It would be hard to find a person who didn’t enjoy being outside or who had never been awestruck at some aspect of the natural world. Perhaps it is watching the total eclipse of the sun and being amazed as the moon inexorably moves across the face of the sun, blotting out the light, causing the temperature to drop and the animals to settle in for the night, and then to reverse itself and become day again. Or maybe you’ve been moved emotionally as you walk through the majestic old-growth redwood trees on California’s northern coastline. Or perhaps it’s smaller. Perhaps you are a person who can look at a flower and really see the textures of the petals, the subtle or not so subtle shadings of color. Or perhaps you love the sound of the rain on the roof. Whatever it is, most of us have been awed by nature at some point. But did you know that nature is also good for your health?
Health Benefits of Nature
The health benefits of nature are numerous and range from decreasing blood pressure to improving mood to relieving depression. A study conducted at the University of Queensland in Australia found that spending 30 minutes in nature could reduce blood pressure by as much as nine percent and reduce depression by seven percent. The study also found that exposure to sunlight helps to regulate sleep. Another study found that being outside for 120 minutes per week causes positive changes in mood for people. In all, spending time in nature can elevate mood, lessen heart disease, improve asthma, lower anxiety, prevent migraines, improve the ability to focus, improve memory, boost creativity, relieve depression, and help with seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
How Nature Can Impact Your Brain
A recent study found that being in the sun increases serotonin levels in the brain. The increased serotonin helps with elevating mood and can be a deterrent against depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In another study, one group of people walked in the forest while the other group walked into the city. The group that walked in the forest had a 16% drop in cortisol levels (a stress hormone,) a two percent drop in blood pressure, and a four percent drop in their heart rates. Researchers in Korea used functional MRIs to watch brain activity in people viewing different images. When people looked at urban images, the MRI showed increased blood flow in the amygdala, the part of the brain concerned with fear and anxiety. When the subjects looked at nature scenes, areas associated with empathy and altruism were more active. A study at Stanford showed that people who walked in nature for 90 minutes “showed decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain linked to depressive rumination.” That is to say, people who spent more time in nature were less apt to beat themselves up. And finally, a study conducted at the University of Michigan found that people who took a 50-minute walk in the arboretum had improved executive functioning skills.
Spending Time in Nature Is an Important Part of Addiction Recovery
In Psychology Today, therapist Sarah Benton discusses the emphasis that current society places on technology and electronics. “The key to recovery…is ‘balance,’ ” she writes, “and therefore it is important for our mind, body, and spirit to counteract our high-tech lives with nature.” Spending time in nature through hiking, camping, backpacking, and the like can give people a sense of self-confidence and belief in their own abilities. Spending time outdoors and connecting with nature could be viewed as a way of practicing the 11th Step in the 12-Step tradition (“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out”). Most people feel a sense of awe when in nature that they don’t feel in an urban setting. A part of recovery is reawakening the senses and becoming mindful of one’s surroundings, and spending time in the natural world is an excellent way to do this.
Ways to Make Nature a Part of Your Life
Spending time in nature is good for everyone, especially people recovering from addiction or living with mental health issues. An easy way to do this is to take your exercise routine outside. If you live anywhere near water, a walk on the beach or along a stream is good for the body and soul. You can find hikes in your area. Join the Sierra Club or the Audubon Society. Check for “meet-ups” in your area that get you outdoors. If you have children, go outside with them. Take the dog for a walk. Go for a horseback ride. Become involved with wilderness preservation organizations. Go camping with your family and friends. Check out sports-related businesses. Many local bicycle and running stores have information on rides and runs, and your local REI will have information on numerous activities that you can join.
Find ways to make nature a bigger part of your home. Plant a garden or become part of a community garden. Keep cut flowers or potted plants in your home. Plant an herb garden in your kitchen. Even something as simple as displaying photos of your favorite natural locations or listening to nature sounds can work to reduce stress and aid in your recovery.