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The Healing Power of Nature

Six ways to benefit from spending time in your yard and beyond.

Key points

  • Contact with nature may help provide emotional healing.
  • Benefits can range from a sense of freedom to peace, comfort, renewal, and respite from technology and interpersonal relations.
  • Many studies show significant treatment effects when traditional psychotherapy and medicine are accompanied by outdoor activities and work.

A craving for contact with nature slipped into my consciousness almost as soon as the pandemic began. I found myself itching with enthusiasm for my long daily walks along the ghostly avenues of NYC in the environs of my neighborhood. I would venture into Central Park, where I sought out empty pockets that offered me the privacy to conduct a phone session with a patient while being enveloped by the eerie and deserted beauty of the urban nature preserve of Central Park during the pandemic. I began to need these walks in a visceral way. They, along with the five pieces of candy I allotted to myself each day, became my daily treat. I felt calmed, soothed, and exhilarated by my walks.

Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer and creator of Central Park, wrote that “beautiful natural scenery, employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and re-invigoration to the whole system.”

Escape to Nature

After I escaped to the suburbs to wait out the rest of the worst part of the pandemic, I eagerly embraced the quiet green and flowered spaces that had caused me impatience in an earlier part of my life. There too I reveled in my long walks. I began to enjoy such outdoor activities as sitting around my outdoor fire pit well into the January cold, with friends, enjoying food, drink, and conversation while throwing logs on the fire. I no longer shrank from the cold as I had throughout my life. Instead, I greeted it energetically and readied myself with layers of warm clothes and brisk movement. My daily bike rides stretched well into winter when precipitation permitted.

What happened to me? I’m the woman who preferred to walk on a hard city block rather than a grassy turf and to be surrounded by crowds of sleek and polished New Yorkers over Duck shoe-clad suburban and rural dwellers. I thought the quiet of the suburbs was hugely overrated and the bustle of NYC was poorly understood by its detractors.

I began to examine exactly what I was getting out of this intense need for interaction with nature and the outdoors.

How Nature Benefits Us

After being sequestered first in my city apartment and later in a suburban house, being outdoors in nature felt freeing. Since we were not allowed to be indoors with other people, we essentially became locked indoors either alone or with a small pod of people. The outdoors represented freedom from the constraints of the pandemic. It was the only place where we could openly interact with people who were not in our pod. That was most people.

As I deepened my forays into nature and the outdoors, starting to hike more than ever before and venturing beyond the suburbs into the beach and the country, I noticed that the smell of the earth and foliage, the feel of the air on my skin and nostrils, and the sight of the beauty of the earth’s offerings gave me a sense of hope and comfort. A sense that life goes on no matter what and keeps renewing itself. If COVID brought disease and death, nature brought renewal and a connection to life without the demands that human relationships bring with them. If everyday life during COVID (and a destructive political environment) brought about turbulence, nature endowed us with a sense of peace and calm. If our COVID existence is angst-filled, nature comforts us.

The wonder of 21st-century technology gave us a way to connect to people virtually even if we couldn’t connect with them in person. I write extensively about that phenomenon in my recently published book How Are You? Connection in a Virtual Age; A Therapist, a Pandemic and Stories About Coping with Life. Yet, most of us found that we developed Zoom or screen fatigue. Living life online, as I call it, Has an alienating effect on our human senses and sensibilities. Nature with its gentle appeal to the basic components of all that is life-giving and sustaining is the balm for over-exposure to technology. Immersion in nature offered freedom not only from our pandemic isolation and imprisonment but from technology.

Outline of Benefits

  1. Sense of freedom
  2. Sense of renewal
  3. Hope
  4. Comfort, peace, and calm
  5. A connection to life without the demands that human relationships bring with them
  6. Freedom from technology

The Well-Gardened Mind

As I was contemplating my amazement over my love affair with nature, the outdoors, and what they stand for, a book called The Well Gardened Mind; The Restorative Power of Nature by Sue Stuart-Smith came out that addressed these phenomena. In it, Stuart-Smith cites ample research that has taken place over the last decades, showing that gardening and immersion in nature boosts mood and self-esteem and may help alleviate depression and anxiety. I am making a connection between gardening (which is a part of my infatuation with nature) and my experiences of making fires, hiking, biking, and just plain being in nature. Paraphrasing the 12th-century theologian and composer St. Hildegard Von Bingen, Stuart-Smith says that “our nervous systems are primed to function best in response to aspects of the natural world … When we work with the nature outside we work with nature inside us”

Nature’s Medicinal Properties: Studies

There is a copious amount of research on the restorative power of nature and the outdoors. Here are some examples.

Adevi and Martensson (2013) reported on subjects who were treated for stress disorder in the Alnarp rehabilitation garden in Sweden. Their findings were based on interviews with patients who described their experiences in the garden as being the most important part of their recovery. The garden made them feel safe and afforded them positive, sensory experiences that contributed to their physical and mental well-being. It facilitated positive social interactions with others.

A 2016 study by Black showed that subjects seeking to overcome addiction benefitted from re-establishing a relationship with nature. Nature served as a higher power and facilitated their ability to use their 12-step programs.

Stuart Smith references physician Benjamin Rush’s observation in 1812, that mental health patients who had to pay for their treatment by doing yard work on the hospital premises recovered faster than the wealthier patients who could afford the cost of treatment and “languished inside hospital walls.”

The list of research studies offering examples of ways in which people’s mental health benefits from nature is exhaustive. Numerous friends and patients of mine have echoed the same sentiments. I hope you will try it.

References

Black, M. (2016). "The trees were our cathedral" - A narrative inquiry into healing from

addiction through a relationship with nature (Publication No. AAI3743749). [Doctoral dissertation, California Institute of Integral Studies.] Retrieved from APA PsycInfo®.

https://www.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/trees-were-our-cathedral-…

Cregan-Reid, V. (2018). Primate change: How the world we made is remaking us. United Kingdom: Octopus.

Gonzalez, M.T., Hartig, T., Patil, G.G., Martinsen, E.W., & Kirkevold, M. (2010). Therapeutic

horticulture in clinical depression: A prospective study of active components. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 66, 2002-2013. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2648.2010.05383.x

Olmstead, F. & Nash, R. (1865). The value and care of parks. Report to the Congress of the State

of California. Reprinted in The American Environment, pp. 18-24. Hillsdale, NJ.

Rush, B. (1947). Medical inquiries and observation upon the diseases of the mind. Occupational

Therapy & Rehabilitation, 26(3), 77-180.

Stuart-Smith, S. (2021). The well-gardened mind: The restorative power of nature. United

States: Scribner.

Stuart-Smith, S. (2021). The well-gardened mind: The restorative power of nature. United

States: Scribner.

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