Volume 25 Issue 4, Fall 2020
by Sharon Plummer and Kathleen Wellington
The sounds of a bubbling stream, the awe of watching a sunrise through frost-covered trees, and the joy of seeing baby robins being fed by their mother nourish our souls. Instinctively, we become at peace in the outdoors. This observation, made throughout history, has led to nature being used deliberately to help heal the mind, body, and spirit. A vast number of studies show overwhelmingly when you bring more nature into your daily living, your sense of well-being and quality of life are improved. When Joe Harkness was having a mental breakdown and considering suicide, little did he know that watching birds would save his mental health and give him back joy and a meaningful life. In his book, Bird Therapy, Joe tells the story of discovery and healing that he found in birdwatching. His story is one of many where people found their life changed by finding a relationship with the beauty of nature.
Harvard University reports there is compelling evidence in studies that show a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression. Researchers at Stanford University found in a study that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in an urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.
Not surprisingly, Forest Bathing has become a new therapy. This practice was started in Japan, where it was discovered that when we breathe in the forest air, we inhale phytoncides, airborne chemicals that plants emit to protect themselves from insects. Phytoncides also have antibacterial and antifungal qualities that help plants fight disease. When we breathe in these natural chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells, or NK cells. These cells can kill tumor-laden and virus-infected cells in our bodies. Phytoncides can also help humans reduce stress hormones, lower anxiety, and improve blood pressure. For those who do not enjoy or have access to forests, spending time in gardens brings the same benefits. The American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA) has compiled research about the mental benefits of interacting with a garden. Evidence going back to ancient times shows that people created gardens to please senses, soothe minds, and connect to the natural world. AHTA reports that Horticultural Therapy helps improve not only mood, but also memory and cognitive abilities. They have defined a therapeutic garden as a plant-dominated environment purposefully designed to facilitate interaction with the healing elements of nature. Interactions can be passive or active depending on the garden’s design and its users’ needs.
There are many sub-types of therapeutic gardens, including healing gardens, enabling gardens, rehabilitation gardens, sensory gardens, and restorative gardens. Therapeutic gardens are now being used in many hospitals, senior facilities, and public spaces to positively impact residents’ emotional well-being. There are university degrees available in Horticultural Therapy. Working in the garden can add to the positive effect, as you exert effort, increase oxygen and increase your exposure to the soil, which may contain a bacteria called mycobacterium vaccae. Research shows that exposure to this bacteria increases serotonin, which is linked to our moods.
While we continue to gather more data about the positive power of nature on our well-being, we do know the following: Just being out in the sunlight increases serotonin and dopamine, which are natural chemicals in our brains that make us feel happier and help people with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD):
• Exposure to forests and trees or working in a garden:
- boosts the immune system;
- lowers blood pressure;
- reduces stress;
- improves mood;
- accelerates recovery from surgery;
- increases energy level;
- improves sleep quality;
- increases ability to focus; and
- increases attention span.
- increases healing;
- reduces pain; and
- improves mood.
- helps us focus on the visual details of nature’s beauty;
- encourages active listening to the symphony of bird songs and other wildlife sounds;
- facilitates mindfulness;
- strengthens our connection to the natural world; and
- improves mood.
- helps people feel more connected to the earth;
- helps people feel more connected to each other; and
- appears to help residents of these buildings have more empathy.
With all this knowledge gathered about the benefits of nature on our mental health, local governments, building and landscape designers, and homeowners should be looking for ways to weave green spaces into our local environments, so that together nature and humans can prosper.
Bring More Nature Into Your Life
- Exercise outdoors — run, walk, yoga, bike. Find a buddy to do outdoor activities with.
- Spend mindful time in nature. Try to spend a minimum of 20 minutes a day outside doing things like gardening, walking, or meditating.
- Focus your senses on what you see, hear, and smell.
- Have fun learning more about your local natural environment with apps such as Seek by iNaturalist and PictureThis, which help identity plants and critters that you encounter.
- Connect to nature with food. Enjoying fresh in-season vegetables and growing your own food and herbs is very easy.
- Spend time in rooms with nature views or interior plants or water features.
- A room with a view. If you can’t be outside, look our your window, sit in a room with a window, plants, or water features. Add paintings or photographs of nature scenes to your interior.
Melanie Choukas-Bradley, The Joy of Forest Bathing: Reconnect with Wild Places and Rejuvenate your Life (Rock Point 2018).
Joe Harkness, Bird Therapy (Unbound 2019).
Clare Cooper Marcus and Naomi A. Sachs, Therapeutic Landscapes: An Evidence-Based Approach to Designing Healing Gardens and Restorative Outdoor Spaces (Wiley 2013).
Florence Williams, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (W.W. Norton 2017).
Daniel Winterbottom and Amy Wagenfeld, Therapeutic Gardens: Design for Healing Spaces (Timber Press 2015).
Your Well-Being Garden: How to Make Your Garden Good for You (DK 2020).
American Horticulture Therapy Association: https://www.ahta.org/horticultural-therapy
Kathleen Wellington is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Virginia who has spent 40+ years working in the behavioral health field. Her passion is horticulture therapy, and she has made presentations on that topic at the United States Botanical Gardens in Washington, D.C.