Riding out the Waves of Emotion with and in Nature

What would it be like if we responded to perceived ‘negative’ feelings in the same way we responded to ‘perceived’ positive feelings?  You know the feelings I’m talking about; the ones that make our body feel uncomfortable.  Anger, sadness, grief, guilt, pain, hurt, shame, jealousy and the like.   Growing up we learn to push these feelings away, ignore them, get over them, put a lid on them or deny them.  In fact, society expects us to.  And if we can’t, then we are told to go to a counsellor to learn how to, because there must be something wrong with us.

What if instead we were to normalise these feelings, rather than to see them as abnormal or bad?  After all, it’s only the behaviour that accompanies these feelings that may cause a problem, not the feeling itself.   Somewhere along the line society has labelled emotions ‘negative’ and ‘positive’.  The so named ‘negative’ ones we want to avoid.  The ‘positive’ ones we crave more of.  We should to be happy all the time, right?

What if we were instead to ride through the wave of perceived ‘negative’ emotion, like a piece of driftwood that rides the ocean currents, knowing eventually the rough and tumble will be over and it will wash up on the shore, ready to dry out and fulfil its potential in the sun?

Nature has much to teach us about living with our emotions, just as nature is a stimulus for experiencing emotion.  Nature shares with us her awesome presence and we experience feelings of awe and wonder staring at a sky filled with millions of stars.  We dwell in delight and joy at the sound of birdsong or a fleeting visit from a timid animal in the forest.  We are wrapped up in happiness and excitement as we discover unexplored, beautiful places that take our breath away.   Our bodies respond to these sensory experiences in pleasurable ways.  We are totally present in the here and now, relishing in the feeling of the moment.

The skill of being mindful in nature can be applied to all our emotions, not just the ones that give us sensations of comfort.  Nature provides some clues about this.  A fire sweeping through the bush is horrifying and scary.  Trees do not enjoy having their leaves stripped bare or bark scarred.  But they stand there, remaining steadfast.  They ride it out.  They slow down their breathing and conserve their energy.  Trees have learnt how to protect themselves from past experience by growing thick bark.  Eventually, the smoke clears, the rains come, and seeds burst forth in regrowth.

What if we were to sit with our emotion in the moment and bring the same kind of awareness to our experience, as we do with ‘positive’ emotions?  To sit and dwell in the pit of crappiness, to bring awareness to the tightness in our stomach, to be accepting of our vulnerability, to notice the change in sensations as the feeling eventually passes.

What if we were to treat our emotions like a friend to get to know rather than an enemy to run away from.  With curiosity, get to know its habits, its likes, its dislikes.  If you can recognise the signs of its arrival, you can be prepared, and find a place to sit and ride it out (preferably in nature which has immediate calming and relaxation effects).

Indigenous peoples do not push their grief away or hide it or try to move through it quickly.  They spend many days or weeks, sometimes months expressing their sorrow after the passing of loved ones.  They feel it shifting through their bodies as they dance and sing to the natural rhythms of the earth.

Experiencing and sitting with the full gamut of emotions is what it means to be human.

For those that have experienced trauma, the experience of sitting with emotions can be much more difficult.  Our response, driven by the brain’s need to protect us, might shut our body down completely so we don’t have to feel at all, or help us get ready to fight or run away from a perceived threat.  This is where nature’s healing powers can really do its work.  When uncomfortable or painful feelings come to the fore, nature provides the distraction needed to calm our over-reactive limbic system.  Taking some time to sit in green space with the sun on your face, the breeze drifting over your skin or the grass beneath your feet, is the first step to retraining your brain through a mindfulness practice.  Building up the muscles in your brain to bring awareness to your felt sense, slowly makes space for the more uncomfortable feelings to be explored in small steps over time.  Sometimes a support person or counsellor is needed to guide this process.

Every feeling we have is normal.  They are part of this journey called life.  They come and go.  Even those that are a result of traumatic experience can be healed, through a practice of mindfulness in nature.

