How nature can heal a distracted world

Matt Lazenbury

It was 2015. London was killing me. The city had shucked me open like a human oyster and slurped down my soul with a glass of my blood, sweat, and tears. I was restless, burned out, and I could hear the call of the wild.

On 2 February 2016, we left the heavenly warmth of our timber cabin for the last time and stepped out into the hellish cold to begin a 2,000 km odyssey across Canada’s great frozen north—the country’s final frontier of pristine wilderness.

My expedition partner, Hendrik, and I would walk for days or even weeks at a time between communities of indigenous Canadians to learn as much as possible about their cultures, traditions, and relationship with nature.

The days on the trail were filled with nothing but hours upon hours of walking and sometimes Nordic skiing. Everything was quiet but for the crunch of the snow beneath us. Rivers of ice carved through leafless forests on breezeless days and the fauna slept in wait for spring. The silence was so perfect that you could hear your heartbeat.

Deprivation of the senses was complimented by a cold-turkey dopamine detox. By day fourteen, the pleasure centres of our brains had undergone a full factory reset. My mind was active while somehow calm and precise. Thoughts were ripe with creativity and rich with optimism, each with a wholesome purpose. Self-gratifying impulses had vanished and I was no longer a slave to technology. Simple things were suddenly exciting and rewarding. Nature seemed to have healed us.

Before long, we were back amidst the hustle of Paris. The luscious notes of springtime flowers and freshly cut grass seemed to thicken the air, and the din of the city streets was disorienting. Despite my best intentions, I was quickly readjusted to the madness of modern life. Within weeks, my mind was messy once more and my creativity and optimism had long since suffocated. If I was to profit from nature long-term I would have to consciously make it an integral part of my life.

From one isolation to another

It’s now 2020. As I pace in circles around the kitchen like a captive animal, I couldn’t feel further from life on the trail. Self-isolation has had me locked up for nearly two weeks and my sanity is waning. I’ve become restless, lazy, and marginally depressed. Being imprisoned in a brick cage while reminiscing about the Canadian wilderness has made nature’s benefits clearer than ever.

What is it about nature that is so beneficial? How do we inject a healthy dose of it into our restricted lives when the call of the wild feels so far away? Before we get to the benefits, let’s first shine a torch on the challenges of modern life and how they can erode our health, wellness, and desire to go outside.

Challenge #1: We’re an indoor generation

The Australian Department of Agriculture, Water, and Environment states that Australians spend 90% or more of their time indoors. The average life expectancy in Australia is 82.5 years, meaning we’ll spend almost 75 years of our lives boxed up and staring at artificial walls that neatly partition us from our native environment.

Never before have we, as a society, been so disconnected from nature yet so in need of the benefits and healing it can provide. We’re an indoor generation and we’re paying the price. Our challenge is regaining an indoor-outdoor balance in spite of everything working to keep us cosied up on our couch.

Challenge #2: The pandemic is reshaping our way of life

Today, in the throes of a global pandemic, humans are spending even more time locked up indoors and isolated from one another. Factor in the burden of Australia’s highest unemployment rate since the late 1990s and the first recession in nearly thirty years and it’s clear why the nation’s mental health and wellness has seldom been at such a high risk.

Challenge #3: There’s a war for our attention

A war is being waged for our attention and eyeballs are the hot new commodity. Thanks to more people averaging more screen time, the attention economy is thriving. Ironically, the technology that professes to connect us and bring happiness has left us feeling alone and is, instead, simply holding our dopamine receptors hostage.

We once thought we could only be addicted to substances. That was until psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner accidentally found that rats would give up food and sex for jolts of electric current into the brain’s pleasure centre upon pressing a lever. The discovery that rewarded behaviours can be just as addictive as substances has been leveraged to sell products and services for decades, but the likes of Google and Facebook have exploited this neurological feature to unprecedented, and arguably unethical, levels—all to drive scale and profit. Unfortunately for us, the better their engineers get at using our brain’s chemistry against us the stronger our dependence becomes and the weaker the relative reward is for venturing outside.

The challenge, once we understand how we’re being commoditised, is to make a conscious and sustained effort to win our attention back by moderating our exposure to the internet, technology, and social media, and detoxing our dopamine receptors to recover our time, wellbeing, and happiness.

Challenge #4: We’re detached from our own nature

Our evolutionary heritage is that of hunters and gatherers, yet modern society seems hellbent on alienating us from our nature. Seasonless supermarkets have all but relieved us from our post in the food chain and urban sprawl has calloused the land, pushing much of the wildlife that once roamed freely to the periphery. We’re natural beings living in an unnatural world.

