Spring is finally here! It was a long, challenging winter. I honestly do not remember one filled with as much snow. I've often heard people describe mountains as cathedrals and use other religious metaphors to describe the spiritual awe they feel in the presence of a majestic canyon or a waterfall. These comparisons are appropriate. Nature’s wondrous design uplifts mind, body, and spirit. It causes our emotions to soar when we come in contact with it.
Although we know intuitively that being in touch with nature is healthy because it feels good and refreshing to be outdoors, now there’s a convincing and growing body of research confirming that it contributes to mental health and psychological development. Nature benefits us by improving self-confidence and self-discipline, deepening our sense of community and belonging, and strengthening our sense of internal coherence.
We Are a Part of Nature
We may have forgotten it, but our most distant ancestors knew they were connected to and part of the landscape. Since the human race evolved in the midst of nature, it is only logical that being in its presence is one of the fastest ways to align mind, body, and spirit and open our channels of healing. It helps us to remember. Like nothing else, experiencing nature consciously connects us to the magnificence of our true essence, our spirit. By engaging our sense of wonder, it leads us to feel appreciation for something greater than ourselves. It teaches us that although we are individuals, we are connected to a larger whole—to all of life. Its grandeur reminds us that there is something beyond what we, as human beings, could create, something timeless and unbound by the constraints of human intervention and involvement.
Nature affects us in a variety of positive ways, some of which are easily measured and some of which are not measurable but are meaningful and important nonetheless. Our exposure to a variety of colors, plants, mountains, forests, and seas, with their soothing sounds and fragrant odors, as well as the energy of different places, restores our sense of health and well-being. A 2010 study discovered that spending just twenty minutes out doors in nature gave people a greater sense of well-being and vitality, beyond what is caused merely by having engaged in physical activity or enjoyable social interactions. Wilderness excursion participants reported that just remembering their outdoor experiences enhanced their health and happiness.
Exposure to natural landscapes stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, triggering the relaxation response and the release of endorphins. This reduces the stress hormones circulating in our bodies, lowers blood pressure, and helps to relieve anxiety, anger, aggression, and depression. The opportunity to see nature, even through a window, accelerates recovery after surgery, shortening postoperative hospital stays. Other studies have determined that prison rooms with a view of a natural landscape were beneficial to the health of prisoners.
When we’re in natural settings, we are known to recover more quickly from stress. Researchers at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and Uppsala University (Sweden) have found that mental fatigue is relieved by nature experiences. Nature creates a sense of wonder and fascination that counterbalances the effects of too much focused attention, such as that required to use electronic devices like computers and smartphones. After an hour of taxing mental work, a walk through a park is more mentally and emotionally restorative than a walk through a city, reading a magazine or a book, or listening to music.
Nature Promotes Kindness & Compassion
University of Rochester researchers found that after viewing scenes of nature, people were kinder and more compassionate and giving, as demonstrated by their willingness to donate money to a charity. The exposure also caused them to feel heightened concern about social outcomes and closer to members of their community. The researchers concluded that exposure to nature helps us get in touch with our basic values.
Dwelling in nature can lead to more opportunities for physical activity, which keeps us fit and offers us relief from the demands of our daily lives. More than 100 studies show that stress is decreased by participation in outdoor recreation.
Nature plays a critical role in our health and well-being, and it is imperative for you to design your lifestyle in such a way that you may take full advantage of the benefits of nature. Exposure to the natural environment is one of the most underutilized but powerful pathways to optimal health. Even if you live in an urban setting, it is important to be in contact with nature as much as possible. Add natural elements to your home, such as indoor plants, and allow fresh air and natural sunlight to come in through the windows. Make a point of visiting parks and recreational areas.
If you are fortunate to live in close proximity to nature, take advantage of the landscape around your home. Go outside and walk, bike, swim, climb, garden, and even sit where you can allow yourself the gift of nature’s presence.
Before I entering medical school at Duke University, I didn't fully appreciate nature. That changed during my first winter in North Carolina, when I saw some of the most magnificent sunsets I've ever laid eyes on. These spectacles were so breathtaking that drivers would often pull off the road to watch them. I later learned that sand from the Sahara Desert is sometimes carried by the wind across the Atlantic Ocean to the North Carolina coastline, where it provides a canvas for the sun. Dramatic hues of red, pink, orange, and lavender looked like interlacing ribbons wrapping around the sun as it sank below the horizon.
Medical school and the exposure my training in medicine gave me to ill, injured, and dying patients was stressful. One day, after seeing a terminally ill patient, I didn't know what to do with my turbulent thoughts and feelings. I rushed out of the hospital and sat in the Sarah P. Duke Garden, conveniently located behind the hospital, until I was able to recover my internal balance. My distress seemed to melt away. Created by the Duke family, this garden contains flowers and trees gathered from around the world. From that day forward, I had a favorite spot near a pond across from a terraced section filled with flowers. There I’d sit, inhaling the beauty—sometimes for hours, especially during the many weekends I was on call in the hospital.
My parents gardened. As a child, I spent a lot of time looking at my mother’s flowers. But it wasn't until I planted my own garden outside the house where I now live that I came to appreciate how truly wondrous it is to watch a seed grow. It is amazing. Every summer, I grow herbs, peppers, and tomatoes on my deck and flowers in the garden. I find putting my hands in the soil and tending my plants to be therapeutic.
What the Ancients Knew About Nature
According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, the healing benefits of gardens has been recognized and incorporated into medical treatment since the time of the Egyptians. In Europe, 600 years ago, gardening was used by monks as part of treatment of patients sent to monasteries to heal. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, astutely recognized the clinical improvement that people with mental illness experienced after participating in gardening. Gardening was widely used to help World War II veterans overcome the trauma of their experiences in battle. Some prisons have developed gardening programs for rehabilitative purposes, and placing healing gardens and spaces in hospitals and public settings is gaining momentum.
Get outside—take a walk, ride your bike, garden, engage in sports. Commit to spend more time this summer outdoors.
Superhealing: Engaging Your Mind, Body, and Spirit to Create Optimal Health and Well-Being