How nature heals us
The next time you’re feeling sad, go hug a tree. Contact with nature may be just what we need to soothe our souls, ease our nerves and mend our heartaches. Research shows that nature has a wonderful effect on our minds, moods, health and ability to heal. When we are outside soaking up the sun, walking in the grass and listening to the birds, all our senses are activated, making us feel truly alive and engaged. We are at home in the world.
Not so very long ago, humans moved through the world at nature’s pace. Time was marked by the changing seasons and the cycles of the sun, moon and stars. Unfortunately, we now spend most of our time on our sofas and on our Blackberrys, in our cars and at our desks. Often our only glimpse of green is a screensaver image.
“We don’t connect with nature as we once did in decades past,” says Sara Snow, green-living expert and host of Sara Snow’s Fresh Living. “I remember when I was in college, and I called my mom and told her how stressed I was about exams and typical college stuff. She sent me a card that said, ‘What you need to do is go outside and watch the squirrels.’ That’s how I was raised. No matter if you were bored, busy or tired, you went outside and connected with the earth. That is one of the most powerful things that we as humans can do. People underestimate that power.”
Ecotherapy to the Rescue
Researchers are just beginning to understand the impact nature has on our psyche and health. A growing number of psychologists are practicing ecotherapy, also called “green therapy” or “earth-centered therapy.” Ecotherapists believe that many of our modern-day maladies—stress, anxiety, angst, depression—stem from our disassociation with the natural world. Linda Buzzell, co-author of Ecotherapy: Healing With Nature in Mind, is convinced. “Despite the fact that we have evolved in harmony with nature for millions of years, humans over time developed this sense that we are somehow separate or apart from nature,” she says. “We’ve lost our life-support system.”
A few simple changes can radically shift how we feel. “Reconnecting with nature results in a host of psychological miracles,” Buzzell says, “including lowering depression, improving our sense of well being, calming our anxieties, raising self-esteem and giving us a sense of belonging to the great whole.”
Increasing disconnection from nature has been especially detrimental to the well being of our children, according to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods. Louv, who coined the term “nature-deficit disorder,” makes the persuasive case that interaction with nature has practically disappeared over the last few generations. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, children age 8 to 18 now spend an average of 6.5 hours a day indoors on computers and watching TV.
In response, some schools have begun planting gardens and taking more field trips. The 23 kindergarten students at the Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs in New York spend three hours each day outside—rain or shine. Waldorf Schools, which emphasize learning through experience, have long valued being in nature. Students at the Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., spend at least 45 minutes outdoors daily. “We’re building their bodies by walking and running, climbing over trees and jumping over streams,” says Leslie Burchell-Fox, an early-childhood teacher at the school. “Being in nature impresses on their senses who they are as human beings and how they need to care for the world around them.”
A growing body of research shows that reconnecting with nature substantially improves our health. A 2007 University of Essex study found that daily walks outside can be as effective at treating mild to moderate depression as medication. A study by Richard Ulrich compared the recovery records of gallbladder surgery patients who had a bedside window view of either trees or a brick wall. Patients who could gaze at nature called the nurses less frequently, required less pain medication and were released from the hospital sooner.
Given such findings, hospitals are becoming more willing to incorporate green healing spaces. As a landscape architect and director of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network, Naomi Sachs raises awareness of the importance of green spaces and healing gardens in health-care facilities. “Research has found that people respond positively when the ratio of hard surfaces—paths, walls and stairs—to plant material is 2 to 3,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be flowers—just greenness and life, which create a contrast to the architecture and buildings.”
According to Buzzell, any form of nature-connection will help us, from animal-assisted therapy to simply imagining nature during meditation. Farm therapy is becoming popular, especially in Europe, where patients suffering from mental distress are prescribed agricultural work. The Netherlands is host to 600 “care farms” that are a fully integrated part of their country’s health services.
Reconnect with our World
To reconnect with nature, find a method that suits your individual preferences. For some, walking outside will do the trick; others may choose gardening or petting their dog. It helps to think of getting outdoors as preventative medicine. Don’t wait until you feel frazzled, overwhelmed, stressed or depressed to check yourself into nature.
Buzzell can even envision a day when your primary care physician will prescribe nature-connection. “Interacting with our environment is a need that is deeply rooted within us,” she says. “Our connection with nature is our strongest experience with the sacred. Whether it’s hiking in the woods or staring at the stars at night, these are things that are, and always have been, deep in the human psyche and soul.” So what are you waiting for? Find a tree, and give it a squeeze. cr