“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”
- William Shakespeare
Welcome to the first post in our 'Small Joys' series! In this series, we will be exploring the mental health benefits of the little things- which are actually the big things.
Small joys can help us cope with overwhelming circumstances. They give us a break and a safe place to retreat when it gets to be too much. Looking back, it's often the small joys of life that we remember fondly.
This week, we're looking at the benefits of being in nature and taking care of plants 🌱
Now, anyone who has walked into our office at WellNest knows that we LOVE our plants. You really can't take more than a few steps without seeing one. When we were designing the space, we had a vision to make it a safe haven- a retreat and a reprieve from the outside world. Filling it with lush, beautiful, sometimes over-the-top plants is the best way we could think of to create that vibe.
And we're not alone- during this pandemic, many of us have discovered our love for indoor and outdoor gardening. And there is a good reason for this! There is something special about caring for something that seems to persist no matter what is going on in our chaotic lives.
We have also collectively rediscovered the joy of walking and green spaces. For a while, it was the only thing helping us keep it together.
In other words, I think we have all been relying on nature to help us feel better. Now let's talk about why.
In this post, we will explore:
Three ways that nature is (quite naturally, and effortlessly) healing
The many mental health benefits of getting outdoors, or bringing the outdoors inside
How you can begin to establish a connection with nature
Let's begin with 3 ways nature can help us to heal.
1. In Nature, We Are Never Alone
“If a tree falls in the forest there are other trees listening.”
― Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life Of Trees
For anyone experiencing mental health disturbances, or struggling to feel grounded and connected in what can sometimes feel like a chaotic world, nature can be an incredibly comforting place.
This is true even for me, your friendly neighbourhood psychotherapist and wellness enthusiast.
One of my favourite ways to spend time when I’m not at the clinic or writing blog posts is going hiking, particularly in the summer and fall months. Whenever I’m far enough in the middle of a forest, I close my eyes, steady my breath, and observe.
More often than not, I feel a vibrant sense of life and vitality surrounding me, even if I am alone and the forest is quiet. This feeling never fails to settle my worries and inspires a deep sense of connection, serenity, and gratitude.
The quiet companionship that nature provides can be an incredibly comforting (and healing) place to rest our minds.
2. Nature Is Steady
In a confusing, chaotic, and often heartbreaking world, something as simple as a plant...persists. Our lives are busy and sometimes emotionally heavy and complicated. Whereas nature is in no rush! This pace is calming, reassuring, and incredibly peaceful.
We know that if we allow a plant to get enough sunlight, water it regularly, and make sure it has enough room to thrive, it will likely grow. Even when we can't rely on anything else, we can count on this.
We can all access this steadiness. When we take care of a houseplant, or sit under a tree, we are inviting this steadiness into our lives.
3. Nature Is Healing, In And Of Itself
In Japan, there is a concept of wellness called Shinrin-yoku (森林浴), or bathing in the forest atmosphere. It is simply the practice of being in nature.
Think of it like nature therapy.
Shinrin-yoku involves letting our senses- sight, sound, smell, hearing, touch, and taste- be a gateway to the natural world around us.
A group of researchers in Japan studied how forest bathing affects physical and mental wellness. They found that being in nature helps calm the sympathetic nervous system, which is involved in the body’s anxiety response when it is activated.
Another interesting finding that came out of this study was the impact of forest bathing on stress. Participants in the study were shown to have less cortisol, which is our main stress hormone.
Why is this a big deal? It seems remarkably, almost deceptively obvious that being surrounded by trees and open skies would soothe us. Therein lies the beauty of it!
It’s wonderful that something so simple can be highly beneficial for our mental health.
At this point, it's fair to say that all of us have read about the impact of stress and anxiety on our wellbeing. While both can be adaptive and even helpful responses, prolonged and intense stress and anxiety exhaust our minds and bodies and can lead to burnout.
However, it seems that spending time in nature counteracts this, increasing positive moods and lowering the intensity of negative moods.
Plants And Mental Health- What's The Connection?
So what's in it for us? We know intuitively that we feel more calm and relaxed in nature. In fact, we literally buy house plants to create that feeling at home! How exactly does nature impact us though?
Here are a few ways that walking in nature or caring for plants can boost your mental wellness.
As we mentioned above, we all know that prolonged stress isn't good for us! Yet, we live pretty stressful lives with long days and competing priorities. And of course, the last few months have been particularly stressful and anxiety-inducing.
One study looked at the stress-reducing effects of interacting with and caring for indoor plants. The researchers found that when the participants interacted with the plants, it had a positive effect on their stress response! It helped calm nervous system activity (which is behind the stress and anxiety response) and blood pressure. Interacting with the plants also promoted "comfortable, soothed, and natural" feelings.
Honestly, that sounds pretty great.
Excuse me while I take a break from the stress of getting this blog in by the deadline to water my plants 🌿
Nature Reminds Us To Stay Present
There is something about a nature walk that requires you to be mentally present. I find that when I walk around the city, I'm often on auto-pilot. Walking through a forest is an entirely different experience.
