Exposure to nature is highly related to overall physical and mental health, whether it comes in larger, outdoor doses or through a collection of houseplants.
The known benefits of human connection to nature, however, is not a new discovery. Despite the relative newness of ecopsychology as a scientific field of study, these concepts reflect centuries of humans relating to the earth. Connectedness to the natural world is consistent with indigenous ways of knowing and healing that has only recently been looked at with a scientific eye. In fact, one theorized explanation for the stress relieving mechanisms of exposure to the natural environment is that we’re reviving a lost connection between ourselves and the natural world that was once an important relationship.
A natural de-stressor
When we experience ‘stress’, what we are experiencing happens at a physiological level. To confront the stressor, our bodies naturally respond with several physical changes, such as increased heart rate, muscle tension, and changes in breathing. This response (also called the ‘fight-flight-freeze response’) is helpful in the short-term, but can have detrimental effects on health and wellness if chronically activated, meaning activated for long periods of time and/or frequently.
As a form of stress relief, the restorative effects of interaction with nature tap into another bodily response, the ‘rest and digest response’, which causes the body to relax and revive.
More on stress management that works here.
Shinrin-Yoku, popularly known as ‘Forest Bathing’, is a Japanese practice (introduced by the Forest Agency of Japanese government in the 1980’s) that includes sensory mindfulness. The utilization of all five senses taps into the rest and digest response, and when paired with mindful awareness, leads to a de-stressed, relaxed state. Although Forest Bathing might sound poetically intimidating to try, it’s actually considered to be one of the most convenient ways to up your interaction with nature and easily taps into sight, sound, and smell sensations.
Try it: Head outside and pay attention to your senses. Being mindfully aware is hard, there are lots of things that distract us. Give yourself some time to build a practice.
For how long? According to a 2019 study, spending at least 2 hours a week in nature is the best dose for health benefits.
The beneficial effects of nature on human health seems like a simple method of health promotion and disease prevention; however, natural spaces are not equitably accessible. Those in lower socioeconomic areas are less likely to have access to parks and other forms of natural spaces.
One solution? City infrastructure that includes urban green spaces, with intention to inclusivity as to not promote gentrification. More accessible nature in cities is related to improved mental health and increased longevity; outcomes are dependent on how people interact with greenspaces when available, though. Further research is needed to clarify the relationship between urban natural spaces and wellness.
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