Getting outside to get well: Forest bathing and urban greenspaces

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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. 

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More on stress management that works here.

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Forest bathing

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.


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Urban solutions

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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Houseplants for Healing: Can My House Plants Really Make Me Happier?

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Recent events over the past year have caused dramatic increases in psychological distress. In addition to limiting social connection and recreational activities, social distancing and stay at home orders during the pandemic have changed people’s accessibility to outdoor environmental exposure. Exposure to nature, from access to an office window to physically being in greenspaces, has been shown to improve mood and memory among other cognitive functions, like attention and concentration, and reduce stress levels among numerous other health benefits.

More on stress management that works here.

Ecopsychology “explores humans’ psychological interdependence with the rest of nature and the implications for identity, health, and well-being”. Application of ecopsychology in daily wellness (ecotherapy) does not necessarily have to extend to nature or wilderness retreats or outdoor recreation, but some researchers argue for houseplants as an alternative approach to ecotherapy.

Houseplant shops across the country have seen dramatic increases in plant sales over the last year, thought to be largely in part due to plants becoming an outlet for self-care during pandemic times. Indeed, the houseplant trend is not new to quarantine life, but the connection between nature and self-care has become glaringly important during a uniquely difficult era. 

So, can your plants really make you happier?

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The science behind it

The scientific literature on ecopsychology is relatively scarce when it specifically comes to house plants and psychological wellness (e.g. feeling more content). Nonetheless, in addition to demonstrated psychological benefit of contact with nature, scientific findings suggest mechanisms through (1) stress reduction and (2) stimulating compassion.

One rationale behind why plants might give us a mental health boost is that exposure to greenery appears to reduce physiological and subjective reactions to stress. Stress is highly related to mental health, and as a contributor to stress reduction, ecotherapy may indirectly contribute to better psychological wellbeing.

On the other hand, caring for something may also boost positive moods. Some research suggests a link between plant care, improved relationships, and increased levels of compassion. Caring for nature appears to be a predictor of caring for other people and fostering compassion, which is highly related to psychological well-being. Further, active interactions with indoor plants (e.g. tending to, transplanting) may have even greater psychological benefits than more passive interactions (e.g. looking at).

Some research suggests that women-identifying individuals are more likely to psychologically benefit from houseplants and that flowering plants have been observed to elicit greater benefit than nonflowering plants. Still, the effects appear to benefit across the board and the push for indoor greenery on college campuses may benefit extending to college students and professionals alike who are homebound during the pandemic.

Want to bring a little more nature into your home or office but don’t know where to start? Here are the 10 easiest houseplants to take care of.

Don’t have access to houseplants? Not a problem. Access to nature outdoors also shows consistent benefit to mental wellness (and it’s usually free!).

Read more on getting outside to get well.

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