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Connecting With Nature During Challenging Times

To say that we are in the midst of challenging times as a country and world might be the understatement of the year…or the last several years. Even if we may not feel impacted by a specific event or circumstance personally, challenges we face as a collective have a way of trickling down and impacting us on an individual level in ways of which we may not even be consciously aware (although our nervous systems are!). When the news seems to inform us of one crisis after another, how do we connect to ourselves and not numb out or become overwhelmed by anxiety, worry, or anger? And how do we teach this to our kids? For me, one of the most helpful ways to regulate my nervous system and reconnect with myself is to connect with nature. When I’m outside, I’m much less likely to be glued to technology, trying to multitask, or getting distracted with my to-do list. Nature encourages me to be present with my surroundings and to check in with myself. What’s on my mind? How is my body feeling? What do I see, smell, and hear around me? (Accessing this state of mindful awareness is a crucial step in self-regulation, and is a skill strengthened by repeated practice.) Nature is full of metaphors and teachings that can be comforting and supportive for both adults and children if we take the time to observe. For example, watching my plants recover from an unexpected May snowstorm can remind us of our own resilience. Noticing different flowers coming into bloom at various times is a reminder that each child (and adult!) blooms at their own pace and in their own way without need for comparison or competition. Witnessing the transition from spring to summer demonstrates that change often happens subtly and gradually. Connecting with nature doesn’t mean your family needs to spend every weekend camping or hiking (although if that’s your thing, cool). It can mean taking your dog for a walk around the block and observing what’s growing in neighboring yards. It can be playing nature sounds for your child to help them fall asleep at night, or cooking with fresh herbs. Kids can go on an outdoor scavenger hunt (plenty of ideas for this can be found online), collect and paint rocks, help water plants, take photos of nature scenes, or just simply play outside however they choose! Regardless of the way you choose to connect with nature, doing so will support the regulation of your family’s nervous systems. Research has shown repeatedly that interacting with nature reduces anxiety and stress, lowers heart rate, and increases focus. Are you on board with spending more time outside, but your kiddo seems to only want to be indoors? Starting with a small amount of outdoor time can reduce resistance, and your child will still get the benefits. (A 2018 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology showed that spending even five minutes outside can be a significant mood booster.) If your child is at a loss for what to do outside, suggest something you know they already enjoy. For example, kids who enjoy art can make a craft using materials they find outside. Mention to them the benefits you notice for yourself when you spend time outdoors and invite them to join you. You might say something like, “I notice my mind is calmer and my body feels more energized after I go for a walk. I’d love for you to join me next time.” While connecting with nature is one way to regulate, it’s certainly not the only way. Ultimately, the goal is to find a way to come back to ourselves during challenging times in a way that feels good to each of us as individuals. In doing so, we are modeling taking good care of ourselves to our children and widening our capacity to be their external regulators when they are facing their own challenges in the world and need our support in ‘coming home’ to themselves. If you are needing support with your child's regulation and processing, parent coaching, or tips on how to implement these practices into your daily life, please contact us. You can also read my bio to learn more about how I can help support your family. I cant wait to speak with you! Ashley Sutherland, LCSW, Synergetic Play Therapist