Nature as medicine

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Anthropology / Medicine / Myths / Psychology

For years, people have flocked to cities for greater job prospects and convenience. Tara Bautista explores why something in our psyche still yearns to escape the urban jungle and is soothed by the great outdoors.

Forest bathing and other forms of contact with nature improves both mental and physical health. Photo by Luis Del Río Camacho on Unsplash

A few years ago, when I was struggling with some mental health issues, I realised that the cramped city apartment I was living in was not doing me any favours.

The walls were painted a calming pale green that was meant to bring to mind moss and leaves.  But the tiny Juliet balcony – the only view to the outside – opened up to the not-so-calming interior of a busy car dealership.

Fast forward to months later in my new apartment.

The tall ceilings and increased space are a welcome relief. From my couch, the view from the French doored-balcony is an almost unobstructed vista of the sky. I can easily spend an hour watching the crawl of clouds, bathed in silence.

I believe this change of scene is one factor that helped me in my healing.

In fact, my experience parallels a famous study: patients who underwent gallbladder surgery healed faster and had fewer complications when they had a room overlooking trees as opposed to a wall.

Cottoning on to the benefits of going au naturel

In 1984, renowned biologist EO Wilson coined the term ‘biophilia’ to describe the human urge to connect with nature and other forms of life.

Two years earlier, the Japanese government introduced a new form of therapy as part of their national health program. ‘Shinrin Yoku’ or forest bathing involves people slowly meandering through a forest and taking in the atmosphere – with clothes on, of course. They emerge from forest bathing feeling calmer and more mindful.

Similar nature-as-therapy programs have been introduced in other countries including Scotland, with good scientific reason. Forest bathing decreases anxiety and blood pressure by activating the part of the nervous system that puts your body in ‘rest and digest’ mode.

Even going for a run or walk outside in nature is associated with feeling more revitalised and energetic than if you’d done the same thing on a treadmill.

Reconnection with nature also has tangible effects on physical health according to a 2018 study that looked at combined data from 290 million participants.

The mega study found that living in greener urban areas is associated with a reduction of stress hormones as well as risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma hospitalisation and early death. Spending time in greener urban areas also lowers the risk of giving birth to premature babies and rates of shortsightedness in children.

More than just something in the air

A study of 20,000 English people found that you need exposure to nature for at least two hours a week – not necessarily in one block of time – to experience improvements in health and wellbeing.

But there isn’t one simple explanation for nature’s healing power.

One theory is that being in nature exposes us to different air. People living in cities are exposed to a lower variety of germs than people who spend time in natural environments. Being in nature exposes us to a more diverse microbiome that may prime our immune systems to heal ourselves faster, for example by producing more immune cells to stave off infections.

But what about the mental side of things?

The Attention Restoration Theory suggests that we have limited ability to focus attention before we feel mentally fatigued. Taking a short break in natural environments away from our busy urban lives helps restore this ability.

Another hypothesis is that we have evolved to feel less stressed in non-threatening, natural environments since they provided our ancestors optimal conditions for things key to survival, including food.

Lastly, the visual stimulation and silence of an outdoor setting may help distract ourselves from our worries since it decreases activity in the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that can get fixated on negative thoughts.

But I live smack bang in the middle of the urban jungle!

What if it’s just not feasible to get away from the bright city lights?

The good news is that you don’t you don’t even need to venture into far-flung wilderness to feel the benefits. Access to urban green spaces within a few kilometres of your home or exposure by virtual reality might be enough.

As for me, I’ll be on my couch, curled up with a hot choccy and contemplating Eastern philosophy as the clouds roll by.

“Nature does not hurry yet everything is accomplished.”Lao Tzu.

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2 Comments

  1. PS. Listened to your podcast too – Your bird song story sparked a memory. I had a recent stint of driving to work and deliberately parked a wee bit further form the office, so I could have a 20 minute stroll to work (why I chose to do this in the middle of Melbourne winter??). Anyway, the benefits – just having the pleasure of observing the surroundings and noticing a full flock of corellas chitter chattering on the overhead power lines along Princess bridge – made me smile at the time.
    PS. That’s a beautiful photo you found – feeling relaxed already.

    • Such a wonderful way to start the day Marti! I make walking places a priority whenever possible because I always end up feeling so much better afterwards. And corellas are always so good for a giggle too. I agree the photo is gorgeous – Tara found it 😀

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