cauliflower brain

Feed Your Brain and Feel Better

Did you know that up to 40% of the nutrients you eat goes into feeding your brain? 

The food you eat not only fuels your physical health but new research shows it affects our mental health too!

Is your brain foggy and lethargic, ruminating and making you feel depressed, or overactive and anxious?  So what is it you are putting into your body?  If we’re really going to make a difference in how we feel and think, then we have to look at what we are feeding our brain.

We need to start taking a different approach to treating mental health, because medication alone is not the answer.  If it were, then we wouldn’t be having a global mental health crisis right now. Globally, the number of people taking antidepressants, anti-anxiety and anxti-psychotic medication has doubled over the last five years to 17 percent of the adult population.  

So I want to shine the light on nutrition to improve your mental health.

You’re not going to like what you read because this requires a move away from ultra-processed foods which are usually cheap and convenient.  The Western diet is typically high in calories, refined grains and sugar, heavily processed, high in chemicals and low in fresh produce.  These foods are packed out with ingredients like starch, vegetable oil and sugars along with additives like colours, flavours and emulsifiers so they are cheap to buy but offer no nutritional goodness.

So what is it your brain actually needs so that it can function at its best and having you thinking and feeling great?   Fish oil is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids that are key to good brain function.  But the real jewels for a mentally healthy diet I want to introduce you to are micronutrients.  Unlike their much bigger cousins’ macronutrients – carbs, proteins and fats – micronutrients are vitamins and minerals.

Minerals are the stable chemical compounds like calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and potassium and the trace minerals like zinc, copper, iodine and selenium.  Vitamins are organic compounds which are generally not made in the body, we have to consume them through plants.  There are about 15 essential vitamins with a variety of letters and numbers which you are probably familiar with. 

Most of us are not getting all the necessary micronutrients from real foods that is needed for a mentally healthy brain!  In a recent US study, 94 % of the US population did not even meet the daily requirement for Vitamin D, 89% for Vitamin E, 52% for magnesium, 44% for calcium, 43% for Vitamin A and 39% for Vitamin C.   Could this be the reason why so many of us are struggling with depression and anxiety?

So what is it about these micronutrient little gems that is so key to our mental health?  Well, this is where it gets a little complex because it is about understanding a bit of brain chemistry.

Micronutrients are key to our brain being able to make neurotransmitters such as serotonin, you probably know as the ‘happy hormone’.  It’s the chemical that contributes to our feelings of wellbeing, stabilizes our mood and plays a role in regulating our sleep, learning, memory and appetite.   Without it, we feel depressed.

Micronutrients are also vital in assisting the mitochondria, or energy organelles of your cells to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The citric acid cycle, also known as the Krebs cycle, produces ATP and is completely dependent on micronutrients to function.

Take a close look at how many micronutrients are involved in this cycle? Mind blowing.

But wait there’s more.

“In every organ of our body, including our brain, compounds or chemicals go through multiple conversions.  So from chemical A to chemical B.  It’s that simple.  And to make that conversion work, you need enzymes and cofactors.  Consider enzymes as the tools needed to assemble a car.  The enzymes are the tools used to build the car, but they are dependent upon having plenty of factory workers.  Without the workers, the assembly just won’t happen, but with more of them, assembly will go faster.  Minerals and vitamins are your factory workers.  So in other words, you need to feed your brain a steady supply of micronutrients to provide the co-factors needed for brain metabolism to happen.” (Rucklidge)

So let’s use our happy hormone as an example.  We need to consume the chemical tryptophan in order for it to convert into the neurotransmitter, serotonin.  And in order to make the conversation, we also need iron, phosphorus, calcium and vitamin B6.  For serotonin to breakdown we need niacin and riboflavin, as well as molybdenum.  Other steps required for the breakdown of tryptophan, requires calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, copper, thiamine, riboflavin and niacin.  So all up there are 11 micronutrients required for three steps in the chemical pathway of converting tryptophan to serotonin.  Complex isn’t it?  Makes you wonder what happens when one or more of these crucial ingredients is missing from our diet?  Is it no wonder so many of us are depressed when our diets are so poor?

These same types of complex metabolism processes are required to make all neurotransmitters. Dopamine, the pleasure hormone, which requires the amino acid tyrosine may have a role to play in the diagnosis of schizophrenia, ADHD and Parkinsons Disease.  GABA, the relaxing chemical, is responsible for slowing down the brain and central nervous system, creating a sense of calm, lowering anxiety and reducing mental and physical stress.  So the key message here is, we need a broad range of micronutrients in order to optimize brain metabolism and function, to operate at our physical and mental best.

So now you know why and how micronutrients are like gold for our mental health, you probably just want to know what specific foods you should be eating.  Well, here is one list.  It is considered to be the most micronutrient-rich anti-depressant foods, according to psychiatrists Laura LaChance and Drew Ramsey beginning with the most beneficial.

