Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.
-Frank Lloyd Wright
Are you aware of the important impact exposure to nature can have on your health? Not only does daily contact with nature improve your quality of life, a walk in the woods can reduce self-criticism! I have come to appreciate the critical role nature plays-improving and enhancing my health and well-being.
Gardening’s Healing Power
For centuries healers were aware of the healing role it can play and was used to treat a variety of conditions. Long before psychotropic medications were invented, patients with psychiatric conditions were encouraged to garden.
Horticultural therapy has been around for a long time. In the 1600s the poor often had to work in gardens to pay for their medical care. Physicians noticed that these patients recovered quicker and to a better level of health than patients who did not work in the garden. In the 1800s, a few progressive hospitals specializing in the treatment of those with mental illnesses used gardening as a therapy tool. After both World War I and II, injured servicemen worked in gardens to improve function of injured limbs and to increase mental function. They also learned new skills to provide a livelihood.
One of the oldest therapies, horticultural therapy brings people and plants together for health and wellness. Today, many hospitals, long-term care facilities, rehabilitation centers, prisons, schools, social-service facilities and community centers use people-plant interactions as a form of treatment for people with physical or mental disabilities.
The benefits of horticultural therapy may be seen in four areas – intellectual, social, emotional, and physical development. At the intellectual level, horticultural therapy allows people to attain new skills. It also may increase the sense of curiosity and the powers of observation. For many, garden therapy is used to stimulate sensory perceptions. Therapy gardens are often designed to stimulate specific senses like hearing, touch or smell.
The Stress of Urban and Man-Made Environments
More than half of the world’s population now lives in urban environments, and by 2050, at least 66 percent of the global population will be city residents, according to sociologists’ predictions. Although there are advantages to city life, the sensory input we constantly receive in cities makes them stressful places to live. A German study found that the amygdala, an area of the brain involved in the stress response, was much more active among urban residents and that another area of the brain involved in regulating the stress response, the cingulated cortex, was more active in people born in cities. In other words, living in the city causes an overstimulation of the brain, making urban dwellers much more susceptible to stress-related physical and mental illnesses.
Cities are stressful because they are man-made settings: they are crowded, noisy, and visually distracting and have lots of social activity. Although rural and suburban dwellers also live in man-made environments, they tend to be spread out more; cities, in contrast, tend to be constricted places, with buildings standing tall and tight together. Most have a shortage of open spaces and sunlight and lack meaningful signs of nature or the opportunity to interact with it. Just being in an urban setting like this interferes with our most basic mental processes. After a few minutes of exposure to a crowded street setting, the brain loses a portion of its capacity to remember, and people experience diminished self-control.2 For these reasons, city residents are generally more stressed than those living in the suburbs or in the country.
Green and “Blue” Spaces Enhance Health
Natural environments are a potent promoter of physical, mental, and spiritual healing. You can simply receive health benefits spending time outdoors. Jessica Finlay, from the University of Minnesota (Minnesota, USA), and colleagues report that daily access to green and “blue” spaces (environments with running or still water) are especially beneficial for healthy aging in seniors. The researchers interviewed adults, ages 65 to 86 years who lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, who were experiencing a range of chronic medical conditions. The team found that by incorporating smaller features, such as a koi pond or a bench with a view of flowers, public health and urban development strategies can optimize nature as a health resource for older adults. Such green and blue spaces promoted feelings of renewal, restoration, and spiritual connectedness.
They also provide places for multi-generational social interactions and engagement, including planned activities with friends and families, and impromptu gatherings with neighbors. Separately, a team from Stanford University enrolled generally 38 healthy men and women in a study that consisted of taking questionnaires and undergoing fMRI scans before and after going for an hour and a half walk. The volunteers were split into two groups, one got to walk in a grassy area near the Stanford campus that w as lined with lots of trees—the other group found themselves marching around in a strictly urban setting. The questionnaires were designed to illuminate rumination – the tendency to be self-critical, often resulting in anxiety and depression; while the fMRI scans focused on a certain area of the brain, the subgenual prefrontal cortex—prior research showed it tended to light up to during periods of ruminations.
Data analysis yielded a rumination score which the team then used to compare people in the two groups. Rumination remained level for the urban walkers but fell on average from 35.4 to 33.1 for the nature walkers. Writing that: “Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment,” the study authors posit that: “These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”
SuperHealing: Engaging Your Mind, Body and Spirit to Create Optimal Health and Well-Being, Chapter 4 pages 101-103