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Tree with exposed roots spread across the floor

30 Mar 2023

What is the awe of nature?

What is the awe of nature and can we harness nature to improve mental and physical health.

Article by Lynsey Robinson and Claire Francis

What is the awe of nature?

The word awe keeps popping up lately. Awe being good for us, awe being a bringer of joy and even something that will improve our health. But what is it? Collins define awe as an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like.

Awe is more than just a feeling

A sense of awe can induce a variety of unexpected physiological changes in our bodies. Goosebumps, changes to our heart rate, chills, a hitch in the chest, and a warm fuzzy feeling can all occur as a result of feeling a sense of awe. The star player in this mind-body relationship is the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve covers much of our upper bodies and is sometimes known as the caretaking nerve. It controls internal organ processes such as regulating inflammation, supporting digestion and is heavily linked to the immune system. In short, it's something that you want to look after

Stimulating the vagus nerve not only has positive physical health benefits It is also linked to our emotional well-being including stress responses, trauma and anxiety. Something that is known to support both our mental health and physical health at the same time, an all-round winner!

Awe engages five processes-shifts in neurophysiology, a diminished focus on the self, increased prosocial relationality, greater social integration, and a heightened sense of meaning-that benefit well-being.

Awe as a Pathway to Mental and Physical Health. Maria Monroy, Dacher Keltner.

How do we find awe?

Awe can be found in places, spaces and in the action of others. Sounds good right?

But do we need to climb a mountain or stare down a canyon? Turns out no, although that does obviously work. Is this something that can be found a little closer to home on a more regular basis? In short, yes, it is.

There is wonder in our world for the taking every day. We can seek those feelings of awe whenever we need them, which incidentally is reported to be about twice a week to keep us ticking over.

There is increasing interest in micro awe as something that immerses us in the small details of nature.

Taking the next steps

So how do we actually go about experiencing awe? It might take a little change in our perspective. Being more aware of what is around us is the first step. Looking up for example, noticing the patterns in the clouds, standing next to a tree and seeing how it can stand tall and strong despite the rain and wind, and seeing the vast number of stars that fill the night sky can all fill us with awe. Or, if you dare, allow your mind to wander way out into the sky, the galaxies and beyond. Although perhaps be careful with this, we want to experience a sense of awe and wonder not a complete blowing of the mind!

But we can also explore the tiny world of marvels on our doorstep too. Allow your perspective to focus on something micro. The detail in a leaf, the minute world that exists, the resistance in plants so delicate but actually able to withstand strong winds, heavy rain and even snow or baking heat. The fact that plants themselves are standing upright due to the water that flows through them is pretty awesome!

Slowing down and really thinking about what is in front of you is important to get that sense of awe. Imagine if you will, holding a seed in your hand, let’s imagine it is a poppy seed, a mere speck. The tiny black dot in the palm of your hand has the capability to open and put out a root that will spread into other roots ultimately forming a whole underground system. Simultaneously it will send shoots up forming leaves and flowers, these will blossom then fade leaving fat seed pods ready to burst and scatter their seeds starting the whole process again. All that from that one tiny speck! And don’t get me started on tree seeds, that’s hundreds of years of wonder right there!

Dried poppy seed with the side open revealing black poppy seeds inside

Awe can also make us think about time in a different way, how we move through it as individuals and how the natural world around us moves at a different pace, sometimes fleeting, sometimes for centuries.

According to Keltner, 2009, awe leads to; feelings of the self being smaller, vastness, prosocial action, curiosity, sacrifice for the group, community integration, physical health, intellectual purpose and well-being. Keltner’s research also shows that individuals experiencing awe go from self-interest interest to collective thinking, feelings of isolation to integration and breaking down of thoughts of us vs them.

Finding a sense of awe can elicit both powerful physical and emotional responses in us. By using nature to draw out awe we are in turn fostering a deeper knowledge and affection for the natural world.

So get out there, notice the detail, feast on the wonder, fill your heart and lungs with staggering feats happening in the natural world and find what brings you awe and wonder, you won’t regret it.

Dig Deeper is our positive mental health project in Cornwall for working-age people living with mild to moderate levels of anxiety or stress. We are proving that regular, quality time immersed in nature can ease some stress and anxiety symptoms. We examine and explore nature from a micro level right up to the bigger picture, bringing about a shared sense of awe in nature.