Animals Foods
Oyster
Liver and organ meats
Poultry giblets
Clam and muscles
Octopus
Crab
Goat
Tuna
Lobster
Rainbow Trout
Salmon
Herring
Emu
Snapper

Plant Foods
Watercress
Spinach
Mustard, turnip or beet greens
Lettuces
Swiss chard
Fresh herbs
Chicory greens
Pummelo
Peppers
Kale or collards
Pumpkin
Dandelion greens
Cauliflower
Kohlrabi
Red cabbage
Broccoli
Brussel sprouts
Paw Paw
Lemon
Strawberry

Other research has shown increasing foods high in tryptophan like milk, turkey, chicken and oats reduces depression risk, and maintains appropriate melatonin levels, which aids a good night’s sleep.

Research shows that the Mediterranean diet stacks up well against the criteria for better brain health, rich in vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids.  How would your diet stack up?  Are there some small changes you could make to improve your mental health, decrease the impact of stress on your body or reduce depression and anxiety?

I look forward to sharing more resources with you as we explore the role of nutrition in mental health.  If a holistic approach to mental health appeals to you, then you may like to check out my services.

References: 

Antidepressant foods: An Evidence-Based nutrient profiling system for depression, Laura LaChance & Drew Ramsey, 2018

The role of Vitamins and Minerals in Energy Metabolism and Well-Being, S. Huskisson, S. Maggini & M. Ruf, 2007

The Better Brain: The New Science of Treating, Anxiety, Depression, ADHD and Other Mental Health Disorders With Nutrition, Bonnie J Kaplan & Julia J Rucklidge, 2021

Mental Health and Nutrition, edx course, University of Canterbury, J. Rucklidge

nature-therapy

7 Reasons for Choosing Me as Your Therapist

So it is just about to clock over into a new year and a new decade.  Are you filled with excitement or dread?

Perhaps it’s time to finally do something about that Anxiety that has stopped you from getting a job or going outside.  Or maybe you want to shine the spotlight on the plans Depression has had for your life, because it doesn’t fit for you anymore.  Or perhaps your life experiences or the state of planet have you believing that life will never be safe again?

If the idea of therapy, freaks you out (yeah, Anxiety can stop you from getting help too!), then here are 7 reasons why you might like to consider reaching out to me.  Unlike other counsellors, I do have a few unique features that you won’t find elsewhere, as an alternative from traditional talk therapies.

  1. I come to you. 
    If transport is an issue or the idea of meeting a stranger in an office doesn’t float your boat, no problem.  I can meet you at your home, your workplace (if there is a suitable private space), or school (so you don’t have to run around delivering kids to their appointment)
  2. You are not the problem here.  Your problem is the problem.   
    Your problem is not inside of you, but perhaps it has been coming and going for so long now, it has you convinced there must be something wrong with you.  Maybe other people also think that you need fixing.  Together we will expose the problem for what it really is – something external to you.  Something you can have control over.  Something you can change.
  3. I will meet you outside (if you like). 
    From a Western viewpoint, it’s called eco-therapy.  If you’re from an Indigenous cultural background, yarning on country is what you have always done.  And it’s a much better option for people who don’t feel comfortable eyeballing their therapist between four enclosed walls.  I meet people on beaches, riverbanks and in parks, while taking the utmost care to maintain your privacy as much as possible.  Being in nature provides a whole host of health and well-being benefits. I learned all about the healing aspects of being connected to the land from my time working in remote communities of the Northern Territory.
  4. You may not have to pay. 
    I am committed to offering therapeutic experiences to people who can least afford it.  If you have a mild to moderate mental health issue and are experiencing financial hardship, you may be eligible for 12 free sessions over 12 months through the Connect To Well-being program.  A further 10 sessions per year are available through Medicare’s Better Access, with a Mental Health Care Plan and referral from your GP.  Check your eligibility here.
  5. I am here to stay.  
    There is nothing worse than building a relationship with a therapist, then learning that they are leaving their job or moving away.  The Nambucca Valley is my home and my work space.  I am really passionate about my community and making it a great place for everyone to live, work and play.  I would be crazy to leave what is the best micro-climate in the country that makes me thrive.
  6. I will ‘Walk and Talk’.   
    Sitting still doesn’t suit everyone especially if you feel fidgety or restless.  Sometimes moving your body is part of what’s needed to help you relax or express yourself.  We can do this in private or you can join a group.  Why not try a whole day of bush walking along the coast, while working on a problem in our Narrative Walks program!
  7. I am the only Certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide in the region. 
    If the stress of daily life has taken its toll, let me guide you into the forest to help you slow down and reconnect mindfully with yourself and nature.  You can book a private walk with a group of friends, colleagues or just yourself.

So what are your plans for your life in the decade to come?  Let’s work together to make it happen. Get in touch.

Mindfulness made simple

Coping with Uncomfortable Feelings: Embodied Mindfulness Made Simple

I invite you to imagine putting on a pair of sunglasses, metaphorically of course.  These glasses have blue lenses that reflect judgement and criticism.  While wearing these glasses you only notice how bad you feel, think how hopeless you are, and leave you wanting to push away uncomfortable feelings.  It is really hard to notice anything good at all.  These are the glasses our human brain wants to reach for first without too much thought about it.

