The Healing Power of Nature
By : Eric Bennett
While we have been stuck in our houses for the last month--and will be for the foreseeable future--it’s become much easier to realize all that we have been taking for granted. I think pretty much all of us miss going out with friends, dining in restaurants, perusing through stores and malls, going to the movies, playing at the park, and hitting the gym. Unfortunately, it’s not until things are taken away from us that their value becomes easily apparent. Now, we are finally getting a chance to see clearly how much time and energy we were wasting prior to being in lockdown, when the world was our oyster, and we were free to pretty much go anywhere and do anything we pleased.
For those of us that were fortunate enough to have some savings to fall back on or were able to keep our jobs, I think we are mostly suffering from severe boredom--which really isn’t such a bad thing--trying to find ways to entertain ourselves while we are trapped indoors and without much work to do. But despite all that, I feel that what we probably miss the most is being able to go outside, not just in our backyards--if we are lucky enough to have one--but in the great outdoors; in undisturbed, pristine nature, far away from our buzzing, flashing, bright, noisy, and busy cities.
In the late 70s Japan was hit hard with a wave of depression among the working class. Japanese were committing suicide and even dying from what they named Karoshi--death from overwork--as they could not handle the intense stress and demands from their jobs. This forced the government to begin investing in rigorous research in order to find solutions to this epidemic. They tried all sorts of therapies, medications, and experiments in order to help people reduce stress so they would live longer, healthier, happier lives, despite their intense work environments.
Obviously, one of the most successful ways to prevent people from dying of overwork, was to put more regulations and reduce the amount of hours they were required to work and the amount of overtime they were allowed to pick up. However, in a world like today, where economy is everything and the grind never really stops, they could only go so far. So scientists and psychologists began looking for solutions in other places, outside of our cities, where one could feel the uncovered earth beneath their feet, and contemplate the world in solitude and silence.
Over the last few decades in Japan, and other countries all over the globe, countless studies have been done to find out how spending time in nature affects the human psyche and physiology, and how much of it still cannot be replaced or replicated by our seemingly advanced and state of the art technology. Korea--which has had similar problems within its working class--has also been at the forefront of these studies. In both countries, they have found such profound and promising results that physicians have gone as far as prescribing nature to patients instead of medication and creating programs and retreats for people to spend time in nature to recover from stress and depression (this is currently under work for the US as well). It was so successful that they came up with a new, widely used term for this practice; shinrin yoku--forest bathing. As we are all aware--and now more than ever--Japan and Korea aren’t the only countries in the world that have to worry about stress and depression from overwork and being stuck indoors; not having enough leisure time outside to recharge. And while it may not be as severe in other places, it is safe to say that solutions to these issues would greatly benefit all of us around the world.
By using all sorts of different tools and monitors--in order to track heart rate, blood pressure, and neural activity--scientists have actually been able to measure all of the different ways that forest bathing affects our physiology. For example, they’ve discovered that just smelling the aroma of pine needles alone effectively reduces blood pressure, boosts our immune system, and slows down heart rate, which in turn reduces stress. Even diffusing pine oil in your home, such as cypress or any kind of fir tree, will have these positive effects on us.
But the positive effects of spending time in nature go even further than that. It’s really the only place we can have all of our senses engaged, as we smell what is around us--the wet earth after rain, decaying leaves, aromatic plants and flowers, or crisp, fresh air--we hear all of the marvelous sounds--the songs of birds, a babbling brook, cracking branches, chirping insects, or distant avalanches--or just enjoy the exceptional silence; we can fully taste the damp air, fresh water, or whatever snack we are enjoying; we can touch delicate mosses and feel the soft soil or hard rocks beneath our feet; we can see and admire everything around us as we enjoy the unrivaled scenery without interruption.
Studies have shown that these singular experiences lower cortisol levels--a chemical that causes stress and inflammation in our bodies--heart rate, blood pressure, and sympathetic nervous activity--the most primitive parts of our brains, where our fight or flight responses are triggered. Our minds and bodies both calm down and relax in synchrony as we fully take in our surroundings. By engaging all of our senses our brains release balanced amounts of dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins--the quartet of chemicals responsible for our happiness--which causes us to “regain equanimity, cognitive clarity, empathy and hope” (The Nature Fix). And forest bathing doesn’t strictly apply to just literally being in the forest; deserts, mountains, and of course the coast also promise us positive results.
Opposite studies have also been done, to prove the damage and negative effects that spending too much time in cities, offices, and indoors has on us. When shown pictures of nature, test subjects relaxed--their heart rate and blood pressure dropped--and felt more at ease. When other test subjects from another group were shown densely populated cities and tall buildings, it triggered their fight or flight response and cortisol levels raised as well as blood pressure and heart rate (the same way they reacted when shown disturbing images of violence and tragedy). Afterwards, when they were shown pictures of nature, it calmed them down again and the adrenaline faded away.
Studies have also been done in hospitals with recovering patients. A group of patients recuperating from the same procedure was divided and half were put into rooms with windows with a pleasant view and the others were put into rooms without windows. The patients recovering near a window recovered quicker and were more optimistic, while the patients without an outside view lingered significantly longer in their recovery and were more fatalistic and depressed. Afterwards, they did the same study with new patients, but instead of using windows, they just hung photographs of nature. The results were also more positive for those that were surrounded by pictures of calming trees and puffy clouds, than for those that could only look at four white walls.
It’s become common knowledge that sunlight is also good for us, as studies have shown that a greater number of inhabitants of cloudier places with less sunlight suffer from anxiety and depression. It’s been proven that vitamin D improves our mood and mental health, as well as our immune systems. Sunlight also helps our brains to manage levels of melatonin which makes us more alert during the day and helps us to fall asleep and get a good rest at night. The best place to soak up the sun is in the company of wild nature.
Undoubtedly, spending time in nature is good for us, that isn’t surprising, especially for those of us that already have habits of going outside, camping, and enjoying the outdoors. And it’s benefits, both physiological and spiritual, extend far beyond what I have shared here. But I think it can be very educational now that these stats are materializing and the results can be shared in convincing data. Now more than ever, I think we are learning to appreciate nature while we are stuck inside. It’s important for your health to try your best to get outside each day, feel some sunlight on your skin, breathe fresh air, calm down, and engage all of your senses.
If you would like to know more about this topic, some great books are The Nature Fix by Florence Williams,The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and The Story of More by Hope Jahren. Eric is a full time wilderness advocate, who seeks to portray the beauty and value of nature through his artwork. His gallery of nature photographs can be seen here, along with many more articles about nature, photography, and life: www.bennettfilm.com
But what is even more important, is that we all work together to protect and preserve the little wilderness we still have left. We are now learning further, through science and medicine, how important it is to us, how much we really depend on it, and how impossible it is to substitute or replace. We are not the only lifeforms that depend on nature either, we share this planet with billions of other living, breathing, feeling, sentient beings as well, which are now being displaced and going extinct at unprecedented rates (150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal go extinct every day). I just hope that we can all realize the true value of keeping undisturbed nature intact, before it’s too late, and there are no longer anymore forests to bathe in.