Nature Lifestyle Mental Health Mind & Body

The Effects of Nature on Cognition and Memory

All of us occasionally suffer from “brain fog.” It is when we are unable to focus on a task, become frustrated and are easily irritated. Have you ever noticed how taking a breath of fresh air suddenly makes you feel refreshed and rejuvenated? It is as if you have been injected with energy. The expression “use it or lose it” is commonly used in the UK. As with all parts of the body, processes can slow down if the brain is not exercised; keeping it active is of huge importance. That 10-minute break from your computer screen, watching wild birds on a feeder, or squirrels running about a park while you stretch your legs are examples of how we can interact mentally and emotionally with nature and recharge part of our brain.

As a child, I had the good fortune of being raised in a village in the countryside. When not in school, it was the norm to go out into the surrounding fields to explore, climb trees and enjoy the fresh air. Many of my friends recall similar childhoods. We didn’t play video games, there were fewer channels on TV, and indoor entertainment usually consisted of reading or craft activities. Lessons at school were punctuated with playtime on the field, running at full speed. We felt refreshed and ready to concentrate on learning afterward, the cobwebs having been thoroughly swept away.

Science now shows the restorative capacity of the natural world to be true; nature does indeed refresh us and also has a positive effect on our brains. When studying or at work, there is a need to focus for extended periods of time. However, the capacity to apply direct attention (focus on a specific thing or cognitive process) declines over time; we start to daydream, clarity of thought is lost, and the ability to concentrate reduces. The sights and sounds from the natural environment generally arouse our curiosity in a gentle manner. No direct attention is necessary; the mind has a chance to replenish. An urban environment can be jarring and dangerous; close attention must be paid to our surroundings in order to avoid accidents; being hit by vehicles or knocking over pedestrians. In such an environment, our brains are not able to relax and recuperate.

Studies on university students in the UK have demonstrated that taking 15-minute breaks in a natural environment resulted in an enhanced capacity to complete tasks and retain information. When given four mental-agility tests to complete, their capacity for directed attention showed significant recovery after the outdoor break. The study also showed that short breaks involving exercise in a natural setting had a more positive effect on recovery from directed attention fatigue than a sedentary break indoors. Although both actual and virtual exposure to nature influences cognitive ability, memory and attention, physically being in a natural environment produces a greater positive effect.

Similar research on the elderly comparing the effects of restorative breaks taken within their care home to those taken in its garden where they interacted with nature, showed that after time spent in the natural setting, the test participants’ ability to concentrate on tasks had increased significantly. Similarly, studies conducted involving memory tests (remembering a list of numbers or symbols) also showed that interacting with the natural world improved the participants’ short-term memory. With an aging global population, conditions such as Dementia and Alzheimer’s are growing concerns. Recent Australian research into the effects of exercise on cognitive decline has also shown that an optimal amount can improve spatial learning. This research is now being used to try and reverse the effects of Dementia; tying exercise into improving neural connectivity in the hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for memory, learning, and emotions). This potential improvement in our neural networks paired with increased concentration and memory brought about by being surrounded by nature could lead to a winning combination for our long-term mental health.

For those of us whose lives revolve around working in an office, possibly with little chance to escape to a green space during lunch break, the view from the window is an important asset in work performance as well as job satisfaction. A green outdoor environment has been shown to increase workers’ mind function and ability to organize their work and combat mental fatigue. If physical access to that green space is not possible, the view from the window provides a ‘micro-break’ where the brain can relax.

Thus, natural environments provide important ‘psychological ecosystem services’ benefiting cognitive flexibility, the working memory, and attention control. We should try to capitalize on the potential benefits of outdoor breaks, incorporate attractive outdoor spaces on campuses, workspace and care homes, and facilitate movement through these to enhance our concentration and overall feelings of well-being.

EJ Taylor is an environmental biologist, entomologist and teacher with over 20 years’ experience in working internationally. EJ currently works as an Intervention English Language Specialist in a College of Further and Higher Education in Agriculture and Animal Management in Lincolnshire, the UK. EJ holds a fascination for the natural world and the relationships between species. Of particular interest are the effects of the natural environment on human well-being, mental health and cognition. When not surrounded by nature, EJ can be found creating artwork, cooking, pottering in the vegetable garden or traveling (sometimes on a classic British motorcycle).

Meditation Mental Health Mind & Body

Finding Time for Your Soul

“We need to change the delusion that we need to burn out in order to succeed.” —Arianna Huffington

One of the biggest challenges to finding time for meditation—and balancing ourselves mentally, physically, and emotionally—is the burnout complex. Many of us feel the need and pressure to operate at maximum capacity from the time our eyes open until we go to sleep. That doesn’t even make sense for a machine, let alone a human being. You wouldn’t expect a car to run at top speed 100 percent of the time without its engine exploding, so why do we expect it of our minds and bodies?