Now I invite you to put on a different pair of sunglasses that help you look through yellow lenses of compassion and kindness.  While wearing these glasses you still notice the ‘bad’ feelings, but they help you see its okay and it’s normal, and allow you sit in uncomfortable feelings with acceptance until they pass.  You also notice feelings like joy and pleasure, and relish them.  These are the glasses we can wire our human brain to reach for first, through the practice of mindfulness.

There are some problems in life that are hard to shift and might be out of our control.  Mindfulness won’t make these problems go away, but it will change the way you look at things.  From time to time, we are also going to have uncomfortable feelings arise like anger, sadness, jealousy, shame, guilt, pain and hurt.   I don’t necessarily consider these negative or bad feelings.  They are part of the human condition and serve a purpose.  When they arise, we can choose to allow our brains to put on the glasses of judgement and criticism, or the glasses of compassion and kindness.

Mindfulness does not have to become a burdensome new thing you have to schedule into your already busy day.  You can still keep doing those things but just wear a different pair of sunglasses doing them!   But it does take practice because our human brain wants to default to the negative.  You will have to consciously keep swapping glasses until your brain gets the message that you want to wear the yellow glasses right now not the blue ones.  

So you notice an uncomfortable feeling arise.  You start making judgements or criticise yourself for feeling this way.  You realise you have the blue glasses on.   Now what?  How do we do this mindfulness stuff?  Okay, time to put the yellow glasses on.

  1. Tune Out.  At the first sign of an uncomfortable feeling or sensation in the body, it helps to become grounded.  Notice what is happening externally in the environment around you.  Using all your senses, explore what you can see, touch, hear, smell and even taste. 
  2. Tune In.  Now take your mindful presence inside by noticing your breath.  Observe how the breathe moves in and out of your body.  Notice what you feel in your body.  What feelings or sensations are arising?  Where in your body are they sitting? 
  3. Stay With.  Bring you awareness one at a time to each of these body sensations.  How strong and how big is it?  Does it have a colour, shape, texture?  What temperature is it?  Does it move?  What else are you noticing?  This is all about observation without judgement.  Get to know this feeling or sensation as if you are a detective having to write a factual report on what you find.
  4. Breathe.  Take a deep breath and send this air into this part of the body you are focusing on.  Allow the air to create some space around this sensation.  Keep breathing just observing what this does to your body. 
  5. Notice.  Keep focusing your awareness on this sensation as you mindfully breathe and simply observe what changes.  Stay with the experience and see where it takes you.  Do you notice a shift of some kind?  How does it feel now?  How is the whole of your body responding? 
  6. Reflect. When you are ready, bring yourself back slowly from your internal focus of attention to the external environment.  Use your sense of touch, sight, sound, smell and taste to bring yourself back.  What are you noticing about this experience?  What is different now or new?  What have you learnt?

Warning:  Please don’t despair, if you notice unhelpful or uncomfortable thoughts arising during this exercise.  The brain will try many times to distract you.  That’s perfectly OK.  Just don’t get caught up in the thoughts or let judgement or criticism take over.  Simply acknowledge the thought, allow it to float away and bring your awareness back to whatever is the current focus of your attention – be it your sensory experience, the breath moving in and out, or the sensation in your body.  The more we do this, the more we develop our mind muscle so it eventually learns your preference for wearing yellow sunglasses.

In short…

My favourite place to practice mindfulness is in nature.  The sound of birds, the smell of the salty sea or the touch of the grass on your feet can be beautiful focus points to ground us before stepping into the journey inside. 

So next time you feel emotion rising inside, step outside.

meditation in nature

Mindfulness in Nature: Meditation for those who can’t meditate

I am writing this on the banks of the Macleay River in Kempsey.  I feel a few gentle raindrops hitting the back of my neck.  I smell the manure of the resident ducks wafting in the air.  I hear the sound of the breeze whistling through pine needles.  I see ripples of sunlight and reflection dancing over the water.  I pick up a lonesome goose feather, run it across my cheek, and wince with the tickle.  The cut grass feels prickly on the backs of my legs.  This is mindfulness; what it feels like to be in the present moment, just noticing what is around me and the effect it has on my body. 

I notice that which brings the most pleasure and choose to linger in those sensations a bit longer.  Some would say we have lost the art of how to feel pleasure deeply, that somehow it is indulgent and we should move onto the next thing quickly for instant gratification.   

A sensory experience on the banks of the Macleay River, Kempsey

In my mental health counselling practice, I come across a lot of people who struggle with meditation.  They have been told to do it by well- meaning health professionals to cope with the stresses of daily life, anxiety or depression.  But they often feel they can’t do it or at least sustain it.  Some of us are just not born to sit still with our legs crossed on the floor humming a mantra.  And the simple fact is, you don’t need to.  The same kinds of relaxation and mind stilling effects can be gained by spending time in nature, mindfully and with intention.  Nature helps us to turn our brains off and just be. 

