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Nature Therapy- The Best Treatment For Mental Health
One of the best simple ways of improving mental health is seeking condolence from nature.
Human beings aren’t meant to be surrounded by four walls all day. Being outside- exposed to the sun, fresh air, and leafy trees- is vital not only to the human brain but to the physical body as well. Exposure to natural light, according to the director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the University of Colorado, Kenneth Wright, is instrumental in helping regulate the body’s circadian rhythm clock. These internal rhythms are essential in the regulation of appetite, sleep schedules, mood, and energy levels.
Nature also provides the biggest benefit to vitality, with a boost of over 40% compared to other places like beaches or deserts (Ryan, University of Rochester Study). This is understandable. Since we’ve been young, we’ve always been taught the importance of staying active and being outside. Whether it be the sports we’ve grown up playing or vacations we’ve taken each year, we’ve always been encouraged to seek nature for our own vitality.
Why? Nature is one of the best ways to provide the brain with dopamine, the neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. It is also responsible for better emotional handling, memory reticence, and cognition skills- making humans more inclined to seek nature in periods of stress, anger, or overexertion. Those that spend more time in nature resultantly exhibit better-coping skills and are more emotionally well-balanced.
Overall, the restorative power of nature therapy is something that is beneficial to all people. Children who spend ample time in nature in their early years prove to become less prone to developing issues like obesity, depression, anxiety, asthma, and so on. It is important, therefore, that we remember the importance of nature (early on!) and the significant strides it makes in both physical and mental health.
Nature Therapy and Mindfulness
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the practice of listening to your thoughts, to your own breathing, and drowning out the noise of the outside world: a technique often incorporated in practices like Tai Chi and yoga because of its calming nature.
Oftentimes, living in a digital age pulls us further away from achieving a state of mindfulness as our brains are wired to constantly multitask: swiping through social media, checking up on emails, responding to calls, and clicking through Youtube videos. In fact, this “media multitasking” is correlated with higher rates of anxiety and depression (Time).
Nature therapy helps to reduce this overload effect: “Spending time outside and in nature seems to relax and heighten your focus while simultaneously clearing your mind’s workload,” says Ryan, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. “A walk in the woods also fosters a sense of “relatedness” or connection with the living world.”
Rather than pulling you away from a state of mindfulness, nature has proven to be instrumental in focusing the mind and clearing out unwanted chatter. This connection between nature and the mind is associated with greater life satisfaction, happiness, creativity, vitality, and meaningfulness (Gordon, Shonin, Richardson).
Furthermore, the role of nature therapy is important not just in refocusing the mind from its constant state of frenzy, but it also helps to detract from negative thoughts and emotions. “Having something pleasant to focus on like trees and greenery helps distract your mind from negative thinking, so your thoughts become less filled with worry,” says Dr. Jason Strauss, the director of geriatric psychiatry at Harvard-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance. It can be hard to escape negative thoughts when constantly surrounded by them. However, having something else to divert attention to makes coping with those emotions that much easier and achieving a state of mindfulness that much closer.
A Greater Scientific Understanding
The importance of nature therapy can be traced from a psychoevolutionary perspective.
Researcher Roger Ulrich theorized that humans have a “deep-rooted affinity towards nature,” largely due to our ancestral roots and the early humans who lived simply among the earth. Due to this affiliation, humans tend to find peace in nature and generate feelings of happiness when close by. According to this psychoevolutionary model by Ulrich and his team…
Staying close to nature is a genetically influenced preference of humans.
Spending more time outdoors has a replenishing effect on emotions, memory, and cognition.
Restraining oneself in enclosed artificial physical settings can evoke anger, despair, and depression – together affecting our wellbeing.
Nature has an in-built restoration component that helps in stress reduction and emotional regulation (Positive Psychology).
Nature therapy evidently helps to erase the negative emotions that are associated with being indoors. Being surrounded by nature is a genetic preference of humans and therefore explains the benefits it bestows on mental and physical health.
Another study done by Harvard Medical School seems to support this notion. In 2015, researchers compared the brain activity of individuals walking in nature vs urban settings. They found that those who participated in nature walks displayed lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is an area of the brain that activates during rumination- a process involved in the perpetual cycling of negative thoughts.
“When people are depressed or under high levels of stress, this part of the brain malfunctions and people experience a continuous loop of negative thoughts,” explains Dr. Strauss, director of geriatric psychiatry at Harvard. Nature combats the activity in the prefrontal cortex with its therapeutic benefits; for instance, simple walks help to lower blood pressure and the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in humans.
These effects help to generate feelings of peace and deactivate areas of the brain involved in negative thinking, further explaining why nature therapy is an effective tool in mental health treatment.
Nature Therapy During The Pandemic
This knowledge is especially important during this time of crisis. The world has seen a drastic decline in mental health, particularly due to the isolation and confinement that the COVID-19 has brought to the world. Finding ways to cope with that isolation and negativity is extremely important.
Seeking nature can do wonders.
According to Ryan (in the same Time article), even twenty minutes a day in nature can have an “enhancing effect” on vitality, meaning that individuals only need to be out for a short amount of time to experience the benefits. Moreover, nature therapy is not restricted to elaborate greenery and forests. Brief moments outside to simply have a breath of fresh air, run through the park, or head down to the pier for a walk can suffice.
With the added stressors of the pandemic, we can all turn to nature therapy to raise mental health and combat feelings of negativity.