The challenge we face is clear—if we’re to reap the benefits of nature, we must be the ones to make the necessary effort. It won’t always be easy to get our nature fix, but, with a little planning and willpower, we can make the outdoors a regular part of our lives. We simply must.

Challenge #5: We’re conditioned by comfort

One of the most profound paradoxes afflicting the Western world is that, as our lives become easier and more comfortable, we become more unhappy. Yet, it seems like everything we do is with ease and comfort in mind.

You need only look back a few generations to see how rare leisure time actually was. Fortunately, the daily struggles of our ancestors have been largely alleviated by the fruits of capitalism—products and services. These days, we’re spoon fed convenience in every aspect of our lives, and technology exists largely to help us save time, reduce effort, or give us a momentary shot of happiness.

When we’re conditioned by comfort, we become hyper-sensitive to the discomfort necessary for living a fulfilled and meaningful life. The opiating effects of comfort, over time, give way to a sedentary passivity which often leads to mental illness. We must not, then, fall into the trap of using rest or idleness as the only remedy for busyness. Rather, we should use our leisure time for things which improve our health and wellness in the long-term.

How to reap the benefits of nature

The restorative benefits of nature have been known about as far back as ancient Greece, with the likes of Plato and Cicero extolling the virtues of strolling through greenery to garner inspiration. Since then, science has come a long way in showing that the Greeks were onto something.

Regain focus, attention, and productivity

Our smartphones, laptops, and televisions have become adult pacifiers. Whenever we feel an ounce of discomfort, we reach for our devices to soothe and distract us.

Technology addiction is a serious business and fuels the attention economy. The ping of notification bells is to us as the bell was to Pavlov’s dogs—a conditioned stimulus. If you find that compulsively checking your phone is draining your focus and ability to concentrate, nature can help.

Of the myriad studies showing nature’s restorative effects on our attention, Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory is perhaps the most seminal. It proposes four cognitive states en route to restoration:

  • Clearer head
  • Mental fatigue recovery
  • Renewed interest
  • Reflection

When you feel overwhelmed, or need to escape the lure of the screen, step outside and let the fresh air fill your lungs. Better still, leave your phone at home and take a walk to a local park. It can be a long path back to attention restoration, but it all starts with a clearer head.

Restorative environments—bringing the outside in: Just because we’re indoors most of the time, doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from nature. Restorative environments are spaces that help us replenish the cognitive resources taken by daily life. The best examples are outdoor spaces such as forests, beaches, and countryside, but introducing nature into our homes, gardens, and workplaces can still promote positive cognitive, physiological, and behavioural states, better enabling us to meet the demands of everyday life.

Start by introducing a greater variety and volume of plants indoors, listening to the sounds of nature as background noise while working, or position your workspace or yoga mat in front of a view of nature (if you don’t have such a view, consider a nature-inspired wall mural).

Ecotherapy: Though a fledgling treatment, ecotherapy has shown promise in improving a number of cognitive issues including decreasing anxiety and depression, improving self-esteem, decreasing fatigue in cancer patients, and restoring ability to focus and sustain attention.

For a dose of ecotherapy in Sydney, Centennial Parklands now offers Forest Bathing walks led by certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guides. Stargazing is another powerful way to reconnect with nature and studies have shown it not only makes us nicer and less self-centred, but the awe we feel while staring into the infinite puts our own life’s problems into perspective, thus reducing stress, worry, and anxiety.

Microadventures: Embarking on a three-month odyssey into the wilderness is impractical for most people. The good news is, adventures can be small enough to flex around your daily life. These so-called microadventures, a term coined by British adventurer and author Alastair Humphreys, serve to inject a minimal effective dose of nature into your week. Take a solo post-work train out of the city to a forest, sleep in the wild overnight, cycle between the birthplace of each of your parents or even just wild camp in your own back garden. Adventure, no matter how small, counts.

In the end, what the Canada expedition tattooed onto my psyche was that we’re all wild creatures—not only at heart but in our DNA. Millions of years of evolution has ensured that we’re well adapted to the natural world. We came from nature and we belong in nature. To waste our evolutionary inheritance indoors is nothing short of a tragedy.

The fight is ours and ours alone. We must have the discipline to relinquish comfort, the indignation to protect our attention from greedy hands clamouring for it, and the will to resist the temptation of being inside despite how rewarding it feels. If not, it will be our mental and physical health that pays the price in the long run.

I can’t make you feel nature’s influence through these words. Go outside. As you feel your senses come alive and your mind begin to clear, be reminded that, when negativity or creeps into your life, sometimes nature really is the best remedy.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my self-isolation just ended and I’m due a very, very long walk.

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