Often what brings people unstuck is the constant invasion of thoughts or feelings that arise during meditation.  The voice of anxiety or depression definitely doesn’t want you to enjoy yourself.  I know I struggled with this for many years, wondering if I was somehow doing it wrong or failing.  I gave up and came back to it later in life when stress was impacting seriously on my health.  Know that it is OK to have invading thoughts and feelings.  Rather than push them away, welcome them.  Then gently bring yourself back to the focus of your attention.

The focus of our attention does not have to be breathing, counting to ten, or repeating a mantra.  It can simply be bringing your awareness to the natural environment using all your senses.  Give yourself permission to enjoy that bird song, watch that butterfly, breathe that ocean air.

Let’s try it now.  (You may like to record the following script on your phone, with gentle pauses or have someone guide you.)

I invite you to find a spot in nature where you can sit, stand or lie down without being interrupted.  Allow yourself to just take in your surroundings and notice what is around you.
If you feel comfortable doing so, close your eyes.  If not, you can lower your eyes to the ground and gently soften your gaze.
Take a moment to tune into your body.  Notice if there is a part of you that is a bit tight or tense.  Without making judgement, just give your body what it needs to feel relaxed.  This could be a stretch, a deep breath, a wriggle or shake.
When you’re ready, bring your attention to the part of your body that is connected to the ground.  Notice how it feels just to be supported by the earth.  Notice the feeling of gravity and what it is like to be pulled gently towards the earth.
You may find that you are distracted by thoughts or feelings.  This is okay.  When you notice them, acknowledge them and let them float gently away again, like a leaf in the wind. 
Now bring your attention to your sense of touch.  Hold your hands out in front of you and notice the sensation of the air on your skin.  You may like to explore the variety of textures on the ground around you.  If there is a particular sensation of touch that feels pleasurable to you, invite it in for a minute.
Turning your attention to your hearing, notice what sounds are around you.  Notice the variety of sounds, what is furtherest away, what is closest to you and what is filling the gap in between.  You may notice the sounds are interacting with each other, like a chorus or symphony.  Exaggerate the sound of your own breathing to see if you can blend it in with this rhythm.  Perhaps there is a sound which is giving you the most pleasure.  Allow it to penetrate your being.
Breathing in through your mouth, see if there is a taste to air.  Notice the texture or quality of the air.  If you’re feeling a bit cheeky, poke out your tongue and turn your head in different directions to see what changes.  Breathing in through your nose, notice what smells are being offered.  Move your head in different directions to notice what changes.  Give yourself permission to linger longer in the smell that is giving you pleasure.
Before opening your eyes, imagine your eyes are like the sun popping over the horizon on a brand new day.  When you are ready, open your eyes slowly, low at first and gently moving skyward.  Notice what comes into your awareness.

Journalist and author, Christine Jackman practises mindfulness in nature on the Coffs Coast.

You may like to reflect on what you are noticing about this kind of mindfulness meditation?  What are you noticing in your body, in your mind, in your mood?  What are you noticing in your surroundings that you have not observed before?

To me, a mindfulness practice in nature feels like ‘coming home’ to my true nature.  It’s a way of being that has been practiced by our ancestors since time immemorial. 

For more ways of being truly present in nature for good health and wellbeing, check out my Nature Therapy e-book.  It’s free when you sign up to my newsletter.

20190322_170749

Sharing Two World Views of Nature’s Healing Powers

I recently had the pleasure of presenting alongside an Indigenous colleague of mine to a group of health professionals.  We are a bit of an unlikely couple.  Leonie Hunter is a salt water and desert First Nation’s woman with a history of removal in her family.  I am a middle-class Australian with a heap of White privilege.  We view the world through different lenses, but what we share is an interest in the healing power of nature for health and wellbeing. 

Texture Gathering on our Nature and Forest Therapy walk.

In our recent workshop, we had the opportunity to talk about our own worldviews and knowledge systems, with each of us having an understanding and appreciation for the other. 

Leonie presented the case for connection to country being a critical component to improving Indigenous wellbeing.  The National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Mental Health and Social and Emotional Wellbeing states that

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health is viewed in a holistic context, that encompasses mental health and physical, cultural and spiritual health. Land is central to wellbeing.  Crucially, it must be understood that when the harmony of these interrelations is disrupted, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ill health will persist.”

This is something Leonie knows well through her own embodied connection and the people in her family who are feeling the ongoing health effects of being displaced from their traditional lands and customs.  In our outdoor yarning circle she told many stories; what it is like to just feel the elements, gathering bush medicine to heal physical and emotional ailments, and receiving messages from the animals, birds and other beings.  Leonie was lucky enough to grow up listening to the stories of Senior Kakadu Elder Bill Neidjie, now passed. 

His words still resonate:

“Tree,
He watching you. 
You look at tree, 
He listen to you. 
He got no finger, 
He can’t speak, 
But that leaf,
He pumping, growing. 
Growing in the night, 
While you sleeping, 
You dream something. 
Tree and grass same thing. 
They grow with your body, 
With your feeling. 
If you feel sore, 
Headache, sore body, 
That means somebody killing tree or grass.  
You feel because your body in that tree or earth. 
Nobody can tell you, 
You got to feel it yourself.”

