5 Science-Backed Reasons Nature Can Heal the Soul
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
Do you remember the last time you felt the sand between your toes? Or the tickle of grass under your bare feet? Or looked up into a canopy of trees so dense you could barely see the sky? When was the last time you watched the sun set?
If relationship issues, depression, or life in general has you feeling down, a little fresh air might be exactly what the doctor ordered. Whether it’s a hike in the woods, a swim in a mountain lake, or a trip to a nearby park, you may be surprised to find what Carson, quoted above, describes as “reserves of strength” from nature’s “infinitely healing” powers.
When Love Hurts, Nature Heals
Anyone who has loved and lost can attest: the emotional turmoil and sometimes physical pain that occurs at a relationship’s end can be debilitating.
Yes, sometimes love hurts.
And while we never recommend going on the rebound, maybe a different kind of relationship can help heal a broken heart — a relationship that, for centuries, has been said to bring both emotional and physical relief: a bond with nature.
Long before the clinical studies of today, great thinkers, scientists, architects, and even world leaders looked to nature for its restorative powers.
The illustrious yet elusive Hanging Gardens of the ancient world were said to have been built centuries ago for relaxation and renewal.
New York City’s Central Park, developed in the mid-1800s by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, has been hailed for its beauty and use of green space. “The occasional contemplation of natural scenes,” wrote Olmsted, “is favorable to the health and vigor of men and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect.”
And in South Korea, the ancient proverb shin to bul ee (directly translated as “body and soil are one”) is still popular today.
Beyond historic observations or mere speculation, however, there is now hard evidence that our natural environment has physiological effects upon the human mind and body. Here are several science-backed reasons why a relationship with our natural world is sometimes the best medicine for emotional healing.
1. Nature alleviates stress and anxiety.
Between busy workdays, kids’ after-school activities, errands, and non-stop screen time in an urban environment far away from the natural world, our well-being can suffer. “A concrete jungle destroys the human spirit,” said former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. If he was right, then nature certainly restores that spirit.
In one study, researchers in Japan examined the physical effects of shinrin-yoku — translated as “taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing” — on participants. They found that a 15-minute walk in the woods brought about measurable changes in physiology: a 16 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 2 percent drop in blood pressure, and a 4 percent drop in heart rate.
England’s University of Exeter Medical School found similar results. Using data from 1,000 participants, researchers discovered that those who moved “to greener areas experienced an immediate improvement in mental health that was sustained for at least three years after they moved.”
Another study from the same school, which draws from 18 years of data from over 10,000 participants, revealed a direct connection between urban green space, well-being, and mental distress. Essentially, spending time in and around our natural world provides significant mental health benefits.
2. Nature makes us kinder — both to ourselves and to others.
A Stanford-led study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that walking in nature — as opposed to urban settings — yields a decrease in rumination (defined as repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self).
Researchers scanned the brains of participants before and after they walked for 90 minutes in either a large park or on a busy four-lane roadway. The nature walkers (and not the city walkers) showed decreased activity in the part of the brain tied to depressive rumination. Each participant also completed a self-report — with feedback consistent with the brain scans’ findings. “These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world,” says the report.
In another study, Korean researchers showed volunteers a number of images and used functional MRI to monitor their brain activity. When the volunteers were shown urban scenes, researchers found increased blood flow in the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes fear and anxiety. When shown natural scenes, the anterior cingulate and the insula — areas of the brain associated with empathy and altruism — lit up.
3. Doctors prescribe it.
In her TED Talk, Prescribing Nature for Health, Dr. Nooshin Razani of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California describes the connection between nature and health.“Let’s say, for example, you go into a forest,” she says. “Within minutes, your heart rate will come down, you will breathe slower, you sweat less, and cortisol, the stress hormone, starts decreasing.”
And she would know. Since 2012, Razani has trained pediatricians at her hospital’s outpatient clinic to provide prescriptions for nature outings to low-income families and young children suffering from stress and social isolation. She has even partnered with the nearby East Bay Regional Parks District to provide transportation for these families so they can easily travel to and from nearby parks.
“I routinely prescribe nature to children and families,” says Razani. “Nature has the power to heal. It has the power to heal because it is where we are from, it is where we belong, and it belongs to us as an essential part of our health, and actually of our survival.”
This trend is happening worldwide, too — based on recent studies, Finland’s Natural Resources Institute now recommends five hours of nature a month as a part of its public health policy.
4. Nature may reduce the risk of certain diseases.
In the PsychCentral article, Proximity to Green Spaces Boosts Health, researchers from the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam analyzed medical records from 345,143 people and found that living within a one-kilometer radius of green space was linked with a significantly reduced risk of 15 diseases, including depression, cardiovascular disease, digestive disease, and respiratory illnesses.
The World Health Organization also acknowledges nature’s health benefits in Urban Green Spaces and Health: A Review of Evidence, stating, “Immune systems may benefit from relaxation provided by the natural environment or through contact with certain physical or chemical factors in the green space.”
5. Increased mental clarity.
Albert Einstein once said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Not surprisingly, research supports his claim.
The American Psychological Association cites multiple studies that attest to nature’s ability to restore mental clarity. During their decades of research, psychologists and husband-and-wife-team Stephen and Rachel Kaplan discovered that visual elements in natural environments reduce mental fatigue. One study found that “office workers with a view of nature liked their jobs more, enjoyed better health, and reported greater life satisfaction.”
In National Geographic’s This is Your Brain on Nature, cognitive psychologist David Strayer shares that participants from one group study performed 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking. “The three-day effect, he says, is a kind of cleaning of the mental windshield that occurs when we’ve been immersed in nature long enough,” says writer Florence Williams. This hypothesis is based on the idea that nature allows the brain’s main command center, its prefrontal cortex, to relax — just like an overused muscle.
And it makes sense — after all, if one of history’s most renowned physicists looked to nature to clear his head and find answers to his most perplexing questions, wouldn’t the rest of us also be able to gain clarity through nature’s lens?
But not everyone lives near the beach or the mountains. So what can you do if you’re in an urban area or it’s difficult to travel to national parks or other green spaces?
Even if you live in a big city, there are ways you can commune with nature. For instance, if you live or work near a nature path, even a short, 15-minute walk in the morning or on your lunch break can do much to restore your peace of mind, as shown by the research above. Or, if the route is safe and bike lanes are available, consider bicycle commuting to work.
If you have a bit more time at your disposal or prefer a group affair, plan an outdoor adventure with friends or family (think paddle boarding, cross-country skiing, fly fishing, or hiking). Some local Meetup groups are geared toward facilitating such outings, so this can be a great way to connect with others in your community who have similar interests.
Even the briefest of outings — such as to the backyard or a picnic at a local park — are beneficial for both the body and the mind. And these benefits are well worth the effort. As Bohemian/Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke once said:
“If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.”