Nature as therapy

 by Mary Reitano

Study Nature, love Nature, stay close to Nature. It will never fail you.” 

(Frank Lloyd Wright)

This summer, consider enjoying the therapeutic benefits of nature. Western North Carolina provides abundant opportunities to interact with nature. Whether a scenic view of the mountains while playing golf, a stunning sunset on a boat ride, or a forest hike, our souls thrive when close to nature. American journalist Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature-deficit-disorder,” lamenting the harm done to children who do not spend unstructured time outdoors in nature.

Being out in nature helps us to enjoy each moment. Our senses are focused on a soft breeze, a bird’s song, or a flower’s fragrance. Mindfulness helps to center and relax us. “Over one hundred research studies show that stress reduction is a key perceived benefit of wilderness recreation.” According to John Davis, Ph.D. And social worker Dan Mager wrote that the Japanese have a word “for the generally calming and health-enhancing benefits of nature: Shinrin-yoku which translates to “forest bathing… or making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest. Research found “that time spent in forest environments promotes lower concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure.”

Vitamin D, obtained from sunshine and diet, has been tied to improved mood and decreased depression. According to Davis, “research shows exercise is a factor in reducing depression….”  But, “outdoor exercise has a more beneficial effect than indoor exercise.” Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury, writer for Positive Psychology Program, noted “nature walks benefit people suffering from depression (Shern, et al., 2014). Studies had shown that people suffering from mild to major depressive disorders showed significant mood upliftments when exposed to nature.”  And, when you conquer a wilderness challenge like a strenuous hike or a whitewater rafting adventure, the experience of pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone builds confidence and self-esteem. There are several formal programs like Outward Bound, which use these wilderness experiences for increasing confidence and emotional health. 

Positive psychology endorses savoring, or consciously attending to and enjoying positive experiences and emotions. Spending time in nature provides opportunities for deep moments of joy, gratitude, peace, and appreciation of beauty. Chowdhury wrote that scientists Lumber, Richardson, and Sheffield… hypothesized “that being close to nature evokes positive emotions.” Their research confirmed “outdoor activities such as hiking, gardening, or birdwatching, enhance the nature-human connection and acts as a catalyst to happiness.”

Isn’t it awe-inspiring to look at the endless ocean or at a night sky full of stars? Something about nature stimulates the spirit. According to Davis, “peak experiences (Maslow) are defined as experiences of optimal mental health, comparable to intense spiritual experiences…. Maslow also talked about plateau experiences characterized more by a sense of tranquility and serenity, lower intensity, and often, longer duration….”

The rhythms, cycles, and seasons observed in nature can give a healthy perspective on problems. The persistence of a gnarly tree, bent by the high winds and rocky landscape where it grows, inspires me to greater determination in coping with personal challenges. And, in spite of life’s uncertainties, I am comforted by the rhythm of ocean waves, daily sunsets, and changing seasons—the predictability of nature.

“All the trees are losing their leaves, and not one of them is worried” (Donald Miller, Author)