I, on the other hand, presented the evidence for nature connection for health and wellbeing from a Western scientific worldview.  There is a mountain of research supporting the benefits of green space and being in nature for physical, social, emotional and spiritual health.  My particular focus and interest is on the practice of Shinrin Yoku (or forest bathing).  The Japanese have discovered that phytonicides or the ‘aroma of the forest’ has positive physiological and psychological effects to reduce stress.  They found that a slow, relaxed forest therapy walk, lowered blood pressure, reduced cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and improved heart rate variablilty.   Phytonicides were shown to boost the level of Natural Killer cells in our body, which boost our immune system and fight disease including cancer.  Doctors now offer ‘green prescriptions’ for their patients to go walking on a Certified Forest Therapy trail. 

Science is only really just proving what Indigenous people have intuitively known since time began.  The reciprocal relationship with nature is in their DNA.  In my worldview, they call this the biophilia hypothesis.  We evolved from nature, so we are nature.

In our afternoon session at Holmes Jungle Nature Park, I had the pleasure of co-guiding a Nature and Forest Therapy walk with Leonie.   Nature and Forest Therapy (NFT) is inspired by the practice of Shinrin Yoku and developed in California by the ANFT.  Despite its Western roots, NFT allows those living in the fast-paced world of modern society an embodied experience of the healing power of ‘being’ on country. 

With the words of Bill Neidjie ringing in their ears, Leonie invited our participants to find a tree that is watching them and sit with the tree for a while to share stories.  As is so often the case, the trees always reach out to the right person.  There were two fallen trees for the person who had recently experienced a separation, a tree with two large branches growing upward showing the two possible directions in life for another, and a tree that was begging to be leant against with a message to slow down.  When given the opportunity to just ‘be’ without ‘doing’, to contemplate with our hearts not our minds, the medicine of the forest reveals itself.  Miriam Rose-Ungunmerr’s talks about this presence of sitting on country as the practice of ‘dadirri’.

I feel blessed and privileged to be working alongside people like Leonie, sharing and learning from each other, having healing conversations, developing new levels of understanding and respect.  Ecopsychology allows both worldviews to exist alongside each other at the same time, for all of it is truth.

This is my idea of Reconciliation in action.

‘Nature, Health & Wellbeing’ learning workshop, Darwin March 2019.
tree hug

Kids and Nature: Nurturing strong and healthy minds!

Many of you will be familiar with my passion for keeping children safe in their first three years of life through the Healing Our Children project, to improve their chances of growing into strong and healthy adults!  It is one thing to protect babies from violence to prevent trauma to the brain, but it is quite another to add in nurturing and nourishing activities to promote brain growth!

Author of ‘Your Brain on Nature”, Dr Alan Logan says “Your connection to nature established early in life to your experiences can actually influence your life course’s wellbeing”.  He argues that young children who are disconnected from nature experience a variety of health impacts from poor gut health and low immunity to compromised mental health.

Louv and Charles have been looking at a growing body of evidence across the world that suggests children are now spending much less time in nature-based outdoor activity and this is having a detrimental effect on their development.  Louv has gone so far as to use the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ to describe this problem.

While some research findings have limitations, here are some of the trends worth noting.

  • Between the decades, 1980’s to 2000’s, children’s lives have become increasingly structured and media oriented, leaving less time for independent play of any kind, including unstructured play in nature. Free play is going down, screen time is going up.
  • Visits to parks, national forests and other public land is in decline and are a possible indicator of the frequency of children’s exposure to the natural world.
  • There are fewer opportunities for children to engage in the natural world, with parents containing their children to more restrictive spaces, the move towards play indoors with supervision rather than unsupervised in parks, playgrounds or streets, a dramatic decline in children’s independent mobility, parents exerting greater control over children’s play and limitations put on children’s adventurous play.
  • Nature may encourage and support children’s physical activity and help them maintain a healthy weight. The number of obese children is rising, moving into their teens they are much less physically active. Some studies have linked children’s health to green spaces in the neighbourhood.
  • Children have less knowledge about plants, animals and their environment today than their parents. One possibility is that biodiversity has decreased where children live; or children have little or no meaningful direct experience with local biodiversity.

Evidence of decreased mobility, reduced availability to natural areas, and restrictions placed by parents on children’s activities in natural areas, suggests fewer opportunities to engage in the natural world.

So what does the research say about the benefits of contact with nature for children and young people?

There are a number of studies that demonstrate children’s play outdoors reduces the impact of stressful life events and has long-term benefits for physical, social, emotional and cognitive development.  Children who experienced high levels of contact with nature report higher global self-worth and higher cognitive function increasing their ability to learn and concentrate, decreasing anxiety and increasing self-esteem.

