Going Green: The Therapeutic Benefits of Nature
Feeling a little down lately? The answer to feeling better may be as simple as stepping outside.
Using the great outdoors for its mental health benefits is sometimes known as nature therapy, and it can be a secret weapon to improving mental health. Research has shown that time in nature can decrease anxiety, lessen symptoms of depression, and lower stress levels.
This doesn’t mean that the only way to reap the benefits of nature therapy is to embrace some kind of earthy, outdoorsy persona. Even simple things like taking a walk in some green space can do wonders for your mental health.
A study by Dr. Gregory Bratman’s group at Stanford showed that participants who took a 5k walk in nature experienced decreased repetitive negative thoughts compared to those who did the same walk on a busy street. Further, MRIs done on these participants showed a reduction in activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex of the brain, an area associated with worrying about the same issues over and over, a common problem in those who suffer from anxiety and/or depression.
“I think that makes it powerful because it’s not about your race, your gender, what you believe–this is just our earth and we get to enjoy it.”
Other studies have shown that time in nature lowers blood pressure, enhances immune system function, and improves mood, among other benefits. Just 120 minutes in a green space a week can bring you these benefits!
While it may seem almost too simple, it is important to remember that the urbanization of society in recent years also means that we are spending less time outdoors than ever before. Additionally, this urbanization is also linked with increased levels of mental illness, especially anxiety and depression. This is especially true for those who have grown up exclusively in cities, including many of Mercy Home’s kids.
While we try to provide our kids with as many opportunities as possible to spend some time outside, the time when they are able to fully embrace the many benefits nature has to provide is during their annual trips to summer camp.
Shelly Quiles, one of Mercy Home’s therapists, is a big proponent of incorporating nature in the treatment of our kids. She has long used the healing power of nature to help her clients. She often takes the girls she works with on nature hikes as part of their therapy.
“It started off as doing it for group [therapy], but now …. the staff have really incorporated this as part of our programming,” Quiles said.
She added that now, instead of the girls spending their free time in evenings watching tv or scrolling through their phones, they take trips to a local lake with hiking trails. And this is just a preview of the fun they will have on their trips to camp, where they will hike, learn to fish, and reflect on the wonders of nature.
In addition to receiving the benefits to their mental and physical health, this time together also is key to building relationships, Quiles explained.
“[There is a certain] amount of camaraderie that is built in those experiences,” she said. “There’s a level cooperation that you need to do [outdoor activities like hikes]. Everyone has to be of one accord, like how fast we’re going to walk and even just that rhythm of staying with each other and staying in sync. There’s a collaboration and a unity.”
Time spent outdoors and the time reflecting also opens the door to therapeutic breakthroughs. Quiles recalled a recent beach trip where one of the young women was reminded of her childhood days of going barefoot, and when she lived in another place.
“It just brought back this flood of memories and she forgot how much she really missed home, and she’s been thinking a lot about it,” Quiles said.
For all of us to be rooting for each other is just so powerful…
This was something Quiles was able to process with her right there on the beach. Quiles told her that while she may always have the feeling of missing home, there are new ways to look at the situation.
“[I told her that] at this point, she can explore where she can create home and create a space of how she enjoys living her life and accepting that things have changed dramