“Rewilding” means to make wild again. When applied to human health and well-being it refers to the process of reconnecting with the natural world. Traditional indigenous practices have long emphasized the importance of being in harmony with nature. Ecologist and fellow PT contributor Marc Bekoff tells us “rewilding is all about rehabilitating our hearts and souls and love for ourselves, other animals, and the places we call home.”1
During the pandemic many of us found a renewed appreciation for the healing benefits of nature—myself included. I’d attended a rewilding retreat the year before and was inspired to expand my “time in nature” and “mindfulness meditation” practice. The combination was so powerful, I’ve launched a new venture, Rewilding: Lab to share what I’ve learned. As we approach the New Year, I know many of you are reviewing, and possibly updating your own wellness practices. If you are among those seeking to reduce negative stress, deal with chronic illness, or simply support ongoing wellbeing, the combination of time in nature and mindfulness meditation is my top recommendation. Below is a sampling of research and some suggestions for getting started.
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According to research, being in natural surroundings can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for promoting calmness and relaxation. High levels of parasympathetic activity have been linked to improved emotional regulation and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. In contrast, the sympathetic nervous system is activated in response to stress, and if it is constantly active, it can lead to inflammation and negative impacts on physical and mental health.
Some studies have shown that the sounds of nature can have a measurable effect on stress levels, even when people are unconscious. Additionally, spending time in nature has been linked to stronger immune function, which can help the body fight infection and cancer. This is thought to be due to the exposure to phytoncides one finds in nature, chemicals produced by plants, which have been shown to increase natural killer cell activity and to reduce inflammatory cytokines. Overall, the benefits of nature on mental and physical health may be largely due to its ability to enhance immune function.
Another study investigating the impact of nature experiences on emotion and cognition showed that walking in nature had emotional and cognitive benefits. In the study, 60 people were randomly assigned to take a 50-minute walk in either a natural or an urban environment. Before and after the walk, participants completed tests to measure their emotions and cognitive abilities. Research found that the nature walk decreased anxiety, negative emotions, and rumination, and improved working memory performance.2
Spending time in nature is powerful medicine all on its own, but if you want to add another layer, try mindfulness meditation. It is well-known that mindfulness meditation reduces the negative components of psychological stress,3 however a study conducted earlier this year at University of California-San Diego School of Medicine found that mindfulness meditation can also reduce pain and suffering. In the study, the researchers measured the effects of mindfulness on pain perception and brain activity.4 The study showed that mindfulness meditation interrupted the communication between brain areas involved in pain sensation and those that produce the sense of self. Although pain signals are still moving from the body to the brain, individuals engaged in mindfulness meditation practice do not feel as much ownership over those pain sensations, so their pain and suffering are reduced.
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Time in Nature and Mindfulness Meditation
If you are looking for a powerful healing practice, nature experiences and mindfulness meditation can have far reaching benefits. Bringing the two together is not as challenging as it might seem. Here are six ways easy ways to get started.
Practice mindful walking: Take a walk in a natural setting and focus on the sensations of each step, the sights and sounds around you, and your breath.
Engage in mindful observation: Find a spot in nature and simply sit and observe the world around you, noticing the details of the plants, animals, and landscape.
Do a nature-based mindful activity: Try activities like gardening, birdwatching, or painting outdoors while focusing on the present moment.
Engage in mindful breathing in nature: Find a quiet spot in nature and focus on your breath, letting go of any other thoughts or distractions.
Practice mindfulness of the senses: Take a walk and focus on one sense at a time, such as sight, sound, or touch, and notice the sensations that arise.
Use nature as a backdrop for mindfulness meditation: Find a peaceful spot in nature to sit and meditate, using the natural surroundings as a source of inspiration and relaxation.
In today’s fast-paced and technology-driven society, it can be easy to lose touch with the natural world and the sense of calm and connection it brings. However, incorporating mindfulness meditation and time spent in nature into our daily lives can be a powerful way to rewild our lives and improve our overall well-being.