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Can Nature Really Improve Your Mental Health and Wellbeing?

Pearl Lake, Colorado, reached by a short walk among the aspens


Allowing my mind to wander among my earliest memories of nature, I remember playing outside in our yard among the tall pine trees in East Texas. The yard was defined by mowed grass, encircled by seemingly sentient woods, thick with underbrush, and poison ivy. I learned to walk on cleared paths, or to be careful where I stepped lest I disturb a red ant pile (painful) or worse, a poisonous rattlesnake or copperhead snake. Our border collie, the sweetest dog in the world, fulfilled her herding duties by keeping watch over me, guiding me along the path, always a few feet away when I ventured away from the house.

In Fall, I snuggled up with a blanket to read in a bed of raked leaves, my dog resting nearby. Spring announced itself with blossoming trees, wildflowers, hummingbirds, and buzzing insects that worried me. I busied myself collecting in Summer: Webworms in my red wagon, until I learned they were the source of diseased trees, lightning bugs (fireflies), which always managed to escape their jars at night through tiny air holes, a family of snails which didn’t keep to their race lanes on the racetrack I drew, and coffee cans full of delicious blackberries. Winter’s memories are vividly sensorial: Leaves crunching underfoot, the distinct smell of cold weather and smoke from the woodstove.

My childhood was entwined with nature. Outside was just an extension of my home and playroom. Indoors held the comforts of climate control and the absence of bugs, though sometimes they breached the defenses of the house. In summer months, outdoors meant cooling off from the heat in swimming pools, lakes, or a sprinkler to play in.

Moving to Colorado in 1982, I discovered a different kind of nature: Of mountains, rocks, dramatic weather that changes hour by hour, and scenery that begs to be captured on film. We joke: If you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes. The culture of Colorado is predominantly focused on outdoor activities and an active lifestyle which helps us engage with nature.

Mom taught me to love hiking in the Rocky Mountains. Her kind of hiking was slow and mindful, stopping to look at plants carefully and taking pictures. Later in her retirement, she took a course in botanical illustration and I finally understood the fascination in the details by looking at her artwork, witnessing the miracle of a plant’s life cycle for instance, by first a bud, then a blossom, a leaf, then a new seed dropping to the forest floor. These observations instill mindfulness, a tool I’ve since learned in my work is fundamental to our wellbeing.

Mindfulness is nonjudgmental awareness and acceptance of the current moment. One can achieve this through meditation exercises and intentional practice such as yoga, or by informal practice known as “simple awareness.” With this, tune into the experience from the perspective of curiosity by noticing details within yourself in that moment. For example, notice how your breath moves in and out of your body as a starting point. A Body Scan, in which you bring focus systematically to each part of your body, is an effective tool to quickly achieve connection with your body.

Nature gives us a backdrop to practice mindfulness by tuning in to our surroundings and noticing how we experience them. The beauty and wonder of nature can be focal points for that awareness. Though called simple awareness, this skill may take some practice due to the distractions of our busy minds. The practice of mindfulness is worthwhile in its transferability and effectiveness. When you engage in it, you strengthen those pathways in the brain that allow you to access nonjudgmental acceptance. This is where we discover groundedness, peace within, even while the hurricane of life is happening around us. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, guides this understanding in his book, Full Catastrophe Living, a beautiful guide to mindfulness.

Positive effects on Mental Health

In my work as a therapist, I’ve witnessed the confirmation of the great body of research on the beneficial effects of nature on our wellbeing. It's thrilling to hear countless individual's stories of connection with nature, and how it helps them feel better. One made birdhouses, inspired by feathered friends that visited their yard. One delighted in the growth of a plant she grew from a seed. One loves sitting on a patio and soaking in the sun each morning. Each of these people experienced improved mental wellness and a sense of calmness.

Interacting with nature decreases stress, improves wellbeing, and helps to prevent and treat depression and anxiety. Inspired by the Japanese practice of “forest bathing,” Forest therapy is an inspirational trend. Intentional, guided immersion in nature has physiological effects such as lowering stress/cortisol levels, lowering blood pressure and increased immunity. We’re only beginning to understand why being in nature is so important to us as humans, but the evidence is powerful.

Engagement in our natural environment takes us away from our technological devices and gives us a break from our screens. While technology is valuable and increasingly more dominant in of our lives, it’s vital that we intentionally make nature a part of our daily lives.

To reap the benefits of nature, take time to unplug from devices and life’s happenings and go outside. Be present for a moment. There’s always time for this (we have to counter those thoughts that tell us we don’t).

Tune in to all of your senses. Breathe deeply. Notice life around you. Wherever you are, if you give it a few minutes to observe, you’ll notice how much is happening in nature. A bird is chirping. The breeze moves the tiniest leaf. An animal comes into view when you are still for a few moments and pay attention.

Years ago, I camped in Grand Teton National Park with my husband. One of my favorite memories of that trip was sitting on the edge of a pond at dusk, watching the scene come to life - Beavers swimming across the pond, dragonflies dancing, the orange light of sunset sparkling across the water.

I’ve noticed that wherever you choose to sit and observe, nature comes alive with infinite detail, illustrating our connection with the Earth.

Frequent, intentional interaction with nature is important for designing your own wellness. If you can’t get outside, sitting by a window looking out on a natural area, or growing a few plants that you nurture in your home will have a positive impact.

It’s important to find parks to visit, or discover short trips you can take to visit natural areas. Check out the nearest Botanical Gardens or even a local garden center. Make it part of your weekly schedule. Mark it on your calendar and make it a priority.

By life’s design, we need to be surrounded by green spaces. It’s about alignment, balance. Ultimately, awareness of our connection to nature has the power to bring about greater internal balance.



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