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Nature: An Inexpensive Therapist

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

By Kaye Olsson, I Start Wondering Columnist

Do you sometimes feel like the world around you is rushing by at an unsustainable pace? Have you ever stepped outside to take a breath or to clear your head? Do you ever crave the solitude that comes from taking a walk in a wooded area or simply gazing up at the stars? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you understand how powerful it can be to use nature as “therapy” to soothe our weary souls. In fact, when we take a closer look at well-being, we’ll find that it’s deeply rooted in nature. From the changing seasons to nutritious whole foods, to the lunar cycle—nature creates a path toward a more healthy lifestyle.

I recently experienced an example of nature therapy firsthand when I signed up for a hike that was called “desert bathing” while traveling in southern Arizona. Our guide explained that we would not actually be getting wet but, rather, would be “bathing” ourselves in nature instead. As we walked along the trail, the guide encouraged us to be mindful of our senses as we soaked in the sights, sounds, and smells of our surroundings.

Forest Bathing

This desert experience was inspired by the concept of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” which uses contemplative nature immersion as a form of therapy. It originated in Japan as a response to the tech boom of the 1990s. When workers were confined indoors in front of computer screens for long stretches of time, they began to suffer health repercussions such as increased incidences of anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure.

Researchers discovered that spending time outdoors surrounded by nature had a positive impact on these employees and led to decreased heart rates, lower stress levels, and improved sleep patterns. The key mechanism involved seemed to be the inhalation of phytoncides, which are aromatic oils with antibacterial properties that are produced by trees.

Benefits of Time Spent in Nature 

While we may instinctively recognize the connection between time spent in natural settings and improved mental health, there is also quite a bit of science to back it up. For example, an analysis of more than 140 studies from around the world found that exposure to green space significantly reduces people’s levels of cortisol, which is a physiological marker of stress. Not to mention that it also appears to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and premature death. Findings showed that nature therapy also lowered blood cholesterol levels and led to reduced rates of stroke, asthma, and heart disease. What’s not to love about that?

How Much Time Outside is Enough? 

You may be wondering how much time is required to see these benefits? A 2019 study shows that people who had spent 120 minutes in nature over the previous week were significantly more likely to report good health and well-being than those who had no nature exposure, including older adults and those with long-term health issues.

Two hours a week was the threshold for both men and women, older and younger adults, different ethnic groups, people living in richer or poorer areas, and even for those living with long-term illnesses. In contrast, nearly half the people who reported spending little or no time in natural settings said they had low levels of life satisfaction, and one in four stated they were in poor health. So that’s the simple answer—we can start reaping the health benefits with only two hours a week of nature therapy.

How to Take Advantage of the Positive Impacts of Nature Therapy

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Engage Your Senses: Step outside and take a few moments to be mindful of your surroundings. Notice the colors of flowers, the shapes of trees, the brightness of the sky. Inhale the fresh, earthy smells. Experience the various textures around you. Listen to subtle sounds that may be far away. In nature, there’s so much more than meets the eye so these multi-sensory cues can make our outdoor experiences all the more meaningful.

  2. Explore a New Place:  Our brains crave novelty so take a break from the routine by trying a different route for your midday walk or venturing into an unfamiliar neighborhood. Finding a new green space to explore can open you up to awe—a transformational emotion that has a special way of making us feel less anxious, more creative, and more willing to behave altruistically. 

  3. Integrate Nature Time with Other Activities:  Are you strapped for time? You can multi-task by combining nature with other activities. Socialize with friends by hiking a trail together. Enjoy a meal outdoors. Take a recurring weekly call while out on a walk, or listen to your favorite podcast in a local park. This may be a less mindful way to engage with the nature around you, but it’ll still give you a quick fix of invigorating fresh air and vitamin D.

What if you don’t have access to a forest or other natural setting? 

Fortunately, research tells us that simply looking at photos or reminders of nature can be enough to calm us down and improve our mood. So consider introducing houseplants, nature photographs, natural materials, and soothing colors into your home to bring some of the mental magic of the outside in.

The same is true with listening to nature sounds. After a long day of phone calls and screen time, closing your eyes and listening to nature sounds can instantly unwind tension.

Sunlight is also a powerful natural element. Natural light is proven to support healthy vision, increase productivity, elevate mood, and regulate sleep patterns. If work commitments have you stationed at your desk for the day, flooding your home or workspace with as much natural light as possible is one way to stay connected to nature. You might even consider virtual nature therapy options such as a Japanese forest bathing experience offered through Airbnb.

Just do it!

However, you choose to experience it, interacting with nature is the best way to boost our mood and beat the blues. Being outdoors, surrounded by trees and a clear sky, can create a deeper sense of connection with the earth beyond our small human existence. Walking or biking along a trail can clear our minds and help us realize we are part of something greater than ourselves. The benefits are seemingly endless!

So what are you waiting for? Get outside!

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