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Conflict in the 21st century- a revised look at our biology

“According to many stress researchers, as well as historians, modern biological formulations of stress can be traced back to a brief and rather speculative article written by the Austrian-born Hungarian scientist Hans Selye (1907–82) in 1936. The article set out what appeared to be a characteristic triphasic pattern of nonspecific physiological responses to injury: the “general adaptation syndrome” comprised an initial alarm phase that was followed by a stage of resistance or adaptation, leading eventually to a stage of exhaustion and death.[1]…….



“All five patients, whatever their disease . . . had something in common,” he wrote in his autobiography many years later. “They all looked and felt sick.”[2] It was primarily these personal encounters with patients in the clinic and observations in the laboratory, Selye insisted, that had led him to suggest that many clinical features of disease were the result of a failure in the nonspecific adaptive mechanisms of the body.”[3]

It does seem, as we move comfortably into the 21st century, that the earth and the inhabitants within are in constant process of adaption. There is a saying, if it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger. This could be the 21st slogan of reality. In terms of organic elements such as viruses, this adage holds true. However, in terms of adapting to technology it seems we may need to consider a slightly different approach that accounts for how our natural process interfaces with machine. If you observe the organic world you see it operates in irregularities, in ebbs and flows, in a random pattern. The same is not true for technological stressors. The relentlessness of our current technology operates with a steady stream of demand and seems to be straining people in a particular way as we try to meet it on its terms rather than our own. What may be required of us now is an approach that favours resiliency (using ebb and flow) over adaption (which implies a linear uniform change). Adapting to technology seems to be leading us into a constant state of alarm. This state is neither healthy nor sustainable without dire consequence. In Japan this adaption phase has resulted in Karoshi, translated as death by overwork. The actual cause of deaths is heart attack and stroke due to stress and a starvation diet. This is not limited to Japanese culture; it is now a term known as gwarosa in South Korea, and guolaos in China. And, although they may not have a word for it, similar effects are being felt in all technologically driven countries with symptoms of physical illnesses as well as anxiety, depression and suicide.

In response to their findings, the Japanese government passed a law in 2014 mandating that it is the duty of the government to take steps to eliminate overwork-induced deaths or suicides of employed workers and that the government launch research on the realities of overwork-induced health hazards and excessive workload and report its findings to the Imperial Diet (government) every year. The law also requires the government to implement public-enlightenment programs about the risks of overwork, establish counseling systems and provide support for nongovernmental organizations dealing with the issue. [4]

As a response to this mandate, Japan is also the home to another new term, Shinrin-yoku[5], coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in 1982, and can be defined as ‘making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest’. Since 1982, research has been streaming in on the health benefits of ‘going for a slow walk in the forest’. From a perspective of resiliency, Shinrin-yoku may be the answer of how best to meet our new technology’s demands on our natural human terms.

A State-of-the-Art Review on Shinrin- Yoku, published in July 2017, concludes that

“Nature therapy as a health-promotion method and potential universal health model is implicated for the reduction of reported modern-day “stress-state” and “technostress.”.


People experience technostress when they cannot adapt to or cope with information technologies in a healthy manner. This type of stress extends beyond the workplace and into our personal leisure time which is a significant element of the unique challenges current technology poses to human adaptation. Currently we are never “unplugged”. Perhaps that itself is an unconscious effort to learn and adapt to our new environment. More and more people report feeling and behaving compulsively about being connected and sharing constant updates, feeling forced to respond to work-related information in real-time, and engaging in almost habitual multi-tasking. They feel compelled to work faster because information flows faster, and have little time to spend on sustained thinking and creative analysis.[6] Worse yet, most people spend little to no time in the type of organic, healthy non-goal driven states that recharge our bodies and minds. Without these types of body/mind states, we are extremely vulnerable to chronic stress and its physical and mental effects. Individuals experience chronic stress in diverse ways, the lucky ones being able to recognise and reorient the body to a homeostatis, whilst those of us who do not recognise the signs of chronic stress may end up with exhaustion or early death.

