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Wilderness Therapy: re-wilding ourselves for success

“Look deep into Nature, you will understand everything better.” Einstein

There’s never been a visit to the woods that hasn’t changed me on some level. No matter what mood I arrive with, I always leave transformed for the better. Something magical happens and, inevitably, I always wonder why I left it so long between visits.

Trees have a very special place in the hearts and minds of many people. Their charm, wisdom and strength is their constant gift.

The voices of the trees are subtle and their patience enduring. They are always ready to see you no matter how long it’s been. They offer us a chance to digitally unplug, to reconnect with Nature, to really feel our own sense of aliveness; away from the noise and distractions of the daily grind and non-stop dramas. They extend to you no judgement. Their wish is for you to be free to be yourself amongst them.

The shift towards urban living has meant a move away from our own natures. It has affected our ability to value cycles and seasons, and a lifestyle that prioritises harmony with Nature rather than control over Nature. Modern concrete jungles have led us down a path of disconnection. As a consequence, it has forged a chasm of emptiness within us. Have you ever had that hole-in-your-soul feeling? Try as you might to fill it, it never feels satisfied – no matter the amount of shopping, gambling, relationships, substances or… the list goes on. That’s the wilderness shaped hole that any patch of Nature will be only too glad to fill.

Science is catching up with what I have always felt to be true. Dr Ian Frampton is a psychologist at Exeter University who compared the effects of urban living against rural living. “When looking at urban environments the brain is doing a lot of processing because it doesn’t know what this environment is,” he said. “The brain doesn’t have an immediate natural response to it, so it has to get busy. Part of the brain that deals with visual complexity lights up: ‘What is this that I’m looking at?’ “Even if you have lived in a city all your life, it seems your brain doesn’t quite know what to do with this information and has to do visual processing. Rural images produce a ‘much quieter’ response in a completely different part of the brain”, he added.

So not only are we hard-wired for Nature but, with relatively little time spent amongst it, our brains quickly click into an ancient language and begin a type of healing. There is reduced neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain related to mental illness. The net outcome is decreased anxiety, depression, stress and repetitive negative thoughts - far more than just the physical exercise that walking will give you.

Studies suggest that if city dwellers were to visit a park every week for half an hour there would be 7% fewer cases of depression and 9% fewer cases of high blood pressure. Another study found that additional trees on a given block corresponded to an increase in how healthy nearby residents felt. It has even been noted that hospital residents increase their recovery time when given a room with a leafy view.

Imagine the changes to be had with more time spent outdoors.

Positive attributes include boosting energy levels, happiness, vitality, generosity, kindness and even creativity. The mind and body functions best when given enough time to relax and recharge, a time to dispose of unhelpful states of mind and to allow intuitive creative thought to flow in. On a physical level, getting out of an over-industrialised area gives your immune system a real boost. For example, many trees give off organic compounds that support our natural killer cells; part of our immune system's way of fighting cancer.

By stepping into a green landscape, think of it as a mini holiday for your entire mind, body and soul. The opportunity to properly switch off reaps untold rewards. The Japanese understand this need only too well, coining the term ‘Shinrin-yoku’ or forest bathing therapy. It celebrates the qualities of rejuvenation and restoration, and is an essential part of their health care regime.

So the next time you reach for the TV remote or the wine to release the day (these are both stimulants!), spare a thought for your nature-starved soul. Put on the boots, open up your senses, and just simply be with Nature. It’s time you transformed from hole to whole.

"You didn't come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here."

Alan Watts

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