I've guided hundreds of people around the world, both in-person and remotely (via audio conference calls to accommodate COVID restrictions). What has astounded me the most is the number of people who've shared that the best part of their experience with me was having "permission" to touch things, to just listen, to stop and smell flowers...
Doctors, teachers, artists, entrepreneurs, journalists, parents - they all realized they had stopped paying attention to their senses because they didn't think they were allowed to. In a world of masks, hand sanitizers and an airborne virus, touching and smelling became seemingly dangerous. For many, this has been an emotional realization - and a cathartic experience. One individual shared that it felt like they could breathe again.
WE'VE LOST OUR SENSES
For the last year, COVID-19 precautions have restricted our daily lives. We've been interacting with fewer people, going to fewer places and having fewer experiences. Opportunities to actively use our senses have been significantly reduced. With adults averaging 13+ hours a day in front of a screen, we're primarily engaging our sight and hearing. This engagement is often passive, with Netflix playing on a tv in the background, a computer screen in front of us and our phone calling our attention with social media. Furthermore, with fewer opportunities to connect to others in-person, the use of social media has skyrocketed over the last year. Sharing experiences with others has been replaced with sharing content to create connection. While taking photos to capture people's attention, the actual sensory experience is often missed. When you rely on your camera to capture a moment, your senses aren't called-upon. All of the sensory data that would have been translated into memories in your brain are left to images stored on Instagram. I doubt that there's ever been a time that we've been more distracted from the present moment and more detached from our senses. We're losing our capacity to notice.
RESTORING OURSELVES IN NATURE
Staying connected to the natural world is essential to our wellbeing and resiliency. Being outdoors, breathing fresh air, feeling the breeze against our skin, sensing the sunlight on our face, listening to birdsong and noticing beauty in landscapes simply makes us feel good.
There is science behind why nature makes us feel good. Our body's stress response is regulated by our Autonomic Nervous System - divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. Stress triggers our sympathetic nervous system - increasing our heart rate and sweat production in preparation for fight and flight. Exposure to natural environments triggers our parasympathetic nervous system - slowing our heart rate and increasing heart rate variability to allow us to "rest and digest." When we spend time in nature, or are simply exposed to images of nature, our parasympathetic nervous system restores our cognitive functioning and emotional regulation. We're able to experience awe, empathy and pleasure.
I GIVE YOU PERMISSION
Nature is one of the few places where we've maintained a sense of predictability and familiarity. The social norms when we're in nature haven't dramatically changed. We don't have to be hyper-aware - we can simply "be." People have reconnected with their gardens and flocked to local parks and favourite wilderness locations. It's where many have found a sense of belonging and calm, when isolation and disruption have overwhelmed them.
As a Certified Nature & Forest Therapy Guide, I invite people to tune into their senses, slow down, breathe deeply and to give their attention to the natural world around them. Forest Therapy is a practice inspired by the Japanese practice of “Shinrin-Yoku” which translates into “forest bathing.”
A guided Forest Therapy walk is not a hike to a destination nor an opportunity to get 10,000 steps in. It's about being mindful and arriving in the present moment. More than ever, people need permission to slow down, to notice what's around them and to escape from the impulse to be "doing something" in nature. With my carefully-crafted invitations and prompts, participants are able to slow their pace, quiet their minds, let go and experience their surroundings through their senses..
Over 40 years of global research has proven significant health benefits from Forest Therapy, such as:
reduced symptoms of anxiety
reduced blood pressure
a reduction in stress and cortisol levels
increased ability to focus
higher energy levels
greater clarity of thought, creativity and critical thinking
a strengthened immune system
In an Era Where Empathy and Innovation are Essential -
On guided Forest Therapy walks, participants often feel like they're a kid again when they follow my invitations - and it's that kid who once didn't know what they weren't supposed to touch, what questions they weren't supposed to ask and what things they weren't supposed to say about what they noticed. This child-like curiosity is the source of innovating to fix what's broken.
When individuals feel that they have permission to return to their childlike curiosity, exploring and questioning the world around them in their daily lives, they'll be the people who might actively sense, notice, explore, ask, experiment and imagine freely again. And when these individuals have a restored nervous system, they can do this with empathy for others.
While vaccinations will allow for the retirement of many health and safety protocols this year, the social norms that we've all experienced around the world will continue to influence our habits and assumptions. People will need to remember how to experience the world around them again.
There are so many things that are broken in our daily lives - I'm here to restore people in nature and "bring them back to their senses" so they can fix them.
More than ever, health authorities and major publications around the world have been recommending time in nature to counter the mental health impact of COVID-19. Here in Canada, nature is being recognised as essential for health. In fact, medical professionals are prescribing nature through the newly-launched PaRx Program.
Valerie spent over 25 years leading technology teams to reach their potential in the energy, utility, banking and technology industries. Over the last 6 years, Valerie has developed a private practice as a trusted Executive Coach (ICF), Mentor and Certified Forest Therapy Guide (ANFT) for clients around the world. Her unique approach incorporates guided time in nature in support of mental health and overall wellbeing.