Celebrating the International Day of Forests and the inner world of emotions

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Earlier this month I started a series of three articles on how to harness the wellbeing impact of nature, with each article linked to a UN-sponsored day focused on the natural world.  In the first article, I explored how our emotional response to nature creates changes in our biochemistry that improve our health, energise us and enable us to think more clearly. I suggested that the first step in maximising the benefits is to better tune in to become more aware of the emotional landscape inside us. The next step, that we will explore today, is to become more literate and increase your emotional repertoire.

Today is the International Day of Forests a day that helps to raise awareness of the sustainable management of forests, and their climate, economic and wellbeing impacts. The forest landscape is a good metaphor for the inner landscape of emotions – there are bright, sunny areas; parts that are shaded and restful; overgrown, chaotic patches; and dark, dingy places.

On a hike through a forest in the Lake District a couple of years ago, the main path was warm in the sun and noisy with birds – I felt alert. When I stepped off the path under the canopy of the pine trees it was shaded, the sounds softened, and the ground dotted with colourful fungi – I felt soothed.

You can think of emotions as points on a grid with two axes. The vertical axis represents the energy of the emotion – higher energy at the top and lower at the bottom. Heart rate and adrenaline levels increase as you go up the scale. The horizontal axis represents the degree of stress – high stress on the right and low stress to the left. Emotions become more positive and cortisol levels decrease as you go to the left.

Universe of Emotions

As you become aware of your emotions – using nature or anything else as a trigger – notice where you are you spending your time.  Are you:

  • In the bright, sunny top left, for example feeling excited, passionate or determined?
  • In the shaded, restful bottom left, feeling calm, content or peaceful?
  • In the overgrown, chaotic top right, feeling anger, frustration or anxiety?
  • In the dark, dingy bottom right, feeling bored, detached or down?

You can use our Complete App to explore this emotional ‘forest’.

Forest as Quadrant

These examples are just a few of the possible emotions in each sector of the emotional forest. In reality, there are thousands of emotions – the English language has about 2,000 distinct words for them. But most people have a much more limited repertoire of emotional experience and an emotional vocabulary of 10 to 20 words at the most.

If I asked you to write down all the emotions you’ve felt in the last week, how many would you list and how many would be positive? If our inner emotional landscape is impoverished or barren, does it matter? Yes, for several reasons. If we just feel ‘ok’ or ‘bad’ – a binary choice – then that’s a whole range of human expression that we are condensing into just two emotional ‘lumps’. Life demands a bigger range of responses – only two options doesn’t cut it.

If we expand to a handful of emotions, at least we now have some choice, some different emotional ‘gears’ we can engage. We can be more responsive. But we have the potential to go even further, and it really matters. If we can’t tell the difference between emotions, we may respond inappropriately. Imagine that ‘anxious’ and ‘angry’ are lumped together. We might step forward to act in anger when we should be stepping back to allow anxiety to subside.

And one final reason for great emotional literacy; a bigger emotional repertoire makes for a richer, fuller, more enjoyable life! During the pandemic I discovered a new hobby.  When we could only walk in our local park for exercise, I started to notice small changes in the plants from one week to the next. As one plant started to fade and die off, the next had buds ready to burst into flower, and the one after that was already sprouting green shoots. I became fascinated and started taking photos to try and identify the plants I was seeing.

Two years on and every time I go outside, I cannot help but notice the plants around me. Plenty of emotional richness has come with it – marvelling at all the tiny individual flowers that make up a daisy, getting excited about spotting an insectivorous plant beside a mountain stream and anticipating what that weird looking green shoot is going to become.

So, I invite you to become a nature hunter and explorer not just in the outer world of flora and fauna, but in the inner world of your emotional landscape. There’s lots to discover and the more you become familiar with this inner world the easier it becomes to navigate it.

More on that tomorrow, in the final article of the series for World Water Day.

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