In Australia, adolescents have talked about their desire for safe places to break away from everyday life, to restore energy levels and to make meaning from the ups and downs of life.  Between 25 and 31% of young people in Years 9 to 12 said that nature was their favourite place to find peace, quiet and freedom, feel calm, where they can think about things or where they can be themselves.  The study found nature plays an important role in maintaining stable mental health for adolescents, who live in a modern world where societal changes and pressures are rising at a rapid rate.

Primary school children’s access to nature in Melbourne primary schools has shown a number of social and mental health benefits including building resilience, improved attitudes towards school and relationships with peers and adults, greater calmness and less disruptive behaviour, growing sense of freedom and creativity, and enhanced self-confidence.

We know how good it is.  So how can we get our kids off their devices and plugging into nature?  Here are three nature connection invitations, I recently tried with some children aged 10-14 on a Guided Nature and Forest Therapy walk.  They absolutely loved them!

  1. Wish Upon a Rock

Find a rocky creek or waterway.  Invite the children to create a cairn.  For each rock they are able to stack and balance, they can make a wish, a hope or dream.  How many wishes can they balance?  Give the child time to reflect on their experience.

  1. Befriend a Tree.

Invite your child to find a tree they connect with.   Invite them to get up close and use their sense of touch to explore.  “What do you notice when you hold a leaf or two?  What do you hear when you move the leaves or run a stick against the bark?  What part of the tree has a smell?  Do you see different things when you get up close or sit further away?”  After a while, invite them to sit by themselves next to the tree and just spend some quiet time there.  “Perhaps a name for your tree might come to you.  I wonder what stories this tree might tell you while sitting there in quiet still awareness?”

  1. Paint a Rock

Using paint pens and a flat rock, write a message for the forest or for other beings in the forest to discover.  Hide your rocks in the forest.  Take a photo of them and post its location on the #NSWRocks Facebook or Instagram community page (or search your state for your local rock group).  You can join in the hunt for other kids rocks too.

Of course, it is much easier for children to feel comfortable in nature, if they have been exposed at an early age.  Taking your baby for a daily walk outside is giving them a great start to life.  You will be laying down the foundations of a strong and healthy brain.  Oh, and bringing down some of your own stress levels too, no doubt.  Here’s to happy child’s play in nature!

References:

ABC News (2016) ‘Gut health, mental wellbeing and immunity linked to outdoor play’

Charles C and Louv, R. (2009) Children’s Nature Deficit: What We Know – and Don’t Know.

Selhub E and Logan A. (2012) Your Brain on Nature

Townsend M and Weerasuriya R. (2010). Beyond Blue to Green: The benefits of contact with nature for mental health and well-being. Beyond Blue Limited: Melbourne, Australia.

nature therapy; don't be afraid

3 Reasons Why Nature Therapy shouldn’t scare you!

There has been a long running discussion amongst Nature and Forest Therapy Guides in Australia about what to call our practice.  We have been trained in nature and forest therapy, yet many are preferring to use words like nature connection, forest bathing or shinrin yoku, because they think that people are put off by the word ‘therapy’.  Perhaps it conjures up images of sitting on a couch, while someone delves into your psyche.  Therapy is something you do when you have a mountain of problems you can’t solve on your own, right?

Instead of running away from using the word ‘therapy’ to describe our practice, I believe we have an opportunity to change perceptions and challenge stereotypes.  I argue that nature therapy is for everybody, whatever stage of life, however well functioning (or not) they may appear.

1.  There are lots of therapies that aren’t scary

Therapy is nothing to be afraid of.  If that were so, then we would also run the other direction if offered massage therapy, aromatherapy, yoga therapy and beauty therapy.  But no.  We can’t seem to get enough of these.  You can safely add nature therapy to your list of nourishing and empowering practices for your body, mind and spirit.

2.  We are not going to ‘do’ anything to you.

Nature and Forest Therapy Guides are not going to ‘do’ any therapy on you.  In fact, it is a practice which requires less ‘doing’ and more ‘being’.  If anyone is going to ‘do’ anything to you, it is the forest.  The Guide just opens the door for whatever medicine the forest has for you to discover for yourself.  The potential is there for nature to change the way you think or feel about things, if you are open to slowing down and listening.  To help you on your reflective journey, you will have the opportunity to share what you are noticing in nature, with the other participants on a Guided walk.  You can even enjoy nature therapy on your own, at your preferred pace, in your own backyard.  We believe you are the expert in your own life.  Nature is a powerful friend in discovering your true nature.  We don’t need to ‘do’ anything to you.

3.  Nature Therapy is for everyone

Therapy is an activity that is designed to have ‘therapeutic’ benefits.  ‘Therapeutic’ is defined as “having a good effect on the body or mind; contributing to a sense of well-being.”  Nature therapy is an experience that brings a huge range of scientifically proven benefits to your health and wellbeing.  That’s good for everyone, not just for people who are unwell.  I’m a big believer in disease prevention and in that vain, nature therapy should be part of everyone’s daily lifestyle, along with sensible eating and exercise.

 

Let’s normalise therapy, so everyone wants to do it.  Tell your friends ‘you’re getting your daily dose of nature therapy’.  It’s the most natural thing in the world you can do.  I mean ‘be’.

