Enjoy natural therapy in this stressful time

In her weekly gardening column in The Echo, Olive Ryan talks about the importance of eco-therapy
Enjoy natural therapy in this stressful time
Nature takes our breath away at this time of year, with its beautiful sunrises.

A GROWING body of research points to the beneficial effects that exposure to the natural world has on health, reducing stress and promoting healing.

Policymakers, employers, and healthcard providers are increasingly considering the human need for nature in how they plan and operate.

An astounding 95% of participants in a study from The Mind Organization noted a mood improvement after time spent outdoors. Previously feeling depressed, stressed out and anxious, these participants reported that they felt more relaxed and tranquil.

This can be even more rewarding, as we unplug from our electronic devices for a while and learn to “stop and smell the roses” again.

We then become able to reconnect with our hearts, as well as the world around us, on a deep level.

Eco-therapy, also known as nature therapy or green therapy, is the applied practice of eco-psychology, which was developed by Theodore Boszac and is based on the idea that people are connected to, and impacted by, their natural environment.

 Prunus ‘Shirotae’ provides fabolous blooms as cherry blossom season begins
Prunus ‘Shirotae’ provides fabolous blooms as cherry blossom season begins

Eco-therapy, in many cases, stems from the belief that people are part of the web of life and that we are not isolated or separate from our environment.

Studies show that the effects of nature may go deeper than providing a sense of wellbeing, helping to reduce crime and aggression. The University of Kansas found a 50% increase in creativity after people spent a few days in nature.

On top of this, research links time in nature with stress levels, depression, healing time, and the need for medication. These studies have shown that time in nature, as long as people feel safe, is an antidote for stress. It can lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduce nervous system arousal, enhance immune system function, increase self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and improve mood.

Attention Deficit Disorder and aggression lessen in natural environments, which also helps speed the rate of healing. Psychiatric unit researchers found that being in nature reduced feelings of isolation, promoted calm, and lifted mood among patients.

The benefits of nature therapy are incredible. Although subtle at first, the advantages become more and more evident through regular walks and hikes.

Some of the many ways it can help in our daily lives is by decreasing stress levels, improving overall wellbeing, and helping to develop a greater sense of awareness and spaciousness. Retreats such as these are a balm for the soul.

However, we live in an age in which it is easy to feel disconnected. For most of human history people used to live in a community, they hunted, foraged, or grew most of their own food. Many had a sense of interdependence, community, and belonging. Today, it takes effort to feel connected and many people seek therapy as part of that effort.

People have a deep need for connection — to each other and to the natural cycles and systems that create and support our bodies. If we do not feel connected, we suffer.

Isolation can kill. It destroys our physical and mental health. We can be isolated even while surrounded by others, known as emotional isolation. It is the quality of relationships rather than the quantity that sustains us.

Spring flowering bulbs like anemone blanda can give hope for the year ahead
Spring flowering bulbs like anemone blanda can give hope for the year ahead

We can also be isolated from the natural cycles of the environment that have sustained us for hundreds of thousands of years. It is not natural to go for long periods of time without seeing nature in its many forms: groves of trees stretching across hillsides; the jagged shapes of mountains rising up to the clouds; ripples of lake water sparkling like jewels in the sun; or the wide-open stretches of meadows streaked with wildflowers.

Eco-therapists call this lack of connection with the natural world ‘nature deficit disorder’.

While direct contact with nature has many benefits, individuals need not spend time in a green environment to experience the positive effects of nature. Several studies have found a mere glimpse of nature from a window or even photographs of nature can improve people’s overall mood, mental health, and life satisfaction.

For example, a study by Roger Ulrich, a prominent researcher in this field, states that heart surgery patients in intensive care units were able to reduce their anxiety and need for pain medication by viewing pictures depicting trees and water.

Another researcher, Rachel Kaplan, also found that office workers who had a view of nature from a window reported higher job and life satisfaction than those who did not have such a view.

Many other studies help to demonstrate the positive effects of nature on both physical and mental health. Studies have shown, for example, that children who live in buildings with a nearby green space may have a greater capacity for paying attention, delaying gratification, and inhibiting impulses than children who live in buildings surrounded by concrete.

Children who have been diagnosed with A.D.H.D. display fewer symptoms after spending time in a green environment than when they spend time indoors or in non-green outdoor environments.

The addition of flowers and plants to a workplace can positively affect creativity, productivity, and flexible problem solving, while the presence of animals may reduce aggression and agitation among children and those who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

We need to find small openings for nature every day, whether in the country or the city — at home, in the workplace, in schools and in neighbourhoods (when life returns to normal).

Plant native species in your garden and leave part of it wild, take off and go fishing or hiking, build a bird feeder or go bird watching, walk in the park (while social distancing), ride a bike, set up a community garden, have a picnic, or exercise outdoors mindful at this difficult time.

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” (John Muir)

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