When I was young, my family moved to a remote little cottage on the edge of a vast and enticing forest. It was an amazing place to be, and I spent many a happy hour playing, walking, cycling and generally just hanging out in that forest. I also recall how, after experiencing stressful incidents at school, I would trudge along the forest track mulling things over while taking in all the smells, sights and sounds around me, and would gain a huge amount of strength and confidence — a renewed sense of my own place in the world — from my leafy surroundings.
The forest soothed me when I was feeling anxious, and being in nature made me feel happier and more at peace. Interestingly, this approach is used as a stress management activity in Japan, where it's called "forest bathing." I suppose on some deep level I must have known back then that nature was healing. Most little kids do, I suspect.
But then I left home for the city to go to college and immediately forgot all about the healing properties of nature. Life took over, things like studying, getting a job, socializing, finding a partner — and the really important stuff, like shopping and watching TV! Being in nature lost its relevance. Nature was child's play, not a grown-up activity.
From then on, my life became incredibly stressful. During college, at university, within my relationships, in my job ... stress was waiting for me around every corner. City life seemed so gray, so bleak and unfriendly, like being in a concrete hell, where I felt lost and alienated.
Fortunately, somewhere along the line it began to dawn on me that I had forgotten something very important. I realized that I was craving green spaces, trees and the open countryside. Every time I became stressed, I noticed how much calmer I felt when I was outside among trees, plants and water. I would get these intense, yet fleeting flashes of childhood contentment again. And it felt great!
That's when it clicked: being in nature is incredibly important to our well-being. It's not a luxury, or simply somewhere nice to go; it's essential, and we need to ensure it's in our lives!
Over the past few years I've discovered that there are a number of different ways we can draw on nature to relieve our stress. Here are five tips for you to try:
1. Reflect on nature's many lessons.
We can learn so much from nature, such as the importance of patience, balance, flexibility and perseverance. Actively cultivate these qualities and approaches within your life. They will bring you much peace and inner calm.
2. Spend time directly in nature.
Research has shown that spending time in the great outdoors lowers our blood pressure and eases muscle tension.
So get outside whenever you can — go somewhere green and peaceful. Sit in your garden or in a park. Go for walks, go fishing, or go swimming. It doesn't have to be a wilderness, just get outside into the fresh air, into the green.
3. Bring nature into your home.
Of course you can't always get out into nature, but you can bring it to you! Display nature imagery in your home, since simply looking at soothing pictures of nature has also been found to relieve stress.
Also, bring natural objects such as driftwood and pebbles — or anything that has meaning for you — into your home, too. These objects will remind you of your connection to nature and help to soothe your soul.
4. Do some gardening and grow some plants.
Gardening lowers rates of depression and anxiety, raises energy levels, improves mood, and also helps to reduce stress and tension. Tend indoor plants, if you don't have a garden.
5. Use images and ideas of nature, and also nature's calming colors (green and blue) as a focus for visualization and meditation.
Visualize being beside a deeply soothing turquoise sea. Imagine walking in a beautiful verdant forest, or meditate on the reassuringly predictable cycles and rhythms of nature.
The trick is to find the time to incorporate the above tips into your life on a regular basis, as this will help to build your resilience to stress and also deepen your connection with healing nature. They've all brought a great deal of calm and balance back into my own life, and I very much hope they'll do the same for you too.