Motivated by Nature: My conversation with Susanne Heaton

Susanne Heaton is the founder of a company called Motivated by Nature, which helps her clients connect with nature to “live a more healthy, peaceful, and meaningful life.” Her approach includes public speaking about her own path to wellness, designing individual and group “Wild About Nature” challenges, and her award-winning children’s book. She reached out to me after listening to my Eliances podcast about “eating your water and your sunscreen” and discovered that I share her belief in the importance of food, movement, and mindset for living healthy, happy lives.

Dr. Murad: You once had a career in corporate Canada. What motivated you to start “Motivated by Nature”?

Ms. Heaton: Cancer. Burnout. Loss. All these wake-up calls made me take a total leap of faith from my corporate career in 2009, to starting my own business. I am a passionate advocate for people re-connecting with the healing benefits of nature.

I grew up on a farm where I learned a lot simply by being immersed in nature. But after my bout with cancer, I realized that I had become a workaholic and not taken enough nature breaks. I recovered from my burn out by sitting on my deck observing nature and by going for many walks. I later had a friend say that she just didn’t get why nature made such a difference. This started me doing intense research into finding all the scientific studies to help support what I intuitively knew: Nature heals naturally…. because we are nature.

Dr. Murad: It seems so “natural,” getting out in nature. What do you find is the biggest obstacle? And how do you help people overcome it?

Heaton: It seems “natural” indeed to people who have been exposed to nature at a young age like I was. Many have not had that luxury, so they literally do not know what they have been missing.

Some people find it much easier to sit on the couch and watch TV, as opposed to giving themselves the time to get out in nature. Others say that they are just too busy. If you are too busy for nature you are too busy!

Although I speak about the importance of nature for our overall well-being, I wanted to make a greater impact, so I developed a monthly online challenge to help people create the healthy habit of getting outdoors every day for 30 days. People from all over the world participate in this challenge and each time they post a picture, comment, or video, they get points. They also get points for interacting with other members in the community. The challenge helps to keep them accountable to their intention to spend more time in nature. Pre- and post- surveys clearly show how people have been able to shift their physical and mental well-being through the time they’ve spent in nature.

Dr. Murad: What benefits can we expect from spending more time in the natural world?

Heaton: To be honest, science is still discovering all the benefits of getting out into nature, but so far, nature has proven to decrease our anxiety, depression, ADD and ADHD symptoms and some diseases like breast cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Nature also increases our immunity, memory, creativity, productivity, happiness levels, and sleep.

Dr. Murad: I understand that, in addition to helping individuals, you also work with businesses and corporations. Why would businesses be interested in sponsoring employee-nature connections?

Heaton: Mental illness has become the next pandemic. Companies are just beginning to realize the costs of an unhealthy and unhappy work force. Besides the costs of sick leave, creativity and productivity plummet when employees are not feeling 100%, even if they show up for work. Studies have shown that for every $1 spent on employee well-being, a minimum of $3 is returned and some companies have reported as high a return on investment (ROI) as $8 for each dollar spent on employee well-being.

It is said that Einstein and Edison both went for walks every morning to get their creative juices flowing. If those two geniuses did this, I think we can all take a page from their book!

My proof of concept was done with Pac Biz, a company based in the Philippines. They were looking for a way to increase employee mental health, because they knew their employees were suffering after another Covid-19 lockdown.

As Eric Mulvin, the owner of Pac Biz, wrote to me in a testimonial I’ve included on my website: In December 2020, I was already having discussions with my leadership team about what we could do to help with our staff’s mental health because I knew it was suffering. I’m also passionate about nature myself as I realize the importance of being out in it. I really wish the whole world could go through this program because it could encourage more people to start thinking about protecting the environment, which is a nice side effect of this.

Dr. Murad: What are some examples of your “Wild About Nature” challenges?

Heaton: Each day, participants are given prompts to get outdoors and find the prompt of the day. For example, Day 1 starts with the letter A. They are asked to find Awe, or an animal, or anything that starts with the letter A in nature. They then post their findings on the platform by either commenting, sharing a picture and/or video of what they have observed. I understand that life happens and people can’t always follow through on their intentions, so I have a “good, better, best” principle. A good day is getting up from your computer for 5 minutes and looking out the window for the prompt of the day and then posting to the platform. A better day is getting outside and breathing in the healing phytoncides (aromatic compounds released by trees, including cedar, oak, locust, and pine, which have been shown to boost immunity and guard against infection) and either grounding with your bare feet or sitting with your back against a tree, looking for the prompt and then posting to the platform. The best is getting out for the full half-hour walk, looking for the prompt of the day and then posting on the platform. Each week, new senses get layered on. We start with sight, then feelings, sound, and then touch, so that participants become very mindful of their surroundings. I have had avid nature lovers tell me that they finally saw something that they had passed by millions of times before and never noticed. Thanks to the challenge, they were mindful enough to start really taking in their surroundings fully.

