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For Optimal Mental Health, Add a Regular Dose of Nature

The great outdoors is an effective form of FREE therapy for many who struggle with depression.

Need to relax, focus, and boost your energy? Try spending more time in nature. Research shows that visits to forests, rural areas, and parks can improve mental health and thinking skills,  even in people with depression. Exposure to natural environments can also help fight mental fatigue and reduce stress.

Jackson, MS-based psychiatric and mental health clinical nurse specialist Nancy H. Goldman regularly witnesses nature’s positive effects on clients at her farm outside of Jackson. “We can do therapy while we’re walking, while we’re out in the pasture with sheep running around us, or just outdoors on chairs.” She suspects some clients prefer therapy in the country because “When they look around and see trees, animals, and a pretty setting, it’s grounding. Part of it is that nature is so grounding and familiar.”

“I see human trafficking victims,” Goldman continues. “Some of these women have never touched a round bale of hay.” But on her farm, clients often find themselves both relaxed by and engaged with nature: For instance, “One lady never wanted to try anything, now she’s fascinated with spiders and wants to try every edible plant. She’s become so adventurous.”

Science Says There’s a Link 

There are several ways that a walk in the woods or picnic in the park might improve mental health, according to Ming Kuo, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences and director of the Landscape and Human Health Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For instance, she notes, the air near mountains, forests, and running water is rich in negative air ions, which can reduce depression. Exposure to nature also boosts vitality; this may prevent infection. In addition, being out in nature often prompts feelings of awe, an experience that’s linked to lower levels of inflammatory proteins. (Inflammation may play a role in anxiety and depression.) Nature restores attention and focus and encourages relaxation.

“When you look out at a green landscape—even from indoors—your heart rate will go down, and you’ll change from sympathetic nervous activity over to parasympathetic nervous activity, which is basically going from what we call ‘fight or flight’ into ‘tend and befriend’ mode,” Dr. Kuo observed on a recent episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain. “So, it has these very systematic physiological impacts on us, which we also know have long term health outcomes associated with them.” The increased parasympathetic activity also improves sleep and better sleep can only benefit your well-being.

But why might nature be so psychologically helpful? Well, “As human beings, we’re not designed to reside in boxes… Most of our time on this earth has been spent with exposure to natural light, full spectrum UV light, and trees,” Goldman points out. But today, “we spend a lot of time inside four walls with artificial light.” This can have negative effects—for instance, workers who don’t have access to natural light are more likely to experience depressive symptoms and worse quality sleep. So it makes sense that spending time in nature “just makes for healthier people,” as Goldman says.

Healing Through Shinrin Yoku 

Goldman is also an Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides & Programs member and certified guide. Nature and forest therapy is a burgeoning field that uses natural settings to help people heal and thrive. It’s based on the Japanese tradition of shinrin yoku, or forest bathing.

“Forest therapy is not nature education,” says Goldman. Nor is it vigorous exercise. “It’s usually an easy stroll.” But “it is getting your body outside in fresh air, breathing in some of the substances that trees produce [woodsy-smelling essential oils called phytonocides], which boost the immune response.” (Phytoncides boost the activity of natural killer cells, which destroy tumor- and virus-infected cells.)

On her forest therapy walks, Goldman helps clients engage with nature through a series of invitations, as they’re called. “I might invite people to experience the warmth of the sun, the sounds of the birds, and to look around and see what’s moving.”

After these invitations, people often share what they’ve noticed on the walk. “There’s a woman who came on the walk recently,” Goldman recalls. “Her husband had just died, and [as she walked], she noticed the grass springing back [up] after the person in front her stepped on it.” For the woman, “That became a really powerful metaphor for resilience. There’s always stuff that on a forest therapy walk!”

She concludes, “As a therapist, I can tell you, I can just step back and invite people to explore things. Nature does a very good job of providing the therapy.”

Courtesy of PsyCom


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