Being in nature, being at peace

Below are a few examples of research findings that suggest that being in nature often has a healing effect on humans. Having encountered a black bear in a park in Colorado, I can say firsthand that it is not always so tranquil to be in nature! That experience was exhilarating, to say the least. But in general, I think that nature does have a healing effect on my psyche. When I am in nature by myself, I breathe deeper and notice more of my surroundings. I explore my curiosity and follow the sounds of trees rustling, the trails of animal tracks and the scents of flowers and earth. Even just being in my garden for an hour is often incredibly therapeutic. I feel the texture of the earth underneath my feet, examine the leaves and fruits of my plants and smile to my brightly colored nasturtiums and gladiolas. I enjoy a sublime serenity when it is quiet (when the rugby team is playing in the nearby field, it is not so quiet!).

Last week, Science Daily posted an article on the findings of a recent study on the effects of tranquil scenes on the brain. The study was published in the journal NeuroImage. The research participants were exposed to sounds and images of tranquil nature scenes (i.e., the beach/ocean) and man-made scenes (i.e., highways) while their brains were being scanned for activity. After analyzing the data, the researchers concluded that the “nature scenery effect” on the brain was more positive than the “man-made scenery effect” as the nature scenery appeared to foster more connectivity in the brain whereas the man-made scenery appeared to disturb the connections among different areas of the brain.

A few months ago, Eeva Karjalainen, Tytti Sarjala and Hannu Raitio published a review article on promoting human health through forests in the journal Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine. The authors compiled a group of studies on the effects of visits to natural environments in comparison to man-made environments. Visits to natural environments were associated with positive health benefits such as lowered stress, improved mood and improved concentration. Perhaps the most striking of the studies cited in the review article is a study by Morimoto, Kobayashi, and Inagaki et al. in which the authors found that a visit to the forest was associated with increases in the levels of certain immune markers, but a visit to a city was not associated with such immune system activity. These authors have also reported beneficial health effects of “forest bathing trips”.

Nature was a place of refuge for me when I was most sick. During most of my hospitalizations for Crohn’s disease/UC flares, I would try to go for a walk outside the hospital once I was feeling well enough to walk that far and the docs gave the okay. I remember one particular time in which I had to convince a public safety officer on the Georgetown University campus that I had not escaped from Georgetown University Hospital. He grilled me with questions like, “Well, are your medicines going to run out anytime soon?” (I had my IV stand with me and there were bags of medicine hanging from it) “Does your doctor know you are out here?” “What happens if you fall?” It was incredible. I simply needed to get some fresh air, see a few trees and look up at the sky. One time, on the way back from a walk outside the hospital, my IV stand hit a bump in the pavement and one of my IV medicine bags slipped off of its hook, hit the ground, and burst. If I had not just been outside, I might have been stressed about it. But since I had gone for a peaceful walk and felt centered, I laughed pretty hard! In fact, I could not keep from laughing when I explained what had happened to the nurses.

One of my fondest memories is from 2001. I was in the hospital for a severe Crohn’s flare and it was around the fall equinox. A group of friends visited me and helped me walk (again, with my rolling IV stand and weak legs) to a nice big tree right outside the hospital. We all stood around the tree in a circle and enjoyed the change of season. It was such a contrast to the manic activity of the hospital floor.

Being in nature helped me to feel a deep sense of peace on some of the days that were hardest for me. Almost 10 years ago, I was in the hospital for two weeks and then I recovered for a few months under the care of my Dad and step-mother in Indiana. One day, my doctor called and said, “I didn’t want to bother you about this, but when we biopsied your colon, we saw some abnormal cells. We sent them to an excellent lab and the report came back today. It said your cells were not cancerous.” I thanked him for the call and hung up the phone in something of a state of shock. After all that I had been through already–struggling just to resurrect myself from being so close to death’s edge–there was also the possibility of having cancer? I was, of course, glad the lab report showed no signs of cancer, but I still could not wrap my mind around even the possibility of having another chronic (possibly life-threatening) illness.

I barely had the energy to walk the 100 meters or so to the field beyond my Dad and step-mother’s house. I was extremely physically weak at that time. In the time I spent in the hospital, many of my muscles had atrophied. And I was still dehydrated, pale and gaunt. Nonetheless, I was determined to walk outside in the field so I put on a heavy coat and walked at a turtle’s pace toward the field. It was wintertime and the surface of the field was mostly a collection of decomposing leaves covered with snow and ice. The wind bit my cheeks. My feet started to feel numb. I didn’t care. I was exactly where I wanted to be. I was away from the mental “me bubble” of spending so much effort on surviving and recovering from illness. I felt so suffocated by that “me bubble” and breathing the fresh, cold winter air knocked me out of the bubble. I was awed by the winter sky. It was so expansive and beautiful. I stood there for at least 15 minutes watching the cloud formations move across the sky as pink sunset hues began to infiltrate the horizon. In those moments, there was no struggle to survive or recover. No existential crisis. No “me bubble.” Just sky and earth. I walked back to the house feeling as if I had been released from my own self-imposed prison. And for a little while, my whole being felt completely at peace.

The forest in Washington State

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