99.9% of humans that have ever existed did so in a natural environment, the remaining .01% have lived in the urbanized post-industrial revolution era. This modern age with its artificial settings has helped to cause individuals to be in a constant state of stress. This, in part, is due to the over saturation of stimuli constantly bombarding the brain with images, information and stressors which are overloading our ability to cope. The rapid technological developments in the last few decades have resulted in an even newer form of “technostress” that has further increased our anxiety levels. It is this new stress state that has been one of the factors contributing to the recent rise of interest in nature therapy, a therapy that is used to combat the effects of the negative impact created by rapid changes in our environment and our daily lives.
What is Nature Therapy?
Nature therapy is a set of “practices” utilized to induce preventive medical effects through exposure to natural stimuli. The hope is that by incorporating nature therapy into ones life it will result in an uptick in mental relaxation and boost a weakened immune system – potentially preventing the onset of certain diseases. Nature therapy has been shown to promote good health in a more natural way as opposed to taking medications to make improvements.
Forest Therapy was originally developed in Japan in the early 80’s and is referred to as “Shinrin-yoku” literally meaning forest bathing. One of the focuses of this type of nature therapy is to improve our stress hormone levels through forest-based stimuli. A great deal of research has been done to help showcase the positive results of the practice of Forest Therapy/Bathing. One example involved a control group of 12 individuals that were split into two 6-person teams and were sent to different locations. On Day one, each team went to either a forest or an urban setting for fifteen minutes, after that time saliva samples were taken. Systolic and diastolic blood pressure, pulse rate, and HRV (heart rate variability) were also measured. The results and samples were frozen for later comparison. On day two the teams switched locations, the same type of readings and samples were again taken after fifteen minutes and stored for later comparison. The results of the comparisons showed a decrease in cortisol levels (stress hormone), heart rate and hypertension (blood pressure) on all readings from the forest results compared to the urban readings (for both groups). This experiment was repeated on 420 other participants in 35 locations and the results were consistent – those who went to the forest settings had better health outcomes than the individuals who went to the urban settings. Further studies were done to determine the long-term effects of the forest nature therapy and positive results were again seen throughout all extended testing.
Urban Green Space Therapy
Greenspace (sometimes referred to as ‘green space’) is an umbrella term used to describe either maintained or unmaintained environmental areas, which can include nature reserves, wilderness environments and urban parks. There is an growing body of research that supports the cultivation of green spaces in urban environments as a vital part of healthcare and wellbeing provision in cities and communities. Many studies have been executed involving individuals spending time participating in the practice of Urban Green Space Therapy, an approach similar to forest nature therapy, where parks or gardens in urban areas are used (instead of forests) to determine the effects of this type of environment on the human body. Research conducted in greenspace settings have shown results similar to the Forest therapy study outcomes. Participants showed a profound decrease in stress levels, blood pressure and pulse rates after their walks in parks compared to walks on the street. Interestingly, one of the larger scale (and longer) greenspace studies was extended through all four seasons and showed positive results throughout the year regardless of temperature and other potentially uncomfortable environmental factors. In addition, these positive outcomes prevailed throughout all demographics independent of age, sex, marital status, and socioeconomic status.
Research shows that being among plants, flowers and trees, in particular, can shift our moods from anxious to calm, and depressed to happy. Plant Therapy is a well documented practice which supports the relaxing effects that plants and flowers have on humans. The “official” Horticulture Therapy website lists three foundational principles of the practice: 1. Quality of life is related to the relationship between people and plants, 2. Curiosity and attraction to nature are inherent human qualities and 3. Individuals respond positively to green plants and colorful flowers. This type of nature therapy can be broken down to visual-based stimuli or scent-based stimuli. Both scent-based and visual-based stimuli such as ferns, potted plants and even fake flowers have been shown to have a positive effect on the brain as they trigger nerve activity to relieve stress, and increase relaxation. That being said real flowers will give you a much higher health boost than the fake ones! It has also been proven that having foliage around you helps foster stronger connections with those you love. A series of studies found that being close to nature actually makes us nicer, less selfish and more caring toward others. Having plants in your home is an easy way to foster happiness. Having plants around even increases productivity – research shows that having greenery on your desk helps improve memory, makes you more productive and increases the quality of your work, too.
Clearly, taking part in any of these forms of nature therapy is a good idea as it relates to your health! Whether it be in an urban setting or a forest even spending as little as 15 minutes outside in nature can help reduce stress and enhance relaxation. So, enjoy a walk in the park and go buy yourself a potted plant because every little bit helps when it comes to your well being!