Why We Need to Slow Down

While real physical dangers in the developed world are rare today, most of us suffer from internal perceptions that create stress. Our brains register these as incoming threats, triggering our body’s fight-or-flight response—that jolt of energy you feel at the top of a rollercoaster, or when a barking Doberman starts charging toward you. This physiological response narrows our focus and energizes our body to deal with a physical situation. However, for most of us, the threat we might face is an urgent email, a heated argument with our partner, or bills piling up. These daily (or hourly) stressors trigger a biochemical shift in our bodies. The clinical explanation is that our brain perceives, our nervous system activates, and our adrenal stress systems change our biochemistry to prepare our body to react to incoming danger.

The problem for many of us experiencing this stress response on a regular basis—besides that it activates a survival mode not intended for the average workday—is that it performs a variety of short-term lifesaving actions that harm our bodies when triggered too often. Those actions include pumping extra sugar and insulin into our bloodstream, constricting blood vessels, directing energy away from daily bodily functions, slowing digestion, deregulating our immune system, interrupting fertility and more.

Meditation: Why It Matters

Those who meditate daily, for even just 10 minutes, immediately discover increased mindfulness, greater sense of purpose, better productivity, decreased stress and even decreased illness. It has been proven to improve health and relationships, and to help people find a connection with nature and the universe.

Besides directly countering our stress response, meditation helps us better regulate that response in the face of future threats.

Many of us are stuck in the rut of, “I don’t have time for ___,” even when that activity is essential for our health and basic satisfaction with life. For many, that activity is meditation. Fortunately, we often have more time than we think, especially when we reclaim time dedicated to nonessential activities like scrolling social media feeds and internet browsing.

Reclaiming this time leaves an opening to meditate. Instead of plopping onto the couch to scroll through Netflix, you can truly unwind.

Meditation contributes to a positive mindset and energy, both of which are invaluable to the health of your body and brain. Positivity has been proven to increase feelings of joy, contentment and love. These positive emotions increase our ability to solve problems, find opportunities, see the bigger picture of our lives and, ultimately, be the best versions of ourselves.

Two Ways to Find Time

Want to meditate but feel like you don’t have the time? Two tips to help get you that valuable opportunity are to set “no fly times” and to eliminate your “energy zappers.”

Set and Maintain “No Fly Times”

Build intentional downtime in your schedule where you make no calls and send no texts or emails. This could be in the morning, at the end of the day, during your lunchtime—anytime that makes sense for even just 10 minutes of a break for your brain and nervous system.

Find and Eliminate “Energy Zappers”

So many people waste their valuable time on activities, functions, meetings, etc. that make no real difference in their lives. Try spending less time on things that add no value to your life and leave this space available for more important things.

When you build in downtime and cut out nonessential and energy-zapping activities, you have more time and clarity for meditation.

Eight Meditative Exercises

Not sure how to meditate? There are many ways to meditate and different ideas of what it entails. Ultimately, meditation should help you quiet your mind and gain internal clarity.

  1. Traditional or guided meditation, with or without prayer
  2. Exercise meditation (yoga, walking or stretching)
  3. Journaling and self-reflection (just two sentences to start—anything that’s on your mind)
  4. Quiet alone time (start with 5–10 minutes of mindlessness or mental relaxation)
  5. Practice self-empowerment mantras (I am valuable, I love my life, I am connected to my life’s purpose, I am getting stronger every day, etc.)
  6. Take a bath with calming essential oils like lavender, bergamot or chamomile
  7. Walk in nature, or somewhere quiet and calm (try to do this daily if possible)
  8. Breathing exercises (start with belly breathing instead of chest breathing[What is the difference? Explain] 10 times every time you go to the toilet)

Nisha Jackson is a nationally recognized hormone and functional medicine expert, lecturer, motivational speaker, radio host, columnist, author of “Brilliant Burnout” and founder of OnePeak Medical Clinics in Oregon. For 30 years, her approach to medicine has successfully reversed chronic problems such as fatigue, brain fog, depression, insomnia and lack of stamina.

Mental Health Mind & Body Relationships

Set Yourself Free This Holiday Season 

While Christmas is a joyful time of the year, many of us dread the family gatherings. If your family is anything like mine, deep wounds and suppressed emotions surface during family festivities. Every year, tension inevitably invites itself to the party.

Whether it’s divisive comments about politics or religion, unsolicited advice, or a family member harping on how we raise our children, most of us have at least one relative who knows how to get under our skin. By the end of the gathering, we can feel defensive, inadequate and, quite frankly, picked on. Over the years, we may begin to anticipate these negative interactions, which can lead to dread instead of joy.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to heal these family divides and set yourself free from the holiday dread? That may sound like a Christmas miracle, but that’s exactly what I did.

A few years ago, dread turned into excitement, and the holiday gatherings became a blessing. What prompted the change? Did my uncle stop making inflammatory political comments over dinner? Nope. Did my in-laws stop hounding me about my children not learning to be “part of a team” because they don’t play league sports? Nope. Did my stepmother stop making comments about how I’m a “disgrace” to women because I choose to homeschool my children? Nope. Nobody intentionally changed—except me.

