Nature, Spirituality and Healing: How Nature Benefits Your Wellbeing
by Jean Larson, PhD, CTRS, HTR
Hospital patients recover faster when they can view nature. Working with plants can improve concentration, encourage relaxation, and improve self-esteem. Digging in rich, black soil just feels good. But why?
There is a depth of mystery in the natural world. The emerging field called Nature-Based Therapeutics – which includes, but isn’t limited to – therapeutic horticulture, horticultural therapy, restorative environments, therapeutic landscapes, and healing gardens – invites us into nature’s mystery.
This distinctive connection between humans and other living systems — called “biophilia” by Edward O. Wilson — offers a glimpse of something extraordinary, a journey into the realm of the sacred.
I often hear from clients, students, staff, and others about the experience of something deeply spiritual when immersed in nature and all of its beauty. Some experience an awareness of how limited our grasp of nature is when taken in all its vast complexity. These moments are at the heart of the Nature-Based Therapeutic experience – what I’ve come to know over the years as the inexplicable transformational power of spirituality and healing when partnering with nature.
As a therapist, one of my primary goals is to bring people into the significant or sacred on a daily basis. It is astonishing to witness the healing power of nature. Experiences in nature help people embrace
their journey of self-discovery. Nature can open the door to our innate intelligence, awaken the sacred within, and help us to see that everything is connected with a shared purpose, rhythm, and balance.
How else can nature affect wellbeing?
Reduced stress — enhanced immune function
While physiologic indicators of stress can decrease after exposure to nature, indicators of immune response can increase, according to research reported in 2011 (International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology). Subjects who visited a forested area were found to have enhanced activity of their natural killer (NK) cells. These cells provide a rapid response to cells infected with a virus and also attack tumor cells. In addition, the same individuals had higher levels of anticancer proteins within their NK cells.
Research has shown that cognitive benefits gained by working with plants include improvements in concentration, ability to remember, and ability to pay attention. Additionally, research reported in the Journal of Advanced Nursing (2010) suggests that working with plants may also ameliorate clinical depression. After participating in a 12-week program of therapeutic horticulture, 50 percent of depressed patients studied showed a clinically relevant decline in their scores on a depression-measuring test. This reduction in depression continued to be in effect when measured three months after the program ended. Multiple studies have found that cognitive malfunctioning in children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) improves upon exposure to nature, reported Biopsychosocial Medicine in 2012. One study found that performance on concentration-requiring tasks was higher after the children tested had spent time in a natural, wooded area, compared to a built, urban area.
Another study suggested that children with ADHD showed milder symptoms when engaged in activities in an outdoor environment than when engaged in the same activities in an indoor, windowless play area.
Not only can interacting with the natural environment reduce stress and improve both immune and cognitive functioning, it may also help counter health inequalities associated with lower socioeconomic status (Biopsychosocial Medicine 2012). That was the conclusion of researchers who found that people who had low income but high levels of residential green space had mortality rates comparable to people of higher socioeconomic status. In contrast, people who had low income but little residential green space had higher mortality rates than their wealthier counterparts.
The idea that exposure to nature can heal has given rise to such adjunctive therapies as therapeutic horticulture and therapeutic landscape design. Therapeutic landscape design has been shown to produce
measurable, positive health effects. Therapeutic horticulture uses plants and plant-related activities to promote health and wellbeing. Gardening provides an opportunity to create and control the environment. This sense of control creates a sense of empowerment and self-esteem, which aids healing. Gardening also affords a sense of purpose and achievement, which can support people dealing with depression or other mental health concerns.
The risk of developing a mental health disorder may actually increase as someone spends more time in front of a screen (Developmental Psychology 2008, Journal of Environmental Psychology 2009). Time
spent in nature, thus, can mediate against such health problems, both by getting someone away from sitting in front of a screen and by inducing calming, nature-related physiologic effects.
Increase Your Wellbeing Through Nature:
Take nature breaks. Look out into nature and allow your mind to relax. You likely will feel refreshed and be ready for the next task with a renewed sense of energy. If at all possible, get outdoors!
- If you cannot get outside, purchase the Center’s Wellscapes app for your smartphone and relax to healing images of nature. This can be a way for people with allergies to plants or soil access nature’s benefits.
- Bring nature into your office or home by hanging a nature picture, installing one as the wallpaper on your computer screen, or by bringing in a plant.
- Head outside the lights of the city and gaze into the night sky to feel connected to the rest of the universe.
- Use greenery to create a table arrangement to lift your spirits.
- Visit a local conservatory or head out to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
- Take a free assessment on our Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing site, and see how you can improve your relationship with nature.
Jean Larson, PhD, CTRS, HTR, manages the University of Minnesota’s Nature-Based Therapeutics Program, a shared initiative with the Center for Spirituality & Healing and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum established to further the understanding of how nature heals.