Have you ever wondered what nature could offer you and your clients… especially those that are affected by chronic stress, mental health issues, physical pain, despair and heartache?
I have just completed an initial week’s training intensive to become a certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide. I can attest to both the physical and mental health benefits that being in nature offers. I had a heightened awareness that back and groin pain which has been niggling me for 12 months suddenly disappeared. I noticed that stress that I had been carrying in my jaw and neck from my fast-paced, outcomes driven, work life floated away with the clouds that passed overhead. I was connecting and communicating with beings from the more-than-human world in an intimate way, that I had never felt before. I also discovered a tall tree overlooking a valley held a message of hope for my heart despairing at the state of our planet. It was freeing for my mind, body and soul. But don’t just take my word for it.
There is a lot of emerging evidence about the health effects of being in the forest. Scientific research on the practice of Shinrin Yoku (or forest bathing) in Japan has found that simply being in the wilderness can increase immune function, reduce blood pressure, reduce stress, improve mood, increase focus and concentration, improve rates of recovery from surgery and illness, increase energy and improve sleep.
How is that so? Well, the same compound that trees emit to protect themselves from germs and pests is the same essential oil that improves our immune system. They are called phytoncides and they produce cancer-fighting natural killer cells in our body.
Guides-in-training and members of the public experience the ‘Pleasures of Presence’ on a Forest Therapy walk in the Redwoods of the Yarra Ranges (Sept 2017). Photo: Jana Norman.
We always knew that being in nature felt good, didn’t we? Now there is real evidence to prove that living a fast, active, technology dominant lifestyle is counterproductive and could potentially promote chronic physical and mental illness. People on regular forest therapy walks are also reporting feeling happier, developing deeper more meaningful relationships, feeling more connected with the land and its species, having more energy and developing a more attuned intuition.
It seems as though the Western world, is just catching up to what Indigenous peoples have always known. During my time on the Tiwi Islands, as both a drug and alcohol counsellor and children’s counsellor, Elders and other strong women repeatedly spoke about ‘going out bush’ as the best remedy for ‘wrong thinking’ and wayward behaviour. Within my capacity and resources, I drew on the knowledge of these wiser ones to host healing camps out bush with families who were going through hard times and to reconnect children who were going off the rails with a traditional healing ceremony on country (or if that was not possible at least use the metaphors of the natural world in our therapeutic conversations).
What can ‘walking on country’ practised for thousands of years by Aboriginal people do for our health and wellbeing?
In Forest Therapy, the medicine we need is waiting to be discovered in nature and it is up to the client to do the hard work of discovering what the forest is telling them. The Guide simply opens the door for people by offering them mindful invitations, being open to listening to the messages of support, encouragement, healing or survival that are communicated by all living things. This concept sounds very familiar too, observed in the way Aboriginal women demonstrate their spiritual connection to the land. I’ve been woken up in the middle of the night by the barking owl to be advised that (insert name) must have passed away. I’ve been out hunting when a branch has fallen from a tree, a sign from the ancestors that there is a possum there to be caught for dinner. I’ve watched women scouting the bush for ‘just the right vine’ which will yield a big, long, fat yam two feet underground, left wondering how do they know, when all vines look the same? And I’ve heard numerous stories of miracle cures for persistent ailments using bush medicine, where modern medicine has failed. The knowledge for living a good and healthy life is right there on country, if we are in tune.
Unfortunately, the government policies of today are forcing Aboriginal people off their country and into the towns to be closer to services, and along with this, alcohol, drugs, unhealthy food options and other social issues like overcrowding and domestic violence. We are seeing the health effects of this lifestyle for Aboriginal people and it’s not good.
As a social worker, this has got me thinking seriously about nature as a form of intervention for people who come to us for help. The forest provides healing in gentle and profound ways, that we as humans cannot. It requires a step away from evidence-based talk therapies from Western culture towards intuitive traditional healing practices and spiritual connections to nature that have been used for thousands of years.
If we don’t believe the anecdotal evidence from Aboriginal people about the positive health effects of being connected to country, then we can at least take notice of the emerging evidence from shinrin yoku practices in Japan.
Nature has something for everyone. Even those of us whose heart is aching for the destruction of nature itself.