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  • Don Kronenberg

Nature as Healer

By Don Kronenberg MSW, LCSW, CADC

August 2015

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more” – John Burroughs

As a boy I recall always being outside, from dawn till dusk, playing in empty fields, swinging from a tree, picking up snakes or crawfish or grasshoppers or daddy longlegs… and not thinking anything of it. Our family always camped on vacations and I remember thinking how cool it was that we actually took vacations, because many of my peers did not. So nature has always been a part of my life. I still enjoy camping, hiking, and running and biking in the great outdoors, without electronic devices in my ears, as I prefer listening to the sounds of the world around me. I find nature to be soothing in its constancy and beauty, and it often gives me the opportunity to resolve issues that are on my mind. Other times I just quietly enjoy the simple beauty of my surroundings, my mind blank, but absorbing much through my senses, a very peaceful experience.

Cultural Perspectives on Nature

Native Americans hold beliefs that include reverence for nature and the power of its ability to heal, both physically and spiritually, and that all truth can be found in nature. They have always lived “with” the land and not “against” it.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a follower of the Maharishi Yogi and associate of Mahatma Gandhi, has said that:

“Our connection with the environment is our first level of experience, and one of the most important. If our environment is clean and positive, it has a positive impact on all the other layers of our existence. As a result, they come into balance and we experience a greater sense of peace and connection within ourselves and with others around us.”

He goes on to say that:

“An intimate relationship with the environment is built into the human psyche. Historically, nature, mountains, rivers, trees, the sun, the moon have always been honored in ancient cultures. It is only when we start moving away from our connection to nature and ourselves that we begin polluting and destroying the environment. We need to revive these attitudes that foster our connection to nature.”

Nature in Modern Times

Interestingly, many if not most of our modern medicines are from nature. In reality, our bodies are made up of things from nature. I wonder if that’s why it feels so good to dig your hands into the earth when gardening, to hug a tree, or touch a rock. In doing so are we connecting with our essential being? Many people have described this as a spiritual experience, connecting to our essence, the world around us.

Unfortunately, modern society and all its entrapments take us away from these natural states. It’s estimated that children are spending anywhere from 40 to 60 hours a week using electronics. Fewer than one in five children walk or ride a bike to school. Childhood obesity has increased from 4% in 1960 to 20% today. Children have less time for unstructured, creative play in the outdoors than ever before in human history. Reasons for this not only include the use of electronics, but children nowadays have many of their activities structured for them by adults. Parents are oftentimes fearful of letting their children play outdoors unsupervised, due to stranger danger concerns, though statistically, problems with strangers are still a rare occurrence and often overblown by the media.

Benefits of Nature

On the contrary, nature play has been shown to improve physical wellbeing by boosting the immune system, enhancing coordination, strength, and helping maintain a healthy weight. It also has been shown to increase self-esteem by improving psychological health and reducing stress. Children learn self-discipline and are more cooperative. Nature play can stimulate creativity and improve problem solving. Children tend to do better in school and score higher on tests. Overall, children are happier, healthier, more intelligent and well-adjusted when they are connected with nature.

Richard Louv in his bestselling book “Last Child in the Woods”, (and who coined the term, Nature Deficit Disorder), makes a strong case for nature as being essential to a child’s healthy physical and emotional development. Louv presents a growing body of evidence that links the lack of nature in children’s lives to the rise in obesity, attention disorders, and depression; and relates many examples of situations where children have improved these symptoms when given opportunities to spend more time outdoors, especially in unstructured creative play.

A University of Illinois study found that interaction with nature can reduce symptoms of attention deficit disorder in children. The “Attention Restoration Theory” pioneered by University of Michigan psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan is based on research showing that time spent in natural surroundings can increase attention span and reduce stress.

And of course all of these findings apply to adults too!

Tips for Bringing More Nature into Your Life! Not everyone can get away to idyllic places as in the picture at right , however, there are many things people even in urban environments can do to bring more nature into their lives.

1. When exercising, try to get outdoors instead of in a gym, and unplug yourself, listen to the sounds around you, you will hear and learn a lot!

2. Those of us who live in the Chicago area are so fortunate that our forefathers had the foresight to set aside thousands of acres of forest preserves to recreate in. There are hundreds of miles of paths available to us. Take a walk, jog, bike ride, rollerblade, etc.

3. In cities, look for parks and waterfront escapes to de-stress in.

4. Bring nature into your home by using natural decorations of rock, wood, plants and earthy tones. And open the windows and blinds to let fresh air and sunlight in!

5. Plant a garden. Even in urban areas it’s possible to plant on rooftops, vacant land, and in containers.

6. When on vacations, plan time to get out of your car and explore by foot. It’s been said that the average time people spend in national parks is about 2 hours, as they are driving through!

7. Get a pet! Caring for a pet develops empathy and can be very calming.

8. Check your vitamin D levels, as this has been shown to be a factor in mood regulation. Best source of vitamin D? The sun on your skin!

9. Look for and appreciate the natural beauty around you, or create it in your everyday life. Hang pictures of beautiful places in your home, use nature scenes as a screensaver on your computer!

10. We know that helping others makes people happy. Consider volunteering some time to help clean up the environment in your area. Clutter and garbage create stress and look bad, while things in their natural state are more appealing and calming.

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely, or unhappy is to go outside, somewherewhere they can be quite alone with nature… Because only then does one feel that all is as itshould be… People happy amidst the simple beauty of nature… I firmly believe that naturebrings solace in all troubles.” – Anne Frank

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