“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”-Albert Einstein
A recent study conducted by the University of Essex in the United Kingdom has confirmed what sages and shamans have known for centuries, nature has the power to heal mind and spirit. While people have intuitively known this, the scientific world refuses to believe anything without empirical studies and hard evidence. The UK study looked at the impact of walking outside in nature, as opposed to indoors at a mall or treadmill. They found that those who walked outside had a reduction in depressive symptoms of 71% as opposed to a 45% reduction in those who walked indoors. The study concluded that while walking is good in and of itself, walking outdoors in nature amplified the positive impact. Interesting footnote to the study was that 22% of those that walked indoors actually reported an increase in their depressive symptoms!
Being outdoors has long been associated with mindfulness, wellness, and health. Since the 1950s there has been a movement in psychiatry and counseling who find a medical answer to most mental health problems. There is a pill for just about any issue that a person has, as well as a series of letters that gives the problem a convenient label. One of the exciting developments in mental health over the last 15 years is the backlash against this trend. Researchers are looking for non-medical interventions and are finding high rates of success with common sense, old school practices. Nothing is simpler or more old school than being outside communing with nature. The movement to get people back into nature for their mental and emotional wellness has been commonly referred to as ecotherapy. Paul Palmer, chief executive of Mind, a British mental health organization states, “Our research indicates that people participating in ecotherapy receive health benefits, but also wider social benefits and cost savings that medication cannot deliver.”
A 2006 study done in the United States investigated the benefits of contact with nature and discovered that it can be a positive factor in prevention of mental health problems. This study suggested that involvement with, and in, nature can serve as both an early intervention as well as an after-the-fact treatment. The study advocated “active, social, and vigorous contact with nature,” as the treatment method. While this study did not criticize more conventional methods such as psychotherapy and medication, it did cite ecotherapy as an important part of a total treatment plan. Getting people out of the high-tech society that we live in back into a corner natural state was deemed as a vital part of treatment. Richard Louv, author of the book “The Nature Principle,” labeled the problem “nature deficit disorder.” Numerous studies indicate that Louv is on to something with his diagnosis.
Large group comparisons of urban versus rural populations show that people who live in “green” areas have lower rates of depression and anxiety due to a “stronger sense of community and belonging,” as well as a health advantage which comes from a slower paced lifestyle and the benefits of a clean environment. Eight position paper published in the journal Urban Geography stated that, “although there are many benefits of big city living, high levels of happiness are not among them.” Statistics also show that people who make the move from city living to country show marked improvements in physical and mental health within the first three years. These benefits were fairly consistent across confounding factors such as income, employment, education, and personality traits.
So how can one incorporate this ecotherapy into their own life? While relocating to the country may not be practical, there are some things that virtually everyone can do to benefit from ecotherapy. As little as 20 minutes a day outside has been proven to change a person’s mental outlook and physical health drastically for the better. If you live in a city or densely populated area, take advantage of parks and public gardens that are available to you. Finding the time for outdoor hobbies such as hiking, canoeing, camping, and fishing can lead to a positive attitude adjustment. Outdoor exercise, when possible, can also be an incredibly positive experience. If you have children, introducing them to the great outdoors can be a preventative factor in their sense of well-being and self-esteem.
Get outside and experience ecotherapy for yourself. Tried and true, cost-effective, no co-pay, and no waiting room. And now we have the statistics to back up what many have known all along.
“Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground.”-Theodore Roosevelt
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