How Nature Nurtures Your Mind and Body
Now more than ever, it is important that we take advantage of all of nature’s healing effects on the mind and body. Not only does being outdoors encourage us to exercise more, but the simple act of being present in nature also has numerous psychological and physiological benefits.
If you have ever taken a walk on campus, you may have noticed a difference in how you felt after being immersed among the trees, listening to the birds chirping, and breathing in the fresh air. Nature has a powerful ability to fill us with a deep sense of calm, happiness, and rejuvenation.
Humans have had a profound connection with nature since prehistoric times. Today, however, we frequently spend most of our days indoors in artificially-lit rooms while staring at screens. Since the pandemic emerged, many of us have spent much more time online and inside our homes. Now more than ever, it is important that we take advantage of all of nature’s healing effects on the mind and body. Not only does being outdoors encourage us to exercise more, but the simple act of being present in nature also has numerous psychological and physiological benefits.
Even spending short amounts of time in nature can improve your health and overall wellbeing. If you are thinking that you do not have time to go out for a long walk, even just five minutes of being outdoors has been shown to improve your mood. Research shows that being exposed to natural environments and visiting green spaces reduces the body’s stress hormone, cortisol. Not only is this beneficial for the mind, but it is also good for the body—lower cortisol levels mean reduced blood pressure and a lower heart rate, which helps protect against heart disease and other ailments.
Additionally, nature enhances focus, and children with ADHD show an increase in attention span after they spend time outdoors. Exposure to natural green spaces can improve complex working memory and result in a decrease in anxiety and rumination. Nature can also improve immune function, which is especially critical in our time of COVID-19. Trees release antifungal and antimicrobial compounds called phytoncides into the air, which have been shown to increase the activity of the body’s immune cells.
Not only is going outdoors associated with various health benefits but also bringing nature indoors can also improve mood and aid in recovery. Studies show that plants in hospital rooms are associated with reduced pain and anxiety, and faster recovery times. Nature-based interventions are often low-cost, relatively accessible, and do not come with any negative side effects.
Humans have recognized these healing effects of nature for centuries. Today, we are beginning to understand more about nature’s therapeutic benefits as researchers explore this interesting field of study. These therapeutic benefits of nature have been most extensively studied in Japan. In 1982, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries termed the practice of immersing oneself in the forest atmosphere as shinrin-yoku, which roughly translates to “forest bathing.” Shinrin-yoku is a type of nature therapy that involves using one’s senses to connect with the natural environment and be present with nature. At Haverford, Dr. Fairman’s lab has begun to research the benefits of shinrin-yoku and how phytoncides impact the body. To experience the effects that this research is exploring, all you have to do is step outside and experience for yourself how your mind and body feel after enjoying some time outdoors.
The next time you take a walk through the Arboretum, why not try to engage in a shinrin-yoku practice? Engage your senses and be in the present. Begin by focusing your attention on the shapes of leaves, the squirrels scurrying along the path, the insects flying beside you, and other things that you see. Then, listen to the rustle of the leaves, the faint sounds of (socially-distanced) people, and the shuffling of the gravel under your feet. Feel the rough ridges of the tree bark, the soft grass, the warm sun, and the breeze as it glides across your skin. Breathe in the fresh aroma of pines in the Ryan Pinetum and feel the crisp, autumn air as it flows through your lungs. Take a moment to immerse yourself in the natural world and forget about your worries. Although seemingly simple, training yourself to be mindful takes practice, but it is well worth the effort. By making your walk a mindful experience, you can enjoy even more of the feelings of comfort and clarity that nature invokes.