The term homeostatis was coined by Walter Cannon, an American Psychologist who also founded the terms fight and flight. The notion that the body and mind change as a result of stress was brought together in a book Cannon wrote in 1915, titled, Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage. This work was the culmination of research and experiments that brought together the path that we now take for granted, that stress causes our body to be charged with physiological and anatomical reactions. As Claude Bernard, French physiologist, stated in the mid 1800s that the milieu intérieur[7] or ‘the stability of the internal environment’, is the condition for the free and independent life. Homeostatis is the stability of the interior milieu that enables the organs, the blood and the internal mechanisms of our being to function at their best. Our bodies when functioning at their best, include healing and restoration. As we face the challenge of maintaining our health in a tech driven environment it seems healing and restoration need to be re-defined or at least considered as deeply as we strive to understand the technological gains our new world provide us. We are very familiar with and accustomed to the need for recharging batteries for man-made mechanisms and do so without hesitation. This capacity and need to reset and recharge is also part of the human condition. However, in that case many of us seem unfamiliar or reluctant with the how to’s and opt not to engage in any recharging or resort to substances as a means to relax. The good news is something as simple and available as being in the natural environment brings our bodies to homeostasis. Forest Medicine, being spearheaded by Qing Li, Director of Shinrin-yoku researcher in Japan is guiding us towards nature’s remedy.

When we are no longer able to change a situation –

we are challenged to change ourselves.[8]

Viktor E. Frankl

Living in the 21st century, we are very much aware that our technology needs to be plugged in or charged for it to work. Airports, buses and cars are now fitted all round the world with access points for charging phones and computers. Technology requires energy in order to work, we all take that for granted. So it is with being human, we also need energy to live, to be awake and to work. Why is it that so few of us remember to “recharge” our bodies and minds in the ways our ancestors did without hesitation? It is not a surprise that we are forgetting our biological reality. For most of us, we are living, working and moving within a man-made environment. As Viktor Frankl said, if we are not able to change a situation, and in this context the situation is the constant stress via stimulation that the body is receiving in the modern urban environment, then we are challenged to consciously choose to do what we can to create homeostatis, our biological reset, on a regular basis. Japan has developed and implemented the remedy with Forest Bathing or Shinrin yoku. It is the challenge of the rest of the world to normalise Nature therapy, as a vital energy charger and the way back to our overall health.

As humans we may not have a red light letting us know our battery is running low, but we do have other signals. Our attention may be hard to focus, there may be a tired feeling in our body, we may find ourselves fidgeting, irritated, unhappy. The signals may be as diverse as people. The one thing they all have in common, however, is the consistency of what ails. When going to sleep does not result in a reset, you have the signal that the consistency of stress is making interior milieu difficult to achieve. Homeostatis means that you have bounced back to restoring your inner environment to a healthy order.

Homeostatis is not so easy when what is required is a full charge. This is where Forest Medicine steps in. M. Amos Clifford, the founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT), is taking Shinrin yoku or “Forest Bathing” to a new level. The Association was founded by M. Amos Clifford

in 2012. Amos combined descriptions of Shinrin-Yoku practice in Japan with his four decades of experience in wilderness guiding, Zen meditation, psychotherapy, restorative justice and nature connection to begin creating a framework for Forest Therapy.[9]

With a highly rigorous program, ANFT is in the process of training and certifying Forest Therapy Guides around the world.

The role of the Forest Therapy guide is to lead the way, to invite a way of being that can enable us to lean into the therapeutic benefits that nature offers. This is not jogging or power walking. The power is in the nature, and it is the way of the guide to support you to plug into that power. Once reconnected the medicine of the forest not only brings people back to homeostatis, but in the process rekindles people to the joy that can be found in the more-than-human-world.

