“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
John Muir, the naturalist and conservationist, wrote these words in 1901. Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in the late 1800s and was instrumental in the establishment of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, wrote extensively about the spiritual dimensions of nature.
We have long known something about the therapeutic benefits of spending time in beautiful natural surroundings and clean air. Sanitariums, or “health resorts,” became popular in the 19th century in places such as Switzerland and Colorado. People would go for extended stays of restful outdoor living, often involving reclining on porches with mountain views, taking in the fresh air and sunlight. Now, science (along with culture and language) sheds new light on nature’s effects on health.
For example, I had no idea that I’ve been engaging in shinrin-yoku as a form of self-care. I do know that I need to go on regular treks in the woods and mountains to stay emotionally healthy and balanced. It turns out that the practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing” has been practiced since ancient times, with the term being coined almost 40 years ago in Japan. A forest bath involves immersion in a natural environment, slowing down and experiencing nature with all of your senses. Studies show significant health benefits, including reductions in heart rate and blood pressure, reduction in cortisol (a stress hormone), and beneficial immune system changes. Time spent in the forest is associated with a decrease in sympathetic nervous system activity (best known for the “fight or flight” stress response) and enhanced parasympathetic nervous system activity. The parasympathetic system (sometimes referred to as the “rest and digest” system), works to maintain biological equilibrium and, among other things, can restore calm, lower heart rate and relax muscles.
Interestingly, the actual smell of the forest may have direct physiologic role in some of these therapeutic benefits. Phytoncides are fragrant essential oils released from trees and other plants which seem to have natural healing powers; these aromatic compounds have been shown to reduce inflammation, lower cortisol release, decrease anxiety, increase pain threshold, and possibly even protect against cancer.
In terms of mental health, the healing power of nature is also profound; recent studies have found benefits ranging from decreases in anxious rumination to longer life expectancy. There is research showing that time spent in nature can improve working memory, creativity, mood, energy, “subjective vitality,” sleep, and sense of well-being and general happiness. Some studies also show improved social health, including enhanced feelings of generosity, love, positive engagement with others, decreased selfishness, and diminished aggression.
In a few small studies, children with ADHD demonstrated improvements in concentration and attention after being outside in natural environments. In fact, the term “nature deficit disorder,” (not an official diagnosis) has arisen from concerns about the potential adverse psychological, cognitive, and behavioral impacts of people, especially children, spending less and less time outdoors.
Exposure to green space, in particular, is linked to improved mental health in many recent studies. While the exact underlying mechanisms are not known, hypotheses include direct physiologic impacts, social contact (people tend to gather together to take walks or have picnics in parks), an exercise component (access to walking and running paths and sports fields), protection from sound and air pollution, and psychological benefits of experiencing the aesthetic beauty of nature. A Danish study found that people who grew up in areas with greater amounts of green space as children experienced lower rates of psychiatric illness as adults. A study done in an urban environment indicated that the presence of more green space close to home is significantly correlated with decreased levels of salivary cortisol and improved wellbeing. One study linked community exposure to green space with improved life expectancy. Even home or office window views of trees and other green space have been associated with improved cognitive functioning and emotional state. Urban environments, on the other hand, have been shown to correlate with lower psychological wellbeing, a concern as we see increasing urbanization globally.
Experiencing the presence of birds and other wildlife has been linked to mental wellness. For example, one recent study demonstrated lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress in people who see a larger number of birds (and associated shrubs and trees) in a given day.
Nature offers a respite from the internal and external “noise” of our world and daily lives, whether it’s worrying thoughts, a buzzing phone, multi-tasking, or the din of traffic. It provides a stillness and beauty which entices us to slow down; the resulting tranquility can be powerfully restorative.
We are very fortunate to live in an area surrounded by nature, natural beauty, and protected land. So, head on out to Mint Springs, Shenandoah National Park, or the Crozet trail network and get your wellness on!