Lucy is a Certified Guide with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.  She offers Guided Nature Therapy Walks in the Nambucca Valley and Coffs Harbour region.

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Nature and the Imagination: Partners in Relaxation and Mindfulness

I am wondering about the power of nature imagery as a tool for relaxation.  Not everyone has access to beautiful landscapes or nature at their back door.  Access to the outdoors may be limited by mobility or circumstances.  Some of us live in cities where green space is lacking.  Recent studies show that prisoners watching nature documentaries are less aggressive and violent, so we know that one doesn’t need to actually be outside to receive the healing benefits of nature.

I am thinking about a refugee whom I support on Nauru in indefinite detention, who is unable to get outside due to chronic pain and continuing trauma.  He recalls fond memories of being a lifeguard on a beach before the detention centre was closed and all services were withdrawn from the island.  I have been trying to work with him to visualise that special beach in his mind.  This is challenging given the circumstances he finds himself, in chronic pain and confined to his room.

I think there is real value in present moment situations of chronic stress, depression or anxiety, to call upon nature as our friend to induce a state of relaxation.   To bring a sense of calm to the amygdala, activated by the sympathetic nervous system.  To reduce the negative effects of rumination on mood and wellbeing.  To open up a space to breathe while the unpleasant feelings pass.

We know that the brain cannot tell the difference between sitting in real nature or imagining a landscape in our mind.  The same physiological and psychological benefits of stress reduction are experienced in both of these situations.  So just by thinking about your favourite safe place in nature is enough to produce the required relaxation response.

Here are some simple instructions for a Tree Visualisation meditation, I gave recently at a Nature Therapy talk I did with cancer patients.  Another option is to have a basket of nature objects such as shells, stones, pine cones, leaves, feathers, gum nuts and other interesting objects.  Just holding one of these treasures in your hands with eyes closed, eliciting all the senses to engage with it, can bring forth a range of mindful responses.  Both of these activities elicit strong memories for people, of places they have been before, of experiences they have had and of traditions or rituals held precious.  I watch their faces as anxiety or fear is replaced by instant comfort and joy.

As quickly as the stress response is triggered, the brain has the power to bring a state of relaxation and calm to us.  Nature and the imagination are perfect partners to try this out for yourself!

forest bathing

3 Reasons Why You Should Go Forest Bathing

First of all, you might be wondering what exactly is forest bathing?

Forest bathing is a nature connection practice inspired by the Japanese where it is called Shinrin Yoku.

It’s not about getting wet.

The idea is to fully immerse yourself in nature and to bathe all your senses (more than 12 of them!).

Put simply, it is about taking a slow mindful walk in nature, breathing in the forest air, sitting and observing, and developing an emotional connection to the forest.  It is different from hiking, where the pace is faster and you miss a lot of what is going on around you.  It is also different from a naturist walk, where you might be identifying and naming species of fauna or flora.

A Forest Bathing walk covers less than a kilometre usually over two or three hours.  Its aim is to help you slow down and take a break from the stresses of daily life, and to appreciate things that can only be noticed when moving slowly.    Some people describe it like doing meditation or mindfulness in nature.

So now that we know what it is.  Why on earth would we want to do it?

1.  Forest Bathing is Part of Our True Nature

Humans evolved out of forests.   Our species spent millions years of in development within these ecosystems.  Then our world experienced rapid industrialisation and we moved into cities.  While genetically our bodies are optimized for the forest, we are now trying to survive in the busy, stressful conditions of modern civilization.

Our separation has caused what Richard Louv terms, ‘nature deficit disorder’.  He argues that our children are spending so much less time outdoors than previous generations, it is having a detrimental impact on their development.

Rather than seeing ourselves as separate from nature, we must remember, we are nature.

2.  Forest Bathing Promotes our Health and Wellbeing

In the Western world, rates of mental health problems are out of control.  Over 50% of people are stressed at work.  In Australia, 1 in 5 of us will go on to experience a mental illness.  Many physical illnesses and disease can also be linked to stress as an underlying cause.

The Japanese have been studying the effects of forest bathing since the 1980’s.  What they discovered was an antimicrobial organic compound called phytonicides that are given off by evergreen trees such as pines and eucalypts.  When you breathe in phytonicides, your blood pressure drops, your cortisol level (or stress hormone) reduces and heart rate variablilty improves.  Phytoncides are immune boosters which increase the natural killer cells in our body, associated with fighting cancer.

Other research has shown that being in nature:

3.  Forest Bathing Addresses Climate Change

I know, it’s a big call.  But I firmly believe that if we are more closely connected to Mother Nature, we are more likely to want to care for and protect it.  Ours is a reciprocal relationship.  When the earth is sick, so are we (see point 2).  We need healing and so does our earth.

Humans have become so separate from nature that there has been little regard to how we treat the earth.  It has been seen as a collection of resources to be exploited for our benefit.  On a guided forest bathing walk, there is particular attention paid to the practice of reciprocity.  In supporting the development of human-nature relationships, we foster the role of humans as givers, as well as receivers.

