By Nikki Nau
Go home to nature and let nature heal you.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
Nature Has Healing Power
Many of us intuitively know the healing power of nature. We seek the quiet, peaceful experiences of hiking in the woods, paddling on a calm lake, or listening to the waves of the ocean. Some of us live a fast-paced existence where the sound of traffic and machinery becomes background noise. The experience of urban sensory overload becomes normal, and we forget about the healing aspects of the natural world. Some of us have lived our entire lives in an urban environment, and the experience of nature’s calm and healing is unknown to us.
The natural world is a place for healing our entire human organism – mind, body, and spirit. Nature provides a hiatus for reducing stress, improving cognitive function, and experiencing our connection with each other and the natural cycles of our planet.
As Richard Louv explains in his book, The Nature Principle:
“Health isn’t just the absence of illness or pain, it’s also physical, emotional, mental, intellectual, and spiritual fitness – in short, it’s about the joy of being alive.” (1)
Science Explains Healing Effects of Nature
Researchers and scientists have been noting the positive effects of nature on sick people for decades.
In the early 1900’s, Florence Nightingale’s famous Notes on Nursing: What It Is, and What It Is Not textbook explains:
“It is the unqualified result of all my experience with the sick, that second only to their need of fresh air is their need of light. It is a curious thing to observe how almost all patients lie with their faces turned to the light, exactly as plants always make their way towards the light.”
Nightingale observed people’s draw to natural sunlight during recovery from illness.
Scientists have also revealed faster recovery times for patients who have exposure to nature during their hospital stays. Psychologist and architect, Roger Ulrich wanted to test his hypothesis that nature views could reduce patient stress and lead to better clinical outcomes. He examined the records of gallbladder-surgery patients over six years. Some of the patients recovered in rooms with a view of trees, while others recovered in rooms with a view of a brick wall. Those with a view of nature requested less pain medication, spent fewer days in the hospital, and had better attitudes than patients looking at a brick wall. (2)
True healing addresses more than physical symptoms, it also takes into account emotional and psychological pain. Studies reveal the psychological effect of exposure to green space in urban environments. Scientists Frances Kuo and William Sullivan studied the effects of green space adjacent to living areas. Chicago Illinois residents, who live in similar socioeconomic circumstances, were significantly impacted by different outdoor courtyards and views from their apartments.
People who had access to courtyards with grass and trees experienced 56 percent fewer violent crimes than their neighbors with concrete courtyards. Kuo suggests it was not only the experience of the green space but also the community building that occurred in that space. Residents with green courtyards reported their neighbors were more willing to help and support each other. (3)
Nature Healing Therapy
Although scientists continue to study the effects of nature on the different aspects of human experience, there are many nature healing therapies currently working for people all over the world. Here are two examples from Norway and Japan.
Green Care – Norway
In Norway, Green Care farms offer services to schools as well as health and social care organizations. Green care is the term used in Norway “for welfare services that use farms as arenas for education, child and youth services, occupational training, health and care services. “
In 2012, there were 1,100 farms in Norway that offered services for mental health problems, addiction, truancy, dementia, occupational training, and integration. Both the Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development have prepared the strategy for Green Care on a national level, and there is a multitude of other Norwegian organizations that support and participate in the growing movement. (4)
People who participate in Green Care Farm therapies report:
- Improved moods after spending time on the farms
- Learning subtle social cues from animals and ways to translate that to human relationships
- Increased self-esteem and self-confidence
Therapists and other Green Care Farm participants share the social science benefits of interacting with animals on farms:
- Participants feel a sense of belonging and learn empathy from interactions with the animals and other participants.
- Participants experience achievement and a sense of purpose by taking on responsibilities to care for the animals.
- Overall, participants feel better after spending time on the farm.
Green Care is expanding to other European countries such as the United Kingdom. For more information:
Forest Medicine – Japan
Yoshifumi Miyazaki, director of the Center for the Environment Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University, conducted a study revealing people’s cortisol level (a stress hormone) lowered 13.4% when they gazed at forest scenery for just 20 minutes. Another study showed an increase in natural killer (NK) cells after people were active in a green setting. As NK cells increase, the innate immune response follows.
These scientific studies, along with other research, have led to the accepted Japanese health care concept called “forest medicine.” Forest medicine, also known as “forest bathing,” is drawing hundreds of thousands of people to Forest Therapy trails each year for long walks and increased health benefits.
Author Florence Williams reveals the science behind some of these health benefits in her book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.
The health benefits Japanese researchers have found, include:
- Improved concentration and cognitive skills
- Reduced stress
- Improved immune function
The forest bathing movement is moving across the globe as people see the benefits of spending time in nature. Nature and Forest Therapy training and education are spreading throughout North America.
For more information, check out: http://www.natureandforesttherapy.org/ and
Experience the Healing Effects of Nature
We can all benefit from spending more time in nature. I feel more focused, more grounded, and more at peace if I take even a short walk under the trees or near water. Here are some simple steps you can take to create a personal nature therapy.
- Go outside. Take a walk every week or better yet, every day (even if it is short). Walk under trees or near water, and in a quiet place.
- Spend a minimum of 5 hours per month in natural settings. Going to a wilderness setting is ideal; however, an urban, woodland area or park has nearly the same effect.
- Plan vacations where you can spend time in a natural area.
- Overall, the more time you spend in the natural world, the better you feel!
We Are Part of the Natural World
Scientists will continue to conduct studies that pinpoint the different elements of nature and how they benefit the cognitive, physical and emotional health of humans. However, it is important to remember, we are whole human organisms – mind, body, and spirit. We are a part of the natural world – not separate from it.
As Florence Williams points out in The Nature Fix:
“I find the intellectual compulsion to break apart the pieces of nature and examine them one by one both interesting and troubling. I understand it’s the way science typically works: to understand a system, you have to understand the parts, find the mechanism, put your flag on a piece of new ground. The poets would find this nonsense. It’s not just the smell of the cypress, or the sound of the birds, or the color of green that unlocks the pathway to health in our brains. We’re full sensory beings, or at least we were once built to be. Isn’t it possible that it’s only when you open all the doors – literally and figuratively – that the real magic happens?”
Nature – Where We Belong
Go outside and be a part of the natural world that is our home. This is where human beings are meant to be and where we find our sense of purpose and belonging. Although it is easy to forget in our fast-paced, technological world, the truth of our deep connection to nature never goes away – even if it is temporarily forgotten. Be with nature and experience the healing power yourself.
Everything that is in the heavens, on earth, and under the earth is penetrated with connectedness, penetrated with relatedness.
–Hildegard of Bingen
(3) (The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, by Florence Williams p. 110) http://www.florencewilliams.com/the-nature-fix/