Imagine taking a bath in the forest. Smelling the fecund soil and the fresh, pine-scented air, feeling the slight breeze against your skin, hearing the birds chirping and the wind rustling through the trees, the damp soft ground beneath your feet. Your heart rate and brain waves are decreasing, your body begins to produce less cortisol, you feel less stressed, and are harnessing your body’s healing potential.
We often give great effort and thought toward what we put in our bodies that can help prevent a myriad of diseases. We constantly hear about the benefits of being more physically active and reducing our level of stress. One more body of literature that you can add to your well-being knowledge base is the benefits of communing with nature. Throughout the past 25 years, research has amassed supporting the powerful healing potential of natural environments (Frumkin, 2001, Mayer, Frantz, Bruehlman-Senecal, & Dolliver, 2009, Tennesesen & Cimprich, 1995). This literature demonstrates that contact with plants and natural landscapes positively impacts human physical and psychological health.
Many people feel good being outdoors, that is the obvious part, but there is actual research to back up the WHY and HOW you feel good after that hike! Being physically active outdoors provides physiological and emotional benefits, such as:
- improved mood
- decreased anxiety
- reduced blood pressure
(Hartig, Evans, Jamner, Davis, & Gärling, 2003; van den Berg, Hartig, & Staats, 2007).
Gardening, for example, has been found to reduce symptoms of depression (Baum & Poslunsky, 2001, Sandel, 2004).
One particularly unique body of research is on shinrin-yoku, which translates to forest bathing. This is a term first coined by the Japanese Department of Fisheries and Agriculture. Shinrin-yoku is defined as taking in the atmosphere and experience of the forest. Close your eyes and imagine yourself taking a bath in all of the good energy and fresh air of the forest. Your brain waves and heart rate have likely already slowed upon conjuring up this image.
There is a reason when you are sitting in the dentist’s chair that you are looking at pictures of the natural world, or why when you are getting an MRI you can have headphones with soothing nature sounds piped in. In hospital and medical settings, patients with a window looking onto trees, or who view pictures of nature:
- recover faster
- need less pain medication
- report more positive emotions
- have better rapport with the medical staff
(Diette, Lechtzin, Hapnoik, Devrotes, & Rubin, 2003; Malenbaum, Keefe, Williams, Ulrich, & Somers, 2008).
Many people say that being out in the natural world is one of the times when individuals feel most at peace and restored. You do not have to go to Yosemite to commune with nature! Below are some suggested activities you can do to incorporate elements of nature/aspects of the natural world into your every day life, so you can feel some of the restoration you get from being out in the backcountry, far from other humans.
- Eating lunch in a park
- Taking a walk along the beach
- Placing photos of nature in the home and at work
- Downloading apps of natural sounds on mobile devices
- Changing background photos and screensavers to natural environments
- Using guided imagery and mindfulness meditation in anxiety-provoking situations (e.g., medical situations, therapy sessions)
- Surrounding oneself with plants
- Incorporating metaphors of the natural world by likening experiences, particularly traumas (e.g. cancer), to a season, a force of nature, or a sentient being
- Connecting with a force, season, or sentient being that parallels your current state of mind, or your current feelings (e.g. connecting with a budding or barren tree, getting drenched in a rainstorm, yelling into the wind)
Contact with nature has the potential to provide valuable, wide-ranging benefits to humans. Consider how nature immersion and natural images, sounds, and symbols can be used to help you foster a greater sense of well-being.
- Baum, A., & Poslunsky, D. M. (2001). Traumatic stress as a target for intervention with cancer patients. In Baum, A. & Andersen, B. L. (Eds.) Psychosocial interventions for cancer, pp. 143-173. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.
- Diette, G. B., Lechtzin, N., Haponik, E., Devrotes, A., & Rubin, H. R. (2003). Distraction therapy with nature sights and sounds reduces pain during flexible bronchoscopy: A complementary approach to routine analgesia. Chest, 123(3), 941-948. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
- Frumkin, H. (2001). Beyond toxicity: Human health and the natural environment. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 20(3), 234-240. doi: 10.1016/S0749-397(00)00317-2
- Hartig, T., Evans, G. W., Jamner, L. D., Davis, D. S., & Gärling, T. (2003). Tracking restoration in natural and urban field settings. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23(2), 109-123. doi:10.1016/S0272-4944(02)00109-3
- Malenbaum, S., Keefe, F. J., Williams, A. C., Ulrich, R., & Somers, T. J. (2008). Pain in its environmental context: Implications for designing environments to enhance pain control. Pain, 134, 241-244. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
- Mayer, F., Frantz, C., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., & Dolliver, K. (2009). Why is nature beneficial?: The role of connectedness to nature. Environment and Behavior, 41(5), 607-643. doi:10.1177/0013916508319745
- Park, B. J., Tsunetsugu, Y, Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., Miyazaki, Y. (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest amostphere or forest bathing): Evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan.
- Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine, 15, 18-26. doi:10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9
- Sandel, M. H. (2004). Therapeutic Gardening in a Long-Term Detention Setting. Journal for Juvenile Justice Services, 19 (1 & 2), 123-130. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
- Tennessen, C. & Cimprich, B. (1995). Views to nature: Effects on attention. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 77-85. doi:10.1016/0272-4944(95)90016-0
- Tsunetsugu, Park, Ishii, Hirano, Kagawa, and Miyazaki (2007)
- Ulrich, R. S., Lundén, O., & Eltinge, J. L. (1993). “Effects of exposure to nature and abstract pictures on patients recovering from heart surgery.” Paper presented at the Thirty-Third Meeting of the Society for Psychophysiological Research, Rottach-Egern, Germany. Abstract in Psychophysiology, 30(1), 7.
- van den Berg, A. E., Hartig, T., & Staats, H. (2007). Preference for Nature in Urbanized Societies: Stress, Restoration, and the Pursuit of Sustainability. Journal of Social Issues, 63(1), 79-96. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.2007.00497.x