People who engage regularly in forest bathing practices, tend to spontaneously find themselves engaging in place tending on a personal level or want to get involved in environmental activism at a macro level.

So rebuilding our intimate connection to the forest again, will ultimately lead to the healing of the planet and of course, our own health too.

If one or more of these reasons has inspired you to try forest bathing, then feel free to join the Japanese where is it called “Shinrin-yoku” (森林浴), the Germans practising “Waldtherapie”, the Koreans engaging in “Sanlimyok (산림욕)” and of course, the Australians, Americans and Europeans, where we use the terms “nature and forest therapy”.

If you are in the Nambucca Valley or Coffs Coast region, you can join me on your very own private Nature therapy walk.  Or you can find other Certified guides in Australia here and elsewhere in the world here.

Happy Forest Bathing!

indoor ecotherapy

5 Intentional Ways to Bring Nature Therapy Indoors

After three days of constant rain, I feel myself starting to go a little ‘cray cray’.  I miss my daily walk up the country road where I live.  Not surprisingly, I come down with a cold and by day three it turns into a headache.   Does this happen to you?  After days of not venturing outside, your health starts to deteriorate?

It makes a lot of sense, given that being in nature or green spaces is scientifically proven to promote good physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.

Don’t despair.   I have some tips for bringing the benefits of nature indoors, so you can enjoy the sensory experience even when stuck inside.

1. Pot up the pesky weed and bring it inside.

Plants are not only a visually pleasing and calming addition to your home, but can be a great source of air purification. Two of the best plants to remove indoor toxins and chemicals are Mother in Laws tongue (a weed in the garden) and the Peace Lily.  With increased oxygen levels in your home, you will also breathe easier.
Houseplants also reduce the incidence of dry skin, colds, sore throats and dry coughs.  Put a plant on your desk to give your eyes a rest from your computer screen, boost concentration and be more productive.   One study showed that hanging out with indoor plants can increase memory retention up to 20 percent.  Weird but true.

2. Knock on Wood.

A lot of research has shown that using wood indoors in the form of furniture, fittings and features helps us to relax.  Simply running your fingers across a wooden benchtop can calm your nervous system, lower your heart rate and reduce brain activity, promoting an instant soothing effect.  The smell of naturally dried wood has a similar effect and can be replicated by spraying some essential oils such as cedarwood, siberian fir or eucalyptus around your home.  Always choose naturally dried wood products, not heat treated wood for your home as the aromas produce very different results.  A good excuse to treat yourself to a new chopping board!

3. Create a nature table.

Dig out that shell collection in your bathroom, then go gather some stones, pine cones, feathers, or other forest finds that bring you pleasure. Not just for kids, a nature table or basket is a good ‘go to’ to distract us when feeling stressed, anxious or depressed.  In this situation, pick up something that attracts your attention, find a place to sit, and just explore this treasure with your sense of touch, smell, hearing and sight.  Notice how this feels in your body.  Notice what memories arise for you.   Does this natural object have a story to tell?  Allow yourself time to be mindful and present.  Let feelings arise and fall away.  Just notice without judgement.

4. Uber some fresh cut flowers.

There isn’t a human being around that doesn’t get pleasure from admiring and smelling cut flowers.  But did you know that flower arrangements also offer physical benefits too?  Simply looking at fresh flowers in a vase has been shown to decrease the sympathetic nervous system response to stress and increase physiological relaxation responses.  A similar result is experienced when smelling floral essential oils, inducing relaxation and comfort.  So go pick a wild bunch and knock yourself out.

5. Bring nature imagery inside.

This is a great one, particularly if you live in an apartment in the city, or have very little green space around where you live.  Science has shown that showing prisoners photos and videos of forests, glaciers and waterfalls reduces tension, improves sleep and results in less violent angry outbursts.
Install some nature artwork, change your screensaver to a majestic landscape or watch a nature documentary.  Or simply close your mind and put yourself in your favourite natural landscape.  The brain doesn’t know the difference between real life and mindful imagery.  You get similar mental health benefits either way!

So if you’re stuck indoors, know that nature with all its healing properties is there for you.  Go out there and invite it in.  Do it mindfully with intention and purpose.

You might like to also read:   5 Nature Therapy Habits You Can Start Today

For more quick and easy Nature Therapy practices you can incorporate into your day, sign up to my Newsletter and I will send you my free e-book featuring the 21 Day Nature Therapy Challenge.  That’s 21 days of Nature Therapy ideas to help you develop a healthy new habit.

References:

Miyazaki, Y. (2018).  Shinrin-yoku: the Japanese way of forest bating for health and relaxation. Octopus Publishing Group, London.
Rokas, L. (2017).  ‘NASA Reveals A List Of The Best Air-Cleaning Plants For Your Home’ at https://www.boredpanda.com/best-air-filtering-houseplants-nasa/
University of Utah, ‘Nature Imagery Calms Prisoners’, https://phys.org/news/2017-08-nature-imagery-calms-prisoners.html