The Therapeutic Power of Nature Bathing
Visiting natural settings can have significant therapeutic benefits.
Posted Mar 15, 2020
Note: With the current coronavirus outbreak, the benefits of the ideas in this post are more relevant than ever. Please practice social distancing as recommended by public health experts; visiting safe, open outdoor settings in relative isolation may be one potentially helpful way to cope with the difficult ongoing situation.
While it may be somewhat common sense to many by now, it is still worth reflecting on the psychological and therapeutic value of visiting nature, and why it can have a crucial and healing effect on one’s psyche.
People often remark upon the need to get away and visit nature, especially in the era of urban living and industrialization. Thoughtful city planners for centuries, and in the United States, since the days of Frederick Law Olmstead, the architect of New York City’s Central Park, have incorporated valuable green spaces and nature-based retreats into concrete jungles. Vacations and travel often basically mean getaways to nature, such as open beaches, solemn mountainsides, or pristine lakes.
The appeal is multifold. Obviously, these retreats represent a moment of pause for people caught up in hectic schedules, jobs, family care, social interactions, etc. Nature is often associated with open space, solitude, quiet, beauty. As creatures of evolution and animals ourselves, some of our underlying rhythms and processes may be more connected than we realize to those of natural environments. The sounds and smells of nature, the rhythms of the ocean, and exposure to sunshine and fresh air may induce balanced mental and physiological processes that aren’t fully understood but can be helpful.
Indeed, when constructing asylums for patients with psychiatric issues in the 1800s, Thomas Story Kirkbride, a psychiatrist from Philadelphia, was impressively humane for his era and made recommendations for what he termed “Moral Treatment.” It was a reform philosophy ushered in by the famous advocate Dorothea Dix after she exposed the gross mistreatment of asylum patients beforehand. Moral Treatment principles indicated that additional public funding should be afforded for these asylums and that they be constructed with architectural designs (such as the noted “batwing” design) that provide greater exposure to sunlight and fresh air and pastoral settings.
Numerous state hospitals were constructed in the mid-to-late 1800s in the U.S. with the “Kirkbride Plan.” Sadly, as budget constraints and political shifts became a reality in the mid-to-late 20th century, most of these buildings fell into disrepair, programs deteriorated, and many were shut down and demolished. But the fundamental idea that connection to nature is therapeutic remains a popular one, and in recent years has shifted somewhat to a wellness industry mindset as people seek ways to positively enhance the mind-body connection.
Neurobiological research has already outlined that the mind and body are inextricably linked, with various neuroendocrine systems that respond to stress and threat, signaled by the amygdala (our primordial emotional center) and its links to our fight-or-flight response via the sympathetic-parasympathetic nervous system, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. These systems put our bodies into overdrive when we perceive a threat or the need for action, and then they get switched off by other signals and systems when the need has passed. In anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, some of these systems get abnormally switched on without turning off, leading to both negative mental and physical consequences. People with anxiety disorders are noted to be associated with higher rates of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, immune-related disorders, diabetes, and more.
Accordingly, interventions at the basic level of initial perception and amygdalar signaling can make a difference. Environments that are fundamentally perceived as calming, less threatening, pleasing, etc. can all signal the amygdala to relax. And as noted earlier, nature often does this at an essential level. Of course, nature is not all roses and butterflies, our initial threat systems evolved from issues such as encountering predatory beasts that would eat us, falling from cliffs, or risking starvation or dehydration when deprived of such resources. But in controlled, reasonable doses, human systems seem to find natural settings a form of resetting and synchronization.
I recently visited the Naples Botanical Gardens after several stressful winter work months and personally felt the instant relaxation and buzz almost immediately after entering. Located in the warmer climes of southwestern Florida, the vegetation was lush and semi-tropical. A small corner orchid garden displayed a fascinating variety of colors and shapes, while small fountains peacefully gurgled. The gardens (ranging from Brazilian to Caribbean) appear to have been designed for peaceful contemplation, with several quiet sitting areas and benches poised beside each feature.
A Southeastern Asian-style garden had a dark wooden pavilion beside a pond and replicas of ancient statues from a Javanese temple ruin. One highlight in another garden was a set of wooden gates with hanging purple flowers, creating a fragrant tunnel of lavender blooms. Just sitting at any of the gates for a few minutes and meditating at the scene, I felt my blood pressure dropping and my mind humming into a silken mellowness.
The Japanese have studied and advocated nature therapy in recent years, including the practice of “forest bathing,” where people are encouraged to visit forest settings for mental health benefits. A review article in the International Journal of Environmental Research on Public Health from August 2016 by Chorong Song et al. noted a large quantity of data indicating positive physiological changes from these activities, including the calming of autonomic nervous activity, endocrine activity, and even immune activity. Blood pressure and pulse rate decreases were noted, as well as increases in natural killer immune cell activity: all signs of decreased stress responses.
Of course, natural settings also encourage exercise and physical activity, also well-known and well-researched for its positive physical and mental effects.
Overall, building in time whenever possible to visit nature can be a beneficial part of general well-being and mental hygiene.
Chorong Song, Harumi Ikei, and Yoshifumi Miyazaki. Physiological Effects of Nature Therapy: A Review of the Research in Japan. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2016 Aug; 13(8): 781.