Be gentle on yourself.  Sit with your emotions.  All of them.  Breathe through them.  Notice their passing.

Nature is brave enough to do it.  Humans are nature, so we can too.

Stressed at Work? Take it Outside.

Did you know that more than half of the Australian workforce is stressed and almost just as many of us will go on to experience mental illness?   Stress related claims cost Australian business over $200 million annually!

The impact of stress usually results in deteriorating work performance, taking more time off and running down your immune system.   Illness has a direct effect on both the quality and quantity of your work.   You will work more slowly than usual, make more mistakes or need to repeat tasks.  This lower labour productivity translates to increased costs for employers.

It’s a pretty depressing picture, isn’t it?   What’s going on?  Why are we such a stressed out bunch?   Well, there’s probably a lot of reasons!   And something needs to change.  We spend a lot of our lives at work, we deserve to be happy and for work to be a fun and relaxed place to be, where we feel respected by our (not stressed out) colleagues and valued by our (not stressed out) boss.

One view is that people are spending much less time in nature and that we are suffering from ‘nature deficit disorder’ which affects us mentally, physically and spiritually.  I’ve been doing a lot of research recently around the effects of nature on health and wellbeing and how this carries over into our work life.   People who spend time in nature are not only happier and healthier but also smarter and more successful inside the office.  Happy people are 31% more productive, less absent with 23% fewer fatigue symptoms and up to 10% more engaged in their work.  The benefits flow on to business with a happy workforce bringing in 20% higher profits.   It’s a win, win for everybody.

One study showed that staff on long-term sick leave from stress related illness show improvements in functioning and mood after being in a forest.   Even just looking at trees out a window has a positive effect on mood;  workers experience less frustration, more patience, less health complaints and higher job satisfaction.


Employers that invest in staff health and wellbeing can expect increased work performance and productivity, cost savings from higher retention and lower absenteeism, and a happier organisational culture.

So what can you do to bring these benefits of nature into your office space?  Here’s a few ideas.

  • Take your lunch break outside. Go for a walk to a nearby park and lie under the trees or ask your boss for an outdoor sit space to eat.  Get your daily boost of Vitamin D and invite in the sights, sounds and textures in your environment to relax and restore your mind, body and soul.
  • Bring a pot plant to put on your desk. They provide numerous benefits such as cleaning the air, helping to relieve stress, contributing to your creativity and giving your eyes a break from the computer.
  • Add nature to your commute. If you walk or cycle, change your route to include a park.  If you catch public transport, be intentional about noticing nature on your route.  Get on later, or off earlier so you can include outdoor time as part of your journey.
  • Take your next meeting outside or try a walking meeting in a natural space.  Being in nature brings with it better decision making, more creativity and alertness.
  • Turn your desk around so you are facing the window and can give your eyes a rest from the computer now and then.
  • Open the blinds to allow the natural sunlight to flood the room. Or better still open your window to let in the natural (non-airconditioned) air and the sounds of the birds or leaves rustling in the wind.
  • Block out the office noise and listen to nature sounds like running water, bird song and gentle rain on your headphones.
  • Hang up a painting, artwork or photography showcasing nature’s wonders or install a nature computer screen-saver.  Even looking at nature has health benefits too!
  • Have a nature play table in your office with shells, stones, bark, feathers or other things you find, alongside your oil burner decanting a natural pine scent.  Colleagues that visit might linger a while longer!
  • Sweet talk the boss into investing in biophilia as a core design principle in the office or outdoor spaces. For inspiration check out what Google and Ferrari have done.

This Saturday at #StartUpsCoffsCoast I will be launching a new service to promote a nature-based approach to health and wellbeing in the workplace.   This includes Half-Day Corporate Wellbeing Sessions for team-building, planning days and Corporate events; Guided Lunchtime Daily Doses for Staff, and access to Consultation Services to develop and implement Green Wellbeing policies, drawing on the combination of professional expertise at Nature and Wellbeing Australia.   My new look website with more details is on its way very soon.

I hope to see you in nature.  And don’t forget to take the boss with you!