Iain McGilchrist, psychiatrist, doctor, former Oxford literary scholar and author of The Master and His Emissary, tells us “there’s a definite shift in our modern culture which favours left-brain dominance” and quoting Albert Einstein reminds us the difference between the intuitive mind and the logical mind, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, the rational mind is a faithful servant.” Iain McGilchrist navigates biology and history and concludes that this cultural shift of logical dominance has led to; “we, have created a society that honours the servant but has forgotten the gift.”10

The good news is that with regular and intentional time spent reconnecting with nature through Forest Bathing and other purposeful nature activities, we can rebalance our brains. The key to this rebalancing and increased stress resiliency is consistency. Recognizing how often we practice left-brain dominance, we must counter-balance that with an equal amount of right-brain intuitive activity. Research increasingly shows that regular practice in this way results in changes in brain structures associated with stress resiliency, intuition, less anxiety and less depression.

To “remember the gift” all we have to do is connect with our natural environment. Thankfully, this gift is not something we need to create, it was actually created before we humans appeared. Whether you believe in evolution or creation, both theories recognise that human beings, and in fact all animal life, had an environment that could sustain and keep them alive. Nature has all the ingredients. Through the types of invitations created and lead by Forest Therapy guides we may begin at last to see ourselves as no longer separate from nature, not simply a part of nature, but as nature itself. At that time, what awaits us is our own natural health and vitality and the restoration of the health and vitality of our natural world as we learn to care for our environment as ourselves. There is no time like the present to begin healing. So, as Patrice Vecchione invites us, let us, “step into nature.”11

The treasure within

Needs help to be found

Forest Therapy


Sounds like a simple invitation. But take a moment and ask yourself, When was the last time you chose to step into nature, go for a walk amongst trees or just sit in the backyard with no agenda to exercise, do the yard work, or any other goal but simply to commune? One of the authors lives in Australia, a country that when she was growing up, was known for its outdoor lifestyle. Children played in the yard, almost everyone lived in a house with a back door that had coloured strips of plastic that swung as they left the house and went to the yard. Every house had this protection to limit the flies getting into the house because children and parents were in and out of the house all the time. Parks, camping and beach culture was what we all used for fun and entertainment. Contrast that with the 21st century. There are less people living in houses with backyards that can be played in, but more strikingly different is how children from a very young age have mobile devices and prefer to sit in the comfort of the home to have fun and be entertained. It seems there is no longer the lure of nature, it is now a major effort to go outdoors, often, accompanied with the now familiar “Why do I have to go outside?”

Rachel and Stephen Kaplan professors at the University of Michigan specializing in environmental psychology were aware of this trend back in the 1980’s. They published their book of 20 years research on the topic of nature and its impact on the body mind and spirit, The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective10 . The Kaplan’s suggest that because humans are natural living organisms, we as a species inherently feel connected with other living organisms. The main thrust of the Kaplan’s research resulted in a theory called Attention Restoration Theory. The personal experience of being in nature, felt by some has now been proven to be a working formula. A formula that restores directed attention fatigue back to effective attention. Attention, is seen as the cornerstone to thinking, without attention the process of thinking becomes confused, and to have attention one needs to be able to inhibit some thoughts whilst paying attention to others. This is effort and causes fatigue. This fatigue of paying attention is now a common issue in the modern world. The question raised by the Kaplan’s, was why is attention in the modern world causing fatigue?

A critical part of the human survival condition is to pay attention, it is not new to the body’s conditioning, and without paying attention and being able to have selected attention, humanity would not have survived pre-urbanisation, living in the wilderness. The central aspect of paying attention is fascination. Fascination is often behind the lure of technology and shopping centres. Fascination is not value free, it is part of the human condition that relates to involuntary attention. Amongst other characteristics fascination is what holds a person’s attention. The Kaplan’s’ research explains that there is a difference in the body’s and mind’s experience with attention in nature as opposed to our man-made environment. Hence to spend 2 hours in an indoor shopping centre versus 2 hours walking and resting in a natural park will have a great impact on the individual’s attention fatigue. We might also wonder what the cumulative impact on brain functioning might be without adequate attentional time in nature to rejuvenate and counteract time spent with artificial stimuli.

