The therapeutic power of nature

October 4, 2021

October 10 is World Mental Health Day

For the first time in human history, more people live in urban environments than rural areas, and this increased urbanization has resulted in decreased mental health for city dwellers. As a society, we are spending too much time inside and not reaping the benefits of the natural world that surrounds us, and our mental, emotional and physical health is suffering.

Research shows there is a strong connection between time in nature and lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression, while access to green spaces significantly correlates with higher levels of well-being. One study found that people in rural areas have a less acute response to stress.

“Nature therapy is a newly evolving body of thought that recognizes the positive impact nature has on our mental health, as well as our physical, intellectual and spiritual well-being. It can be described as using a person’s presence in nature to improve their well-being, mentally and physically,” says Mary Anne Appleby, counsellor with Manitoba Blue Cross’s Employee Assistance Program. “Being in nature is the therapy.”

Also known as ecotherapy or forest therapy, nature therapy is simply spending time outside with nature. This can include gardening, going for walks or hikes, cycling, bird watching, playing outdoor sports or just sitting in your yard with a cup of tea. Why nature has such positive impacts is still being studied, but research continues to show there are immense benefits.

Appleby points to studies from Korea and Japan that indicate time in nature boosts immune system cells, which fight disease, and researchers believe that phytoncides, organic compounds released by trees, are responsible. This beneficial boost is also seen for at least 30 days following the experience with nature.

Being outside tends to get us moving more too, so those who spent more time in nature also have decreased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), and lower blood pressure and heart rates.

“We don’t have to plan an expensive vacation, we just need to get outside, walk a tree-lined street or go to a local park. To walk and pay attention to what is going on around us, to use our senses, to focus outwardly and get out of our brains and away from technology can be very calming. We can plant something, pay attention to the birds we see or look for the full moon,” says Appleby. “People know how good they feel being in nature. People can feel the stress dissipating when they walk in the park or go to the lake. There can be a feeling of relief.”

To reap the benefits, spend at least 120 minutes a week outside. This can be all at once or broken up into shorter periods. Not only is time outside good for us, but it can be fun too. Instead of sitting down to dinner, why not go out for a picnic in the park? Plan a walk with a friend instead of a coffee date. Take the kids outside to play in the rain. Or bring nature inside with plants and flowers. Pet therapy also falls under the larger umbrella of nature therapy, says Appleby, so time with your fur babies can have similar benefits.

Even looking at nature or listening to it can have health benefits for those who are unable to get outside in the short or long term.  

“One study found that patients in a hospital spent fewer days there and needed fewer analgesics if they had a window with a view of nature compared to those with a window viewing a brick wall. Other research indicated that just showing patients pictures of forests decreased their anxiety and need for pain medication,” says Appleby, who has a Master’s degree in clinical psychology

So, let’s look up from the screens and see the world around us. It’s a beautiful, miraculous world that gives us so much – we can at least give it our attention. And your mental, emotional and physical well-being will thank you.

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