Why Nature Makes Us Feel Better
When J. Phoenix Smith lost her job, she became aimless. Her aimlessness, turned into stress, which turned into depression. Like many people who are dealing with difficult times and emotional trauma the options were few: prescription medicine and therapy. But Phoenix chose a different path, specifically around the Northern California hills and through a garden in East Oakland.
“I remember walking into the garden and I immediately felt better,” she said. “I just saw wealth and abundance. There was food growing, and flowers. It really helped to shift my thinking.”
Now Smith runs EcoSoul in Berkeley, Calif., where she serves as “a nature mentor and liberation ecotherapist” to people facing grief, loss, spiritual issues, and life purpose clarification. Phoenix’s work is part of the growing practice of ecotherapy — a practice that has some, including the author of a recent article in The Atlantic, looking past their initial skepticism and asking: why does connecting to nature make us healthier?
The author, James Hamblin, is a former radiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center. He left the medical profession and joined The Atlantic as editor of its health channel in 2012. Now, Hamblin inhabits a world between traditional medical doctor and iconic media doctor — a trained scholar with mass appeal. His traditional background made him a bit skeptical of ecotherapy, especially when it is used to treat serious conditions instead of evidence-based therapies. But he was open to the possibilities it offers.
His articles notes several scientific studies, including a 2015 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that reported walking in a park can reduce blood flow to a part of the brain typically associated with brooding. In another study, researchers found patients recovering from gallbladder surgery healed faster and with fewer complications when their room looked out on trees rather than a wall. There’s also evidence that children with ADHD who regularly play in parks have milder symptoms than those who spend more time indoors, and camping programs have decreased relapse rates in substance addicts. (If you want to read more about nature’s many positive health impacts, check out this great article on Vibrant Wellness Journal.)
While Hamblin acknowledged this evidence has more to do with mood and behavior than basic biology, he admitted, “mood and behavior are intimately tied to physical well-being. Social connection, for instance, is one of the most important factors in human health. And communal green spaces foster that.”
It’s not completely surprising that nature has a positive impact on our health. But why? Although Hamblin’s article doesn’t answer the question directly, he implies that by connecting to nature, we come to care about nature, and that offers us a direction we may lack at difficult times in our life. In other words, nature helps us connect to a world outside of ourselves, perhaps to something greater — a very spiritual theory.
This same idea was recently espoused by the great spiritual leader, Pope Francis, in his environmental encyclical. Writing about the negative effects our growing urbanized and technology-driven world is having on humanity and the environment, the pope wrote, “We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.” He urges us to see a connection to nature as an essential part of the human spirit.
It’s interesting to realize what sometimes helps us also reminds us how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. As social creatures we are meant to have contact with each other and the world around us; no one was meant for isolation. When sad events happen unexpectedly — like Smith’s job loss — it can leave us feeling very alone and confused. Remembering that we are still apart of a living, breathing world is a blessing.
Perhaps that’s why people pray to God, Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammad when they’re depressed or lost; not necessarily for help, but for direction. We don’t need to pray to nature to get the same benefits; all we need to do is care.
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