We all know you can’t control people, and you can’t change them either. However, most of us want people to act a certain way. For instance, we believe a parent is “supposed” to be protective, and a friend is “supposed” to be supportive. When they don’t live up to our expectations, we feel disappointed.

For years, I wanted my family members to act a certain way. In fact, I expected them to act a certain way. However, carrying those misplaced expectations routinely led to disappointment because I was expecting them to be something they were not capable of being.

It’s like wanting someone to be an ocean that can hold a quintillion gallons of water, but they are just a jug that can hold only a few quarts. I was expecting my relatives to hold the whole ocean. And, when they failed to meet my expectation, I directed my disappointment toward them. However, it was my misplaced expectation that created the tension in the first place.

Once I realized misplaced expectations were at the core of my emotional distress, I changed my perception. Instead of becoming frustrated and questioning, “Why won’t they accept me for who I am?” I began asking myself, “Why am I not accepting them for who they are?”

Consequently, I decided to forgive each family member. I forgave them for not being the way I wanted them to be. Admittedly, forgiveness is often met with resistance. I struggled with it for years because when you feel you’ve been wronged, you often view forgiveness as thinking that the person’s actions are acceptable. However, that’s not what forgiveness means.

Forgiveness is a gift to yourself. When you forgive, you are saying to yourself that you are no longer willing to carry the burden; you are no longer willing to spend your energy harboring negative emotions from your past; you are no longer willing to allow the past to define your present moment. When you forgive, you set yourself free.

In my pursuit of forgiveness, I’ve encountered many instances where I felt I could not forgive a family member because the trauma and subsequent emotional distress was too great. However, once I realized I had an expectation for how I wanted them to be and they did not live up to my expectation, the door to forgiveness opened.

Likewise, I was able to forgive myself for placing those expectations on my family. By expecting them to behave a certain way, I created a situation where I set them up for failure. Once I realized I was trying to control them, I took responsibility for my part. I forgave myself for not being the way I wanted me to be.

Once I walked through the door to forgiveness, something magical happened. I released the misplaced expectations, and for the first time, I saw each of my relatives for who they truly are, instead of seeing them as what they talked about. I saw beyond the political views and the criticisms. I saw beyond the cheap shots and the bullying. I finally saw the common ground that exists among all of us—a wounded child.

The truth is, we all have a wounded child inside of us, one who is scared and longing for love and acceptance. So, when your dad criticizes you for your choice in boyfriends or your mom badgers you for the millionth time about finally settling down and getting married so she can have grandchildren, their comments are actually not about you. Their comments stem from their own fear and insecurity because they have probably never truly felt loved and accepted—just as you probably don’t feel completely loved and accepted by them.

Once I identified with the wounded child instead of the superficial comments that I had allowed to define my relatives, I no longer viewed them as judging me and trying to control my life. Instead, I saw them as scared children looking for love, just like me. I realized that I was expecting them to give me something they are not capable of giving because they are not oceans; they are mere jugs.

In that moment of truth, I was able to love and accept them for who they are instead of trying to change them into what I wanted them to be. In doing so, I set myself free, and I set my family free from my judgment.

Even though I had not confronted anyone, and the forgiveness occurred in my own mind, the ripple effect was profound. During the next family gathering, the energy of the room shifted from tension to peace. Why? Because I had changed.

For instance, when my father-in-law passed judgment about my dietary choices, instead of reacting in a defensive manner, I paused and imagined his wounded child. He was 6 years old, scared, alone and just wanting someone to love him. In my mind, I reached out my arms and embraced his inner child. I held him tight and told him that he is safe and loved and that I would never leave him.

Picturing his inner child allowed me to identify our common ground, and instantly, I forgave him for not being the way I wanted him to be. That simple act of forgiveness shifted my energy from fear to love. Consequently, my response to his judgment was no longer about me defending my choices. I was no longer attached to the outcome of the conversation because I was no longer trying to convince him that my choices in life were right. Being right no longer mattered. I stopped trying to change him based on my misplaced expectations of who I wanted him to be. I no longer needed his approval. Instead, I focused on simply loving his wounded child.

Once I created that single positive interaction, a domino effect ensued. Every subsequent interaction for the day shifted from fear to love, from tension to peace, and from dread to joy. It was a Christmas miracle.

You can create your own Christmas miracle, too. As you prepare for your family gathering this holiday season, give yourself the gift of forgiveness. Free yourself from the burden of carrying negative emotions. Free yourself from the stress that comes with holding a grudge. Picture each relative as a wounded child and forgive them for not being the way you wanted them to be. Then forgive yourself for saddling your loved ones with misplaced expectations. It may be the gift that finally sets you free this holiday season.

Dr. Sina McCullough is the creator of GO WILD: How I Reverse Chronic & Autoimmune Disease and author of “Hands Off My Food!: How Government and Industry Have Corrupted Our Food and Easy Ways to Fight Back” and “Beyond Labels: A Doctor and a Farmer Conquer Food Confusion One Bite at a Time.” She holds a doctorate in nutrition from the University of California–Davis. She’s a master herbalist, Gluten Free Society-certified practitioner, and homeschool mom of three.