feels like once you can quiet your mind and learn to trust your gut connection to the natural environment.
As I said before: All people have the ability to connect to nature, whether they believe it or not, but what differs from person to person is our ability to put aside conditioned, learned behavior, judgements, assumptions and expectations.
For those who finds this process a little hard, the connection with nature might seem a bit strange or even ridiculous – for example when you see people hugging a tree- but for those who are willing to step into the gut feel rather than the mind, it can be a glorious and life changing experience.
So how do we get our intuition and feeling of connection back?
Go into nature. Wherever you might be right now. Be it in the city or in your rural home. Go out in nature and do it with your heart wide open and with no other purpose than just to get out into nature.
That means, for this exercise you might want to leave the bike and the running kit at home and instead take a journal and a pen. Or nothing. And then just be. No agenda. No expectation.
Walk. Just walk. Slowly. Or just sit for a couple of minutes. Let your eyes discover what is there. Allow yourself to see, not just to look. Be surprised at what you have never noticed before.
What surprises you?
Try not to analyze or interpret any of what you see. There is no need to label it or judge it. Just observe and feel yourself be fully present in the current moment.
This is medicine without side effects.
And you most likely find yourself more relaxed and refreshed.
If you are up for a little challenge, why not try it daily for the next 6 weeks. Max. 10-15 minutes per day. And why not start today.
You can check out my podcast "Coaching in nature" and please write me about your experiences: firstname.lastname@example.org