Nature as Medicine

nature good for mental healthWhy is nature good for our physical and mental well-being?

“Wilderness is not a luxury but necessity of the human spirit.” –Edward Abbey

At a recent conference, I was shown a satirical commercial advertising what they called Nature Rx. “Are you feeling tired, irritable, stressed out?,”  a young man asks from a rowboat, setting the stage to spoof the prescription drug ads we’ve gotten so used to seeing. “Well,” he continues, “you might consider nature.” The ad goes on to comically name the unique benefits of nature. “Nature’s been shown to decrease thoughts of worthlessness and increase libido.” At the end, when a soothing voice in a drug ad would typically rattle off a long list of unpleasant side effects that juxtapose the pleasant imagery, the narrator of Nature Rx says, “Side effects may include… a genuine care for yourself, other people and the world we live in, being more pleasant to be around, confidence, authenticity, and honesty.”

The joke works, because it states what we all know – that one of the most effective ways to feel better isn’t made in a factory or bottled in a jar. It doesn’t cost money or require prescriptions and insurance to acquire. We know, and science confirms, just how good nature is for us. We’ve felt firsthand the large impact just a little bit of green space can have on our mood and outlook. Nature has a unique power to quietly incite awe, serenity, and inspiration. And as people are spending more and more time indoors and in front of screens, numerous studies are revealing just how important nature is for our mental and physical well-being.

It’s no surprise that nature has many ways of benefiting our bodies. Studies show that exercising in green spaces had more health benefits than indoor exercise.  It can help with healing, as hospital patients exposed to nature actually experienced quicker recoveries.  Spending time in nature can even be a predictor of longevity.

Even less surprising are the rewards of nature to our minds. Studies have shown that just five minutes of activity in natural areas improve people’s self-esteem and mood. Other findings revealed that people living in closer proximity to green space had reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression, and that spending time in nature decreased symptoms of dementia  in individuals with Alzheimer’s. These are just a few examples of myriad ways nature boosts our mental and physical health.

One of the reasons, nature is so beneficial is that it allows us to feel more present in our own bodies. We tend to experience nature with our senses, drinking in sights, sounds and smells, feeling the earth on our feet and the breeze on our face. These are referred to as “bottom-up” experiences, which are more sensory. For example, with a bottom-up approach, if we see a flower, we may take in its beauty and smell. This is different from a “top-down” experience, in which we are more caught up in our heads. For instance, we may try to name or label the flower rather than experience it with our senses.  When we take the former approach, we start to feel more connected to the world around us and to the present moment, which is an important aspect of mindfulness. This helps us to achieve an inner sense of calm.

Getting out into the natural world encourages this type of interaction. As our mind unclutters, we tend to feel more active and alive. Plus, when we’re outside, we naturally tend to move more, which releases endorphins and further boosts our mood and energy level. These attributes benefit people of all ages, but have particular importance for kids. Children’s accessibility to green space is correlated with them being less impacted by stress, more physically active, and better able to focus and learn.

I could go on and on about the research behind the upsides of getting outside, but perhaps one of nature’s greatest assets is one we can all most relate to on an instinctual level – the way it inspires awe. Most of us can relate to the strange combination of overwhelming comfort and serene exhilaration that comes from witnessing a thing of natural wonder, vastness, or beauty. Experiencing these moments of awe enhances our well-being.  In fact, the emotion of awe has been shown to make people feel more empathetic, trusting, generous and humble, which, in turn, improves their relationships.

These findings are inspiring to me personally, because they encourage us to not just connect with the world around us but with a part of ourselves that is more open, in tune, and in sync with how we think and feel. Connecting to nature can help us connect with ourselves, which naturally extends to the people around us. While, many of us struggle to slow down and take the time to make this connection, it’s nice to know that it’s available when we need it.  Whether that means sitting in your garden, walking to that park, biking to the ocean, or driving to the mountains, whatever way we can get there, it’s worth it to find ways to get back to nature.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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