The Kaplan research found four required characteristics for rejuvenating attention fatigue[12]: 1) provide a sense of being far away from daily hassles, 2) be effortlessly engaging, 3) encourage exploration and reflection, and 4) be compatible with what one is trying to do and what one would like to do. Natural settings offer these automatically. The difficulty in our urban life is that natural settings are not so easy to get to, and are in competition with the fascination of technical devices. Sadly, as we lose our innate ability to connect with nature simply for the sake of connecting, when we do take ourselves into nature it is often with the urban agenda of “getting something done”.

This highlights the value of having a Forest Therapy Guide to help us remember the lure of fascination that reconnects us with our natural way of communing with the more-than-human-world. So what exactly happens on a Forest Therapy Guided walk? In one person’s words it was, “ like going on a holiday”. Ironically this person lived within walking distance of the trail, but had never had been there before. The idea of being taken on a Forest Therapy Walk was enough encouragement to put 2 hours aside from her busy working mothering schedule, and take the plunge of stepping into nature. Although her child was 5 years old, she admitted she had forgotten to do “nature things” that had been such a part of the joy of her childhood with her own child. However, this person was so drawn into remembering the felt sense of natural beauty as well as the restoration of the feeling of calm, that when she returned home to find an eviction notice from her landlord and her mother’s message of confirmed cancer on her phone, she surprised herself with her rather calm reaction. She later explained that if she hadn’t had the walk, she would have been hysterical with receiving both issues in her present life. Because she had been taken on a journey not just of a walk in nature, but of a reconnecting to a sacred part of her life, she had the peace of mind to think carefully and clearly about her situation at hand.

The strength we are looking for in the 21st century is the strength of wellness, of living a vitally engaging life that as we are now discovering, requires us to be intimately re-connected with the natural world that somehow, along the urban path, we have forgotten.

Forest Therapy

Inviting fascination

Back into our life.




[1] Selye Hans. A Syndrome Produced by Diverse Nocuous Agents. Nature. 1936 July 4;138:32

[2] Selye Hans. The Stress of My Life. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart; 1977

[3] Mark Jackson Stress, Shock, and Adaptation in the Twentieth Century Chapter 1, Cantor D, Ramsden E editors.Rochester (NY): University of Rochester Press; 2014

[4] Getting a Grip on Karoshi The Japan Times

[5]Park BJ1, Tsunetsugu Y, Kasetani T, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health Environ Health Prev Med. 2010 Jan;15(1):18-26. doi: 10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9.





[10] and Iian McGilchrist The Master and His Emissary – The Divided Brain and The Making of the Western World 2010  published by Yale University Press

11 Patrice Vecchione Step Into Nature: Nurturing Imagination and Spirit in Everyday Life 2015 published by Atria

12 Stephen Kaplan The Restorative Benefits of Nature: Toward an Integrative Framework Department of Psychology University of Michigan, Journal of Environmental Psychology 1995 15169-182 © Academic Press Ltd




Julie Brams

Julie Brams, MA, LMFT is a psychotherapist, Vipassana meditation practitioner/teacher, and writer in Los Angeles. Since 1992 she has been balancing her therapy work with others helping people regain their innate wellness from an eco-psychology perspective, enjoying time with family and friends, and connecting with the more-than-human world. Recently trained… MORE >


Michelle Brenner

Michelle Brenner PGDip Conflict Resolution (Macq.Univ.) was one of the first to receive post-graduate qualifications in Conflict Resolution within Australia in 1994. Since then she has been a pioneer in the practice and development of the field. She was a forerunner in mediation in local government, being the first full… MORE >

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