THE HEALING POWERS OF ANIMALS AND NATURE
By Dr. Michael W. Fox
The medical and psychological benefits of animal companionship have been well documented, children having fewer allergies and infections and adults relieving loneliness, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and getting the benefits of the great outdoors walking or jogging with their dogs. Watching cute animal videos or viewing images for a half-hour reduced blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety in medical school students studying for end-of-term exams, researchers at the University of Leeds reported. “I was quite pleasantly surprised that during the session, every single measure for every single participant dropped some,” said study leader Andrea Utley. Full Story: CNN (9⁄27)
The restorative powers to our bodies, minds and spirits of spending time in some natural setting, a wooded park, lake or prairie have been long recognized as I detail in my book Animals and Nature First. New research has shown that “forest bathing”, the Japanese tradition of shinrin yoko that began in the 1980s, is highly therapeutic, helping alleviate depression and boosting the immune system and sense of well-being. (We are as well as we feel). Not all have access to a natural or restored forest, prairie or even an urban arboretum but Mother Nature can still provide some therapeutic support. These range from sound recordings of falling rain, ocean waves, bird song, frog and insect sounds to put one in a meditative, relaxing state, to essential oils derived from various trees and herbs.
While forest -bathing we inhale volatile organic compounds that are called phytoncides that are produced by various trees. Essential oils of cypress or pine in a room-diffuser are a potent source of phytoncides. Such aromatherapy is also used more widely for the well documented medical and behavioral/emotional benefit of companion and other animals. Burning frankincense (resin from the Boswellia plant) or inhaling the essential oil can reduce chronic pain ( as an anti-inflammatory) and activate poorly understood ion channels in the brain to alleviate anxiety or depression. This suggests that an entirely new class of depression and anxiety drugs might be right under our noses!
Phytoncides have antibacterial and antifungal qualities which help plants fight disease. When people breathe in these chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer or T cells. These cells kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies. T cells are the adaptive immune system’s first responders to any virus, circulating in the blood to detect and quickly multiply to attack the virus, and also support the development of antibodies by B cells.
Getting out of home, office and urban environments where exposure to the harmful non-ionizing radiation and electromagnetic fields and “electro-smog” of computers, public and traffic- monitoring systems and smartphone telecommunications, now intensified with virtual conferencing and distance-learning during this COVID-19 pandemic, may prove more effective than any vaccine. Conserving, protecting and restoring “Green Spaces” in and around our communities is probably as important to our physical and mental health as it is to reducing the global Climate and Extinction crises.
In realizing our biological and ecological affinities and relationships with other species, plant, animal and microorganism (many of which nourish us and without which we would not survive) we discover the existential roots of our spiritual and ethical connections of interdependence, symbiosis, in the universal and universalizing links of empathy we experience in the power of love that some call God., Awe and wonder, joy and grief arise from that deep heart’s core of our humanity, the bulwark against our inhumanity and insanity.
Researchers have recently reported the mental health benefits for the elderly of experiencing a sense of awe through focused attention in natural surroundings. Nature heals. For the young, brain development is harmed by frequent use of computers, smartphones and tablets, They had lower levels of development in the brain’s white matter – an area key to the development of language, literacy and cognitive skills compared to similarly aged 3-5 year olds whose parents limited such use and exposure to 1 hour per day. I would advocate an our a day at least in the great outdoors—best of all with a rescued dog— and urban and suburban planners need to start rewilding!
ANIMAL AFFECTION: A SPIRITUAL CONNECTION
When animals greet us, play with us, empathize and care for us and especially children, with patient understanding, we are witness to a spiritual connection between one species and another: One living soul communing with another. Our relationships with other animals can be life and love affirming.
It saddens me that people who have never yet enjoyed such experiences may be emotionally closed if not empathy-challenged as may be those who kill animals for pleasure, so called recreational, “sports” and trophy hunters. They may immunize themselves from moral injury through desensitization and treating animals as objects. Such immunity may be deficient in many who must work in slaughterhouses, so called animal processing plants, and who feel the stress and moral injury and take it home with them to the detriment of family life.
Wild animals, from soaring eagles to howling wolves fill people with awe rather than fear, and have spiritually inspired us for millennia. This is why millions of people world-wide fight for wildlife protection and conservation against the politics of exploitation and extinction as well as human ignorance and indifference. Preserving them in zoos and safari parks is not conservation, and pecuniary interests aside are feel-good enterprises when not linked with species-conservation in the wild. When non-domesticated wild animals trust us, notably those orphans raised by humans and as I have experienced raising wild boar piglets and fox, coyote and wolf cubs, they will commune with us in spirit. Such are the blessings of all creatures when our hearts are open to them and theirs to us.
However, wild animals should never be regarded or marketed as pets, (nor hybrids created like Wolf-dog and Serval and domestic cat hybrids) and if rehabilitation and release are possible, bonding with humans is to be avoided.
We should resist the temptation to feed and even pet wild animals in our National Parks and Wildlife refuges for their own safety as well as ours. Avoid contact with wild animals who approach fearlessly because they could be rabid. Call the police or animal control if one seems ill or injured and they will, hopefully, assess the animals’ condition and not automatically shoot and kill. Millions of small birds and mammals are killed by cats. Some recover from injuries and can be released when carefully rescued by caring people and taken to wildlife rehabilitators and centers, more being needed in many communities.
We should understand our ancient, innate fear of some species such as spiders and snakes and through example teach children to respect and not instinctively kill. When we experience awe and wonder rather than revulsion or terror—with a healthy fear and respect of those who could harm us if we invade their personal space or threaten their young—we open the door to such spiritual communion. This is the “good medicine” of native American Indian tradition and of other indigenous peoples world-wide, now endangered along with many species and the humanity of the dominant culture of consumerism and exploitation.
A NOTABLE BOOK:
A Glimpse Behind the Veil: Stories About the Human-Animal Connection by Richard D. Rowland. Balboa Press, Hardback, $35.95, 261 pages, available from Amazon.com. The author is a Vietnam war veteran and retired Kentucky State policeman given 3 years to live after a diagnosis of multiple myeloma but his experiences with horses and other animals were both healing and revelatory. Many accounts by other people are included in this inspiring book that confirm the spiritual nature and healing powers of all creatures great and small when we are open to them. My endorsement on the cover of this book reads: “ For a human to be loved by another animal is to receive one of the many blessings of the animal kingdom. To love an animal is one step into that kingdom of our origin, which is where our humility, empathy and compassion evolve to define and refine our humanity with the promise of dignity and grace. A Glimpse behind the Veil helps us find our way and affirms the wisdom of an open heart.”