Health Benefits of Nature

“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” -Gary Snyder

Our planet is extraordinarily beautiful.

And yet…the majority of the time we find ourselves amidst artificial and man-made surroundings that fail to inspire and nourish us as nature does. We are adapted to be in nature, but rather than seek fulfillment and healing in the natural environment, we turn to computer screens, gadgets, and pharmaceutical drugs. This movement away from nature and towards technology and man-made surroundings has disturbing ramifications for our mental and physical health, and for the earth in general.

My story of city and country life

Growing up in Manhattan, I was aware of city life’s draining and frazzling effect, and noticed that when I spent time at my parent’s country home in Suffolk County, Long Island, I felt more alive, connected, at ease, inspired, and fulfilled. Despite my strong affinity towards nature, I was unable to articulate my feelings that something was missing from life in Manhattan. Our society’s alienation from nature and the fragmenting effect that this has on our psyches wasn’t something that regularly came up in classrooms or in the news. I wasn’t taught to investigate my sense that something was fundamentally wrong with the way we were living our lives, so instead I tried to ignore it. Like many others, I attempted to bury the feelings of loss and deprivation I experienced from being estranged from nature through destructive activities like watching TV, endless internet surfing, overeating, binge dieting and being overly fixated on my appearance, shopping, and partying.

I went to college in rural Maine for a variety of reasons, but I think at least subconsciously, I knew that my mind, body, and soul yearned to reconnect with nature. Ensconced amidst trees in Maine, I realized that the chronic feelings of dreariness and melancholy that I had experienced in New York City were not normal. I began to cultivate a deeper respect for the environment, and actively sought ways to commune more mindfully with it through activities like trail running, hiking, sailing, or simply getting up early to watch the sunrise.

After college, I returned to New York City armed with more understanding of the restorative properties of nature. Still, it took me several more years to truly grasp the importance of our relationship to the natural environment and the repercussions of severing our ties with it. This awareness continues to grow and evolve, as I’m sure it will throughout the rest of my life.

I still live in New York but I make a concerted effort to connect with the outdoors – whether it be walking or sitting on a bench in Central Park, reading on the beach on Long Island, going on hikes in New Jersey or upstate New York with NYC-based Meetup groups, or vacationing in outdoorsy places. I also have created an environment that’s reminiscent of nature in my home, with many plants in my apartment in addition to prints depicting beaches, forests, and wildlife. I usually have jungle or ocean sounds playing on my computer and infuse the air with plant essences.

Interlude: Notice these four pairings of natural and industrial images below. How do the natural images make you feel? What about the industrial ones? Do you perceive any differences in the sense of energy emitted by the photographs? Which ones seem to have a higher energy frequency, and which lower?


Juxtaposition 1Juxtaposition 2Juxtaposition 3Juxtaposition 4

 

Heath benefits of being in nature

Most research regarding the beneficial effects of spending time in nature has been conducted in Japan, where a practice called Shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” is known to be an effective antidote to the stresses of city living. Studies examining participants involved in forest bathing have proven that spending time in the outdoors:

  • Induces a state of relaxation
  • Induces positive changes in cerebral blood flow and dominance of parasympathetic nervous system, which calms us down
  • Increases alpha wave amplitudes in the brain, indicating a state of wakeful relaxation
  • Increases the feel-good chemical serotonin
  • Lowers blood pressure and heart rate
  • Lowers cortisol levels
  • Improves immune function
  • Increases activity among natural killer cells
  • Decreases hemoglobin, which increases during periods of stress

It also

  • Reduces depressive symptoms
  • Reduces psychological stress
  • Reduces feelings of hostility and anger
  • Increases vigor and feelings of wellness
  • Increases focus
  • Increases feelings of affection, playfulness, and elation
  • Improves sleep

For more in-depth explanations on nature’s health benefits, I recommend the great book Your Brain on Nature by Eva Selhub, MD and Alan Logan, ND. 

Nature clearly acts as an extremely beneficial tonic that helps to buffer stress and the damaging cascade-like effect that stress can have on our physiology. Given the profound health advantages of spending time in the outdoors, it really is outrageous that isn’t discussed more as a means to heal physical and mental maladies.

Personally, I’ve found that if I spend several consecutive months in New York City without taking outdoors-oriented vacations, I start to get extremely anxious, don’t sleep well, become chronically lethargic, and feel unfocused and scattered. The stress caused by not being in a natural environment suppresses my immune system and I come down with colds that never seem to go away. When I spend time in nature regularly, on the other hand, I feel more peaceful, upbeat, relaxed, confident, and happy. I also feel great physically, and rarely if ever come down with a cold.

Connecting with nature to save the planet

Health benefits aren’t the only reason for us to spend time outdoors. It’s crucial that we cultivate a meaningful relationship with nature so that we understand what’s at stake when our planet is being pillaged, polluted, and destroyed in the name of our consumer culture, and particularly our culture’s appetite for meat and dairy. The more distance that we allow to lapse between ourselves and nature, the more apathy we develop towards it. If we are going to save the environment and ourselves from destruction, then we must make a serious effort to mend the disconnect that we’ve created.