The natural world is a multi-sensory experience. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the textures...they all reminds us of what is immediate and accessible. This can help ground and orient us when we get wrapped up in future concerns
When we are in nature, we tend to observe and appreciate the beauty around us. Taking care of a plant is no different! Watering a plant, arranging the leaves, repotting it- all of this requires our focus and allows us to put aside our worries for that moment.
Taking Care Of Something Gives Us A Sense Of Purpose and Confidence
There's a reason people call them 'plant babies'. There is a great sense of pride, accomplishment, and validation that comes from nurturing a living thing- and YES, plants do count!
Taking care of a plant and seeing it THRIVE also boosts our mood and confidence. If you can keep a plant alive, you can do that other thing you don't feel capable of doing.
There is joy in small wins too!
Plants Remind Us To Practice Self-Care
Self-care can be as basic as hydration and sunlight. If we can take a few minutes out of each day to tend to our plants, we can do the same for ourselves.
This cartoon by Christine Rai says it best:
Companionship And Rituals
Stay with me here- I'm not saying you HAVE to talk to your plants! During the pandemic, many of us who live alone found a lot of solace in keeping houseplants. They are silent, low-expectation companions. We care for them, tend to their needs, and they grow and flourish for us. It's a lovely relationship if you ask me!
Rituals help us cope with challenging phases in our lives. The daily tasks of caring for a plant can provide the soothing and steady anchor we all need sometimes.
Plants can also help us cope with one of the most difficult emotions of all- grief. When we tend to a plant or a garden, we accept both the beginning and inevitable end of life. Plants serve as symbolic reminders of our own life cycle, and this can help us embrace and remember our loved ones.
Helping You Breathe Better
Peter Wohlleban, author of The Hidden Life Of Trees, writes that forest air is the cleanest, purest air there is. The air is cleaner under trees because trees act as huge filters. In fact, researchers have also shown that having houseplants can remove air toxins!
If you use deep breathing, meditation, or regular exercise as a part of your wellness practice, you might just love doing this outdoors, or around a little sanctuary of houseplants.
Nature Provides Poetry And Perspective
Nature is a beautiful embodiment of the many factors our lives revolve around: time, change, growth, and ageing, and death. In Ontario, the stark change in seasons is a poetic reminder of the inevitability of these factors.
When we see nature cycle through its rhythms and emerge once again in spring, it gives us perspective:
There are forces our world revolves around that are larger and more powerful than us- we are not in control of everything and that is for the best
Life can emerge from the harshest and coldest winters
Nature is resilient, and we are a part of the natural world
It is okay to rest. We all need a slow season in life
Sometimes the care we put into a situation is rewarded and other times it is not- there are lessons in both
Here is another little reminder from Christine Rai:
5 Tips On Connecting With Nature
So we've gone over WHY you should build a relationship with nature. Now let's get into the HOW.
I understand that I'm coming at you with this post in late August, a few months away from fall. However, these tips aren't exclusively for summer! The fall months are actually the most beautiful and whimsical time to connect with nature, in my opinion.
1. Seek Out Green Spaces
Many of us live in cities, where green spaces can be either scarce or crowded. Outside of creating plant sanctuaries at home, it's a good idea to track down year-round greenhouses in your area. You can visit these in the winter too, and whenever you need a reminder of what nature offers.
2. Start Your Own Plant Sanctuary
There are countless guides on the internet on how to begin caring for houseplants. I found this one particularly useful.
Remember to start small or lower maintenance if you are a beginner. Having said that, plants are not difficult to care for- you do have to be invested in the process though! Try not to be discouraged if your best efforts don't succeed at first. Like in life, sometimes these things are not entirely in our control.
3. Walk Mindfully
This guide to walking meditation by The Good Trade discusses simple yet effective ways to increase your appreciation for whatever environment you are walking through.
When we walk outside, we are usually hurrying from place to place. There is so much we miss when we do this! Practicing walking with intention helps us connect more deeply with what is already around us.
4. Connect With Your Food
We often forget that we are a part of nature too. Living in urban areas, we also forget that the food we eat is a part of nature, and therefore ties us deeply to it. Sometimes we all need a reminder that our food doesn't just pop up in the produce aisle!
When the season is right, go to farmers markets and talk to the people who produce our food. Take the kids strawberry picking in the summer and apple picking in the fall. When we understand and appreciate that nature sustains us, we feel more grateful and therefore, more deeply connected to it.
5. Learn The True History Of The Land That Supports And Sustains Us
For those of us who are non-Indigenous, we ought to learn about the Indigenous peoples to whom this land belongs. Learning their (true) history, practices, and deep sacred relationship with the land we live on will almost certain strengthen our gratitude and connection to the land.
Over To You...
My hope is that this post inspired you to connect more deeply with nature, and the small joys of life in general. We often underestimate how impactful these small features of our lives can be. I strongly believe that a houseplant and a nature walk can be life-altering!
However, I want to hear from you: in what ways does nature bring you joy? And what other small joys should we cover next?
Until next time!