How to Deepen Your Connection to Nature
By Kate Love
Nature can make you feel like one drop in the ocean or the whole ocean. It is at the same time awe-inspiring and deeply calming. If we connect more to nature, how does it benefit our mental health?
Stress, anxiety and depression all affect us in different ways. Anxiety is something that has ebbed and flowed throughout my life, sometimes overwhelming and other times gently lapping at the shores of my mind.
It is so easy within our busy lives to spend less time in nature, so easy that environmental writer Richard Louv has coined the term “nature deficit disorder” - the sense of suffering that comes from feeling disconnected from nature.
We spend more time sitting at a desk at work, walking the city streets, checking social media on our phones; and this disconnect has negative consequences for our mental health. Stress is something that we all experience in some way and can lead to burnout if we don’t take care of ourselves.
What I’ve found time and again is that connecting to nature makes me feel reconnected to myself, to the world around me, and reduces the symptoms of anxiety. My mind calms, my thoughts clear, my breathing slows into a more natural rhythm. And it inspires awe.
The Science of Awe
Awe is looking up into a star-studded sky and feeling a deep sense of wonder at the intricate beauty of nature.
A new study suggests that spending time immersed in nature can improve our mental health because it inspires awe. The research, led by Craig Anderson and his colleagues, examines how the impact of nature on wellbeing and stress is explained by symptoms of awe.
The study explored the impact of awe in both extraordinary and everyday nature experiences. The first study looked at awe experienced by veterans and at-risk youth on a river rafting trip and the second study followed the everyday lives of undergraduate students. Both groups were found to have improved wellbeing through nature connection and awe was at the heart of it.
When my mind is going around in circles, or I am focusing on the negative, lost in a sea of endless thoughts that are pulling me down, I seek out nature. Walking in the forest, stopping to look at a flower, putting my feet in the sand; all of these inspire in me a sense of wonder.
That such beauty, such intricacy, surrounds us, and that we are a part of it too, makes me feel less weighed down and pulls me back to the surface.
The Art of Reconnection
You don’t have to climb a snow-capped mountain or go on a rafting trip to experience the healing benefits of nature. “Our findings suggest that you don’t have to do extravagant, extraordinary experiences in nature to feel awe or to get benefits. By taking a few minutes to enjoy flowers that are blooming or a sunset in your day-to-day life, you also improve your wellbeing,” explains Anderson.
Everyday life gives us so many opportunities to make meaningful connections with nature. It can be the smallest thing; a butterfly landing on a branch, a flower petal slowly unfurling, the sun bursting through a dark cloud.
What happens is that connecting with nature shifts my mood. The anxious thoughts drift away on the wind and I am left with a feeling of calm, of connection, of renewal. The awe that nature inspires is deeply healing.
Where moments before I was sinking down, feeling the weight of anxiety upon me, I feel lightness spread through my body and start to rise to the surface. It is at the surface that clarity can be found; a clear mind, a clear heart. I can float peacefully in the knowing that I am a part of everything, and everything is a part of me; we are all connected.
A Clear Path
Making a commitment to spending time in nature means setting a clear intention for myself. You can feel what is right for you, whether it’s a leisurely stroll in the park each morning, or going on a camping trip with friends.
Nature connection is an act of self-care and you can commit to it in the same way you would enjoy a weekly relaxing massage or rebalance your mind and body at a yoga class.
Solitude in nature gives your mind and heart the space to truly connect to what is around you. When you walk through the forest, feel the mossy earth beneath your feet, and notice the wind singing in the treetops. Details can be so easily lost as we check our phones or get caught up in conversation. Spending time in nature alone opens up a connection to soft birdsong and sun-dappled leaves.
Stillness is a calming way to experience nature, sitting on a rock by the side of a crystal-clear stream or lying back under a shady tree in a city park. Or you can move through nature, swimming, biking or hiking though majestic mountains and vast lakes, and finding your own soothing rhythm.
Whether you find stillness in the everyday or do something extraordinary, awe is often present.
Awe in Nature Heals
What is it about awe that helps to alleviate feelings of stress, anxiety and depression? For me it lifts me out of myself and into everything else. All of the anxious thoughts become less overwhelming. My focus turns to the small details and the larger picture that nature is creating around me.
I turn to nature like a sunflower to the sun, seeking its healing powers. And I am not alone in this.
The idea that we are all intimately connected to nature spreads across history and cultures. All over the world, people share a deep connection to nature. Whether it’s the Japanese art of forest bathing known as shinrin-yoku, or the Swedish celebration of midsummer, there are practices in every culture.
There are so many more ways to experience nature but for me awe lies at the heart of it. If you make space for nature in your life, it truly is a healing power. “Our study illustrates the importance of trying to find moments to enjoy nature and feel in awe of it. People need to learn to slow down and make space for that in their lives,” says Anderson.
Take time in nature for your heart, your mind, and the feeling of awe that arises from being part of it all.
Words by Kate Love