Nature Heals, Restores, and Comforts

Empirical research shows the healing we experience in nature.

Posted Dec 23, 2019

Darcia Narvaez
Source: Darcia Narvaez

I used to use my lunch hour in long MN winters to strap on my cross-country skis and ski through a nearby woodland. Nothing was more refreshing than moving through glittering snow and dark trees against a blue sky. No matter what had happened that day, I would get grounded again in the welcoming beauty of the natural world.

With the advent of television, then videogames, then social media, and online streaming, many people spend more time in front of screens than interacting with the natural world. One study found that, on average, Americans spend 24 hours outdoors per year. Per year!

An EPA study estimated that Americans spent, on average, 7 percent of their time outdoors. Americans value time in nature but find barriers in competing interests, fear, and lack of opportunity.

Many studies find healing powers of being in the natural world: An experience in nature soothes, heals, restores, and connects us to the world.

Experts advocate that everyone spend at least two hours per week outdoors.

Children especially need to spend daily time outdoors in social free play for all sorts of reasons, including better eyesight and sleep, vitamin D for health, and better social skills. (For ideas of how to get kids outside regularly, see here.)

My students are required to spend time outside building their nature connection with a “sit spot” that they return to time after time, practicing sensory expansion, or wandering walks acknowledging the life-forms they meet. In warm weather, lying back on the grass can be restorative.

If going outside is impossible (e.g., for ill adults), an ongoing study indicates that exposure to green light, which is what is typically experienced outside, decreases pain. First found with animals, an ongoing study is examining the therapeutic effects of green light, specifically its prevention of migraine headaches.

The attractiveness of greens at this time of year—at Christmas or in wintertime—has a long history in northern climes, where the temperature dips too low for extensive outdoor exposure. We bring in greens from outside and enjoy them by the fire, or, today, with strings of lights. Perhaps these are ways to calm ourselves down and get re-centered, to enter the world with a positive mindset, compassion, and openness.