British Columbia

Free 'nature therapy' offered to pandemic-stressed health-care workers

The B.C. Parks Foundation is offering free guided "nature therapy" sessions to health-care workers to help ease pandemic-related stress and has launched a fundraising campaign to help pay for the sessions.

B.C. Parks Foundation offering free 'forest baths' to health-care workers to help ease pandemic-related stress

Certified nature therapist Ronna Schneberger is part of a program that leads virtual, guided nature therapy sessions for B.C. health-care workers. (Submitted by B.C. Parks Foundation)

A regular dose of nature could be a potent prescription for reducing pandemic-related stress in heath-care workers.

That's what the B.C. Parks Foundation is hoping to accomplish with the launch of its Nature Therapy Campaign. The program aims to provide up to 10,000 health-care workers with free, guided "forest bathing" sessions.

"I think everyone this year has appreciated two amazing things that have kept us healthy — our health-care workers and our parks or natural areas," says B.C. Parks Foundation executive director Andy Day.

"Both have done an amazing job of giving British Columbians a sense of well-being and peace, and that things are being taken care of. So we wanted to give back to both of those things."

Guided sessions can end with a tea ceremony to honour the natural world. Online sessions ask participants to bring their own tea to a spot of their choice. (Submitted by the B.C. Parks Foundation)

Based on Japanese practice of 'forest bathing'

The program is based on the concept of "forest bathing" or shinrin-oku, which emerged in Japan in the 1980s. Certified nature therapist Ronna Schneberger describes it as a purposeful, meditative connection with nature.

 "When you're able to slow down to nature's time, that's when your body can recalibrate itself, says Schneberger, who works as a guide in Banff National Park and is also the chair of the Canadian Council of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides.

"The nervous system ... shifts from the stress side to the calm side, which is called the parasympathetic nervous system."

According to the B.C. Parks Foundation website, scientific research demonstrates that "time in nature can boost immune function and life expectancy and lowers the risk of developing a host of conditions from heart disease to diabetes, obesity, depression and anxiety."

Online and outside

The 90-minute guided sessions are held online in groups of up to 10. Participants connect through Zoom from a convenient natural setting of their choice, whether that be a park, a backyard, or even by focusing on green space through a window, if one can't get outside. 

A nature therapist leads participants through a series of guided mediations, each of which ends in a virtual sharing circle.

Robin Castle is a registered nurse at an urgent care clinic on Vancouver Island. She says the pandemic has increased stress levels for medical staff — and the patients they work with. Castle recently joined a guided session for a group of doctors and nurses from around British Columbia, led by Schneberger.

RN Robin Castle says participating in a guided nature therapy session gave her a sense of calm and community. (Submitted by Robin Castle)

 At first, Castle was nervous about participating but says a sense of calm came over her, once everyone introduced themselves. 

"It was just nice to be able to stop and be aware of what was happening around me and how I was feeling inside," says Castle, who joined from her backyard.

She's eager to tell her colleagues about the practice.

"This is just a few minutes after ending the session, and I have this sense of calm. I'm feeling good, I'm smiling, and I just want to share that with them."

Paul Grannon is an RN who works as a mental health outreach worker on Vancouver Island. He found the chance to connect with other health-care professionals, away from the stresses of the job, rejuvenating.

"Sometimes, you can talk too much about work or get too engrossed in it, especially when you're in the same field and not having much time off," says Grannon, who joined the session from his backyard.

"To be present with nature and not even thinking about the stresses you have at work or what you may be bringing home to your family was very nice. Nature really grounds you and it's important to connect with it."

RN Paul Grannon says connecting with nature and other health-care professionals away from the stresses of the job is rejuvenating and grounding. (Submitted by Paul Grannon)

Nature Therapy sessions will be available free of charge for B.C. doctors and nurses from mid-January 2021 through spring 2021. The foundation is currently running a campaign asking people to"gift" nature therapy sessions to health-care workers for a suggested donation of $25. 

Listen to a report on ParX Nature Therapy at On the Coast: