Ecotherapy: How communing with nature boosts your physical and mental health

·5 min read
Several ladies stretch their hands to the sky while participating in a sunrise yoga class in the sand at Delray Beach Sunday July 10, 2022. Yoga instructor Corey Heyman led the class called Yoga with Pedro, which is usually run by Pedro Luna every Sunday at 6:30 am.
Several ladies stretch their hands to the sky while participating in a sunrise yoga class in the sand at Delray Beach Sunday July 10, 2022. Yoga instructor Corey Heyman led the class called Yoga with Pedro, which is usually run by Pedro Luna every Sunday at 6:30 am.

You know the August daytime drill: Move as quickly as possible from the air-conditioned comfort of the indoors to the air-conditioned comfort of your car.

On 90-plus-degree summer days, that’s the only viable strategy for tolerating scorching heat and humidity, reports the Palm Beach Post, which is a part of the USA TODAY Network. Did we mention record-setting heat has enveloped much of the U.S. in recent weeks?

However, there is a downside to this often-necessary indoor survival strategy: It limits our time being outside – and thus benefiting from all that nature has to offer.

Ecotherapy

The physical and mental health benefits of simply communing with nature can’t be overstated.

In fact, it’s so important to the human psyche to be outside for regular extended periods that there’s now a growing subsegment of the health and wellness industry devoted to the practice of “ecotherapy.”

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Runners participate in a free guided trail run through the scenic Yamato Scrub Natural Area in Boca Raton that was organized by Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management  in 2018.
Runners participate in a free guided trail run through the scenic Yamato Scrub Natural Area in Boca Raton that was organized by Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management in 2018.

According to the American Psychological Association, “ecotherapy is gaining traction as a means to help people tap into nature’s therapeutic powers.”

Likewise, NBC News reported that in recent years physicians nationwide have taken to writing actual prescriptions for their patients to spend more time outdoors in local parks and green spaces.

They’ll often make these written recommendations in lieu of prescribing antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications.

There’s even a nationwide initiative dedicated to the cause: ParkRx.org.

The ParkRx website explains that “Park Prescription programs can be as diverse as the communities for which they are designed and they often include collaboration between park and public land agencies, healthcare providers and community partners.” The organization boasts dozens of physicians among its members.

Many of today’s ecotherapy advocates consider author Richard Louv the forefather of the current movement. Louv’s 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods” highlighted what he termed “nature-deficit disorder” in the youth of America.

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Backed by copious research, Louv argued the new millennium’s digitally connected world had disconnected children from the “direct exposure to nature [that] is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults.”

The natural beauty of the wetlands in Savannas Preserve State Park is illuminated by the setting sun in April 2021 at Hawk’s Bluff Trail in Jensen Beach.
The natural beauty of the wetlands in Savannas Preserve State Park is illuminated by the setting sun in April 2021 at Hawk’s Bluff Trail in Jensen Beach.

He followed that up with 2012’s “The Nature Principle” – which contended that people of all ages are vulnerable to the negative effects of nature-deficit disorder unless a conscious effort is made to be outside more.

Bringing the benefits of nature inside

Be it because of the weather or a busy schedule, if you and your family aren’t spending enough time outdoors, there are ways to bring nature – and its accompanying benefits – inside your home.

“Nature calms us, reducing feelings of stress, anxiety and anger,” says Sandi Schwartz, founder of the Ecohappines Project and author of Finding Ecohappiness: Fun Nature Activities to Help Your Kids Feel Happier and Calmer. “It also improves focus and attention, as well as reduces blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and the production of stress hormones. It even makes us friendlier and more apt to reach out to others in our community.”

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Here are some of her suggestions for bringing nature inside your home via sights, sounds and greenery:

Two friends walk along the 1 mile boardwalk loop at Green Cay Nature Center and Wetlands in Boynton Beach, Thursday, November 5, 2020. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, everyone must wear a mask if they can’t social distance, and the boardwalk is one direction only. (JOSEPH FORZANO / THE PALM BEACH POST)
Two friends walk along the 1 mile boardwalk loop at Green Cay Nature Center and Wetlands in Boynton Beach, Thursday, November 5, 2020. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, everyone must wear a mask if they can’t social distance, and the boardwalk is one direction only. (JOSEPH FORZANO / THE PALM BEACH POST)

Imagery of nature. A recent study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that you can reduce stress by simply looking at images of nature. When participants viewed pictures of natural scenes, their stress level decreased because their parasympathetic nervous system was activated.

Sounds of nature. “Listening to nature can help relax us and improve our mood,” explains Schwartz. “The best sounds are those that give a sense of natural space and mimic the biorhythms of an ecosystem – like the slow, rhythmic whooshing noises of water.”

She notes that one study found that people who listened to ocean waves had considerably lower muscle tension, heart rates and stress than those who listened to music by Mozart or sat in silence.

Plants. Flowers, potted plants and trees have long been known to elevate people’s moods, whether they realized it or not. Schwartz cites the “research done in hospitals, offices and schools that has consistently found that even a small plant in a room can significantly reduce stress and anxiety, and boost healing.”

What’s more, an oft-cited study from a Pennsylvania hospital published in 1984 suggested that, all other factors being equal, surgical patients whose rooms had a view of trees recovered more quickly – and were discharged a day sooner – than patients whose rooms had a view of a wall. In the decades since, most new-hospital construction has factored green space sightlines and access into the design.

Among Schwartz’s other suggestions for bringing the benefits of nature indoors:

  • Visit indoor sanctuaries of nature such as an arboretum, butterfly garden, botanical garden, greenhouse, science museum or aquarium.

  • Start an indoor garden of herbs and flowers.

  • Watch nature shows, movies and documentaries as a family.

  • Play nature sounds in your home, especially at bedtime.

  • Try out some virtual reality with a nature theme.

  • Engage in nature-related creative arts projects like nature collages or putting together a slideshow of nature photographs you have taken.

So be sure to get your daily dose(s) of nature – whether you leave your home or not.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Mental health boost: Time outdoors helps emotional well-being