The Amazing Ways Nature Can Heal You and Make You Feel at Your Best
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Kaplan, a psychologist at University of Michigan, takes this theory further by combining it with another 19th-century theory, namely that one can become fatigued from expending too much of this voluntary attention, also known as directed attention. A student who announces, “My brain is fried” after a weekend of studying is expressing this kind of fatigue.
One way to deal with directed attention fatigue is sleep, but sleep alone is not enough. Aside from sleep, one requires “restorative experiences”—and that is what nature provides. Kaplan outlines many components to this, such as the sensation of “getting away,” an effortless fascination with one’s surroundings, and what he calls a sense of “extent,” a sense of being connected to a larger world.
Once outside, you are free to effortlessly follow a butterfly with your eyes, listen to songbirds, or observe the motion of the leaves in the breeze. But this attention requires little energy, and it leaves your mind free to wander onto other things even as you watch a brilliant sunset or a hawk soaring overhead.
A pioneer of using this theory to promote health is Bernadine Cimprich, associate professor emerita at the University of Michigan School of Nursing. In various experiments on breast cancer patients, she found that exposure to the natural environment helped patients recover the capacity for directed attention. For a cancer patient who must pay attention to a doctor’s instructions, capacity for directed attention could be a matter of life and death.
These are known as cognitive benefits, improvements in your ability to think. That is distinct from psychological benefits such as improvements in mood, self-esteem, or stress. It also differs from physical benefits, like reduced disease or mortality. However, these measurements are linked, sometimes obviously, in the case of a cancer patient who is better able to follow a doctor’s directions, but sometimes in a less obvious way.
Stress, while uncomfortable emotionally, is also unhealthy physically. When stressed, your body produces stress hormones like cortisol. While adaptive in an acute situation (i.e. running away from an angry bear), it is harmful if you remain stressed all the time. Among other things, cortisol suppresses your immune system.
Because of our bodies’ physical response to stress, it’s easy to measure stress objectively simply by testing saliva samples for stress hormones. A 2013 study did just this, testing saliva sampled before and after study participants sat in various settings (natural and urban) for 20 minutes. They found evidence that spending time in a natural environment reduces stress.
The healing power of nature has massive implications for public health. Unlike pharmaceuticals, surgery, or even counseling, nature is free and easily available for most people. Aside from the occasional bee sting or poison ivy rash, nature comes without side effects. Even in sub-zero temperatures, when it’s unpleasant to go outside, we can benefit simply by viewing nature out our windows.
In New Hampshire, Riverbend Community Mental Health, Inc, takes advantage of nature’s healing powers by working with patients at a local farm. Patients and staff regularly visit Owen Farm, where they interact with animals, work in the garden and take part in other aspects of farm life.
Far too often, Americans refer to natural spaces as “empty.” Talk to someone driving across a vast stretch of the country without towns and they will say they are in the “middle of nowhere.” What’s there? “Nothing,” they might answer.
But a natural space is not “nothing” or “empty." It’s not only wildlife habitat and a carbon sink, it’s also a resource for improving human health. A forest might have a dollar value if all of the trees were cut down and the wood was sold, but it also has a value if we leave it intact and spend time in it recreationally. What we do not know yet is the dollar value it has in terms of surgeries, medications, deaths, and other losses prevented. And is that even important?