Tips for spending more time outdoors

Visit your nearest park at least once a week.

If you live in a nature-deprived area, research nearby areas where you can do outdoor activities like hiking. Commit to doing some form of outdoor activity once a month or more.

Join Meetup groups that organize outdoor adventures.

Rather than visiting a city during your next vacation, consider going to somewhere that offers opportunities to immerse yourself in nature.

Tips for connecting mindfully with the environment

**Leave your cell phone, camera, and other gadgets at home** This one is a must. There can be no meaningful interaction with the environment if we are elsewhere mentally. Also keep in mind that our over-preoccupation with technology is one of the main causes of our divergence from nature.

Look around with eyes of curiosity and fascination.

Focus on both small details in your line of vision, as well as the larger view. You might consider using binoculars to take this even further. My grandfather, an avid birdwatcher, left his binoculars to me when he passed away, and this summer I’ve been using them to observe more closely things I wouldn’t have perceived otherwise.

Interact physically. If you’re on the beach, rub individual pieces of sand between your fingers. If you’re in the forest, touch the bark on trees, the soil, and the leaves of plants (as long as they’re not poison ivy).

Notice the colors and textures of your surroundings. Things you might notice are:

  • The metallic quality of the water
  • The bioluminescence that comes through the leaves of trees when the sun is shining through them, creating a yellow-green glow
  • Other shades of green
  • The color of the sky
  • The quality of light and the visual effect this has

Tune into your individual senses

In my opinion, this is one of the best ways mindfully observe nature.

First close your eyes and take a deep breath. Notice for a few moments the sensations that you feel. If you’re at the beach you might feel a warm breeze on your face, the sun on the skin, and the sand beneath your feet.

Next, what do you smell? The ocean usually has a salty, invigorating smell, whereas forests have more fragrant, earthy smells.

Then, listen to the sounds. Are there birdcalls? Ocean waves crashing? Leaves rustling? Cicadas chirping? Perhaps you hear the scurrying of a squirrel up a tree, or leaves crunching beneath the feet of a deer.

Finally, open your eyes and look carefully at your surroundings. Allow yourself to be drawn in by what you see. Instead of simply noticing the waves as they crash, let yourself become mesmerized by them.

Creating a nature-like sanctuary in your home

While spending time in actual nature is optimal, it’s not realistic for many of us to interact with it as often as we’d like. Luckily, we can still benefit from exposure to isolated elements of the environment.

Keep several plants. Plants purify the air, help us to focus and concentrate, and uplift our mood.

Paint walls the colors of nature such as yellow-green, light blue, light yellow, and coral.

Hang framed prints of the outdoors and wildlife.

Put himalayan crystal salt lamps throughout your home. These lamps emit health-boosting negative ions, which are also found in nature.

Breathe essential oils. You can either inhale these directly or use a diffuser. In particular, phytoncides – essences emitted by wood – have been found to increase activity in natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell. Essential oils containing phytoncides include cedarwood, tea tree, and sandalwood.

A note on nature-inspired “virtual realities”

Tech companies are working assiduously towards creating nature-like virtual realities. While these may sound pretty cool, it’s dangerous for our own welfare and that of the planet to think that a pseudo, technology-created natural environment could ever replace actual nature. We need more time away from technology, not with it, to appreciate our connection to the earth, as technology has helped to create our separation from nature in the first place.

Summer outdoor activities

  • Gardening
  • Hiking
  • Camping
  • Rock climbing
  • Kayaking
  • Swimming
  • Sailing
  • Surfing
  • Windsurfing
  • Snorkeling
  • Stand up paddle boarding
  • Stand up paddle board yoga
  • Walking
  • Birdwatching
  • Sitting and observing
  • Collecting rocks or seashells
  • Meditating
  • Reading a book on the beach
  • Watching the sunrise or sunset

Winter outdoor activities

  • Snowshoeing
  • Skiing
  • Snowboarding
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Sledding
  • Ice climbing

Outdoor organizations

Outward Bound

National Park Service (NPS)

Meetup. Meetup is a great place to join all kinds of groups, but I find that their outdoor groups are particularly good.

Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC)

Pacific Crest Trail Association

Films to watch

Home. Narrated by Glenn Close.

Life. Narrated by Oprah.

Galapagos. Narrated by Tilda Swinton.

Cowspiracy. This documentary exposes the really inconvenient truth – that animal agriculture is the greatest cause of environmental degradation.

I also highly recommend the Japanese anime film Princess Mononoke.

Books

A Little Handbook of Shinrin-Yoku by Amos Clifford

Nature-Speak: Signs, Omens, and Messages in Nature by Ted Andrews

Nature Sounds

Ocean Sounds of Martha’s Vineyard

Amazon Nights by Chuck Jonkey

Costa Rican Rainforest by Chuck Jonkey

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