Trauma is an emotional response to a horrific event. It could involve a sudden death of a loved one, rape, war, combat, a natural disaster, or even a non-violent event that rattles familiar expectations about one’s life and world. No matter what the traumatic experience entails, the result is often the same. It sends a person into a state of extreme confusion and uncertainty. But through the darkest of times, there is always light. And for many, that light shines brightest when reconnecting with nature.
A traumatized nation
As the nation tries to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, suddenly, a second wave looms over the horizon, this time promising to be worse than the first. Front line workers struggle to cope in war-like environments. Meanwhile, businesses shut down, the stock market crashes, schools close, and citizens wear masks to curtail the spread. Some have become infected and struggle to breathe in hospital beds or at home. Still, others are grieving the loss of a loved one — or facing death alone. This is the new normal, and it’s traumatizing us all. And when it’s all over, other levels of trauma will emerge, say experts. One way that we can begin to heal is by connecting with nature.
We’re naturally drawn to nature
Healing from trauma has many roads, and each healing journey is unique. Typically, after a crisis, trauma can stir up a range of emotions like denial and shock, suggests the American Psychological Association. However, many people also experience long-term reactions to trauma, which include: Flashbacks, mood swings, tense relationships with others, and even physical symptoms, such as nausea and headaches. It’s during these moments that nature is so beneficial for the body, mind, and soul. Humans have always been drawn to nature and comforted by the natural environment. Spending time outdoors paints a bigger picture of the world as a whole. It helps you put your own “human” problems into perspective by reminding you that all of life’s creatures struggle to survive.
How nature heals us
Research from the University of Minnesota reveals that being outside in nature can impact your endocrine, nervous and immune systems while reducing stress and lifting your mood. How often have you looked at a picture of a majestic forest or cascading waterfall and found yourself struck by the beauty of nature? Viewing scenes of wilderness, not only lifts your spirit but also reduces feelings of fear, stress, and anger. And making a daily habit of it can help you heal emotionally, reduce blood pressure, tension, stress hormones, and contribute to your physical well-being. Experts suggest it may even reduce early death. In fact, research conducted in hospitals, schools, and offices found that even one plant in a room can significantly impact anxiety and stress.
Nature’s “awe” boosts well-being
In nature, we’re reminded, painful experiences do not define the rest of our lives. According to research from UC Berkeley, the natural feeling of awe that nature gives us can dramatically lessen symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Research tracked the physiological and psychological changes in 72 war vets and 52 inner-city youth during and after a four-day white-water rafting trip. The study published in the journal Emotion, found that the feeling of “awe” in nature, overrides all other feelings of joy, amusement, contentment etc., and goes the furthest to boost your overall feelings of well-being.
Experts suggest that humans are genetically programmed to find nature captivating. Nature distracts you from discomfort and helps you better cope with pain. Furthermore, taking time out in nature increases your ability to focus. Since humans find nature so interesting, it’s easy to focus on what’s actually happening in the natural world — rather than in your head — which allows overactive minds to become calm.
Grounding yourself in nature
Grounding yourself in nature is a practice that can help you release flashbacks, negative emotions, or unwanted memories. Basically, grounding is a way of distracting you from the chatter in your head and bringing you back to the present moment. It’s particularly helpful for healing: PTSD, traumatic memories, anxiety, and the urge to self-harm. Grounding techniques may include:
- Take a nature walk and concentrate on your steps. Count each step. Notice how it feels to put one foot in front of the other.
- Listen to your surroundings and take a moment to really listen to the noises around you. What are you hearing? Birds chirping? Dogs barking? Take a deep breath and allow the sounds of nature to wash over you and remind you of where you are.
- Smell the foliage and flowers. Hold a leaf or rock in your hands and feel the energy.
- Put your hands in water and focus on the temperature. How does it feel on your fingers, palms, and back of your hands?
- Finally, Breathe deeply. Slowly inhale, then exhale, pushing the air in and out of your lungs.
Everyone’s heals from trauma in their own way. Connecting to nature is not enough to heal from trauma, but it can certainly help propel you on the road to recovery.