In the mental health sector’s continuing search for new ways to understand, prevent and treat emotional and mental ill health, new findings are constantly emerging. One of the most interesting areas to attract more recent attention and acceptance is not new – in fact, it is old as humanity itself – the concept of ‘nature healing’.
Many people instinctively know that a dose of nature is great for both the body and mind, but now, backed by research and emerging scientific proof, ‘time in nature’ is increasingly being added as a core treatment option for people with a variety of physical and emotional issues including stress, depression and anxiety. This growing understanding has spawned new fields of research into areas like biophillia, ecopsychology and ecotherapy.
There is a wealth of research and studies conducted into the mental health benefits of time spent in nature, including:
- ‘Residential green space in childhood is associated with lower risk of psychiatric disorders from adolescence into adulthood’ (https://www.pnas.org/content/116/11/5188) by Engemann, Pedersen, Arge, Tsirogiannis, Mortensen, and Svenning from Aarhaus University in Denmark, which showed a 55 percent lower incidence of adult mental health issues in children who were raised surrounded by nature.
- ‘Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation’ (https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/06/23/1510459112) by Bratman, Hamilton, Hahn, Daily and Gross from Stanford University, which found that people who walked in a natural area showed decreased activity in the key regions of the brain associated with depression.
- ‘The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition’ (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169204615000286) again from Bratman et al, that showed that time in nature had a positive effect on mood and aspects of cognitive function including memory and had a dampening effect on anxiety.
- Nature and health (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24387090?dopt=Abstract) by Hartig, Mitchell, de Vries, Frumkin.
- Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22464936?dopt=Abstract) by Berman, Kross, Krpan, Askren, Burson, Deldin, Kaplan, Sherdell, Gotlib, Jonides.
- The effect of “green exercise” on state anxiety and the role of exercise duration, intensity, and greenness: A quasi-experimental study’ (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1469029210000038?via%3Dihub) by Mackay and Neill.
And many more – some suggested readings are carried at the end of this article.
With this knowledge, doctors around the world are increasingly ‘prescribing’ trips to the park (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/10/the-nature-cure/403210/) for a range of conditions, including anxiety and depression, stress, attention deficit disorder and chronic illness such as diabetes and high blood pressure. In some countries, especially in Europe, “exposure to nature” is now used as a core component of therapy.
The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’ is gaining popularity as a way of dealing with a range of issues. The basis of shinrin-yoku goes beyond the basics of enjoying the smells, colors and sounds of natural environments and carries an emphasis on the health-giving benefits of the chemicals emitted by many plants. It’s a concept still in its infancy in western societies, but provides a fascinating alternative path of investigation for anyone interested in human health.
You can learn more about some of the studies conducted into this area here:
Mental health benefits of exposure to nature
There are many studies that show that time spent outdoors can:
- improve stress levels
- alleviate or lessen symptoms of depression
- reduce anxiety
- lower blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension
- lower production of stress hormones such as cortisol
- Reduce rumination or overthinking
- Improve creativity, reasoning and memory.
Time spent in natural surrounds is increasingly perceived as both a treatment for existing afflictions, but also for its role in prevention of emotional and mental illness in particular. A lack of exposure to nature, or ‘nature deprivation’, is seen as a cause behind the marked increase of depression, anxiety and behavioural problems in children we have seen in the last few decades. Many researchers are now making strong connections between our society’s growing separation from nature and the increase in reported mental illness. In fact, researchers have shown that city dwellers have a 20 – 40 percent higher risk of anxiety and mood disorders compared to people living closer to nature (https://news.stanford.edu/2015/06/30/hiking-mental-health-063015/).
Accessing nature for city-dwellers
Of course in an increasingly urbanised environment, it’s not always practical to spend time in nature. The great news is that some of the benefits of nature healing can be experienced in smaller ways – introducing a plant into common living areas, looking at pictures of beautiful landscapes, listening to the sounds of nature or even exposure to natural smells can all have an impact on our emotional states.
Some of the other ways that we can access the healing power of nature include:
- Go for a hike or even take a walk in a nearby par or green space
- Prepare a picnic basket and visit a local park
- Go walking on the beach
- Organise a camping trip with your mates
- Walk the dog in some nice natural surrounds
- Lie on the grass and watch the clouds float by
- Take up gardening or sit quietly in your garden.
More to learn
While there is further research to be done into the concept of nature healing to further validate its empirical benefits, the emerging evidence is compelling and hints at some promising new ways our society can introduce new ways to treat afflictions of the body and mind.
Best of all, it’s free! With just a little time and effort, we can all experience the numerous benefits that spending time in nature can deliver.
If you or someone you know needs support, please reach out to one of our counselling services.
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