Dr. Murad: You say that, in addition to greater health and a sense of peacefulness, that connecting with nature helps people to live a more meaningful life. How? And why do you think that is?

Heaton: One split second of awe can take us from focusing on ourselves to focusing on the world around us and being more compassionate in the process, as Dr. Nooshin Razani explained in her TEDx talk, Prescribing Nature for Health. There is a whole lot to be awe-struck by in nature.

Nature also helps to soothe our weary souls, especially when we are grieving. Nature reminds us that the cycles or birth, growth, decay, death and rebirth are a natural part of the process of life. And nature never judges us; it accepts us exactly as we are.

Many therapists are turning to doing nature walks because clients find it less intimidating than being in a four-walled room. The bottom line is that we are part of nature, so we have this internal longing and wiring for wanting to connect with Mother Nature.

Dr. Murad: Like most people these days, I live in a big city. How do you advise people to reconnect with nature if they’re surrounded by concrete?

Heaton: That is an excellent question. I had someone participate in the online challenge who lived downtown in a high-rise apartment. She was amazed at all the nature that was within walking distance that she had never taken notice of before. Resilience is shown by the dandelion that is pushing up through the cracks of a sidewalk. Sunrises, sunsets, skies, birds, and cloud formations are always around us. We just need to slow down, look and listen.

I do, however, recommend spending time in more forested areas so that one can hear more of the sounds of nature, less of the traffic and urban noise, and thereby soothe your nervous system.

Dr. Murad: As you know, one of the primary focuses of my work is managing Cultural Stress—the 24-hour stress of modern living. How is the work you do impacted by Cultural Stress?

Heaton: I am so grateful to you for shedding light on Cultural Stress. In my own work, I see Cultural Stress affecting us in the following seven ways:

  1. Over-exposure to technology. My husband and I cancelled our TV service during Covid, because there seemed to be nothing but “negative” news on. I have arranged my office so that behind my computer is a window that looks onto a park. I practice the 10/10/10 rule: Every 10 minutes, look 10 meters away for 10 seconds to help relax the eyes. I also have pictures of nature in my office and home, as well as loads of living plants. I limit my exposure after working on the computer and using my cell phone for work. I also take regular “unplugged” holidays where I leave technology totally behind and immerse myself in nature, being fully present in the moment.
  2. Isolation. In our community, we have not been able to get together for monthly gatherings due to Covid, but we still do neighborly things for one another like water one another’s garden or shovel the snow from a neighbor’s walk.
  3. Sedentary lifestyles. I have a sit/stand desk as I understand sitting has become “the new smoking” in terms of its health effects because of all the pressure it puts on our internal organs.
  4. Too little time in nature. My nature walks are “non-negotiable” for me. They are what have helped to keep me grounded, especially through these past 18 months of Covid uncertainty. Besides building my immunity through walks outdoors and the microbiomes from gardening, I also use essential oils such as lavender, frankincense and peppermint indoors in a nebulizer, as these scents have been scientifically proven to bring a sense of calm to our brain.
  5. Processed food takes a constant toll on our health. I try to eat as natural and organic a diet as possible, and I believe the saying, “everything in moderation.” I’ve recently started cooking a lot more Mediterranean- type meals which focuses on less red meat, more fish and loads of greens and olive oil.
  6. Work and traffic. I work from my home office, so I do not have to deal with a commute. However, following a recent presentation away from home, I realized that one disadvantage of remote work is the lack of decompression time after leaving the office. My solution is to take a walk to change the scenery and decompress naturally!
  7. Poor sleep. Artificial light and the blue light from our devices disrupt our circadian rhythm—the 24-hour biological clock that governs our wake/sleep cycle. To counter this effect, I try to follow my body’s natural circadian cycle by witnessing every morning sunrise, watching the sunset every evening, limiting my exposure to artificial light, and limiting my use of devices at night. I also have the free lux software installed on my computer, so when I do have to work late for a deadline, I am not impacting my circadian rhythm as much.

Dr. Murad: Your list is very much like mine! I’m so grateful to meet a fellow wellness practitioner who recognizes the problem of Cultural Stress and is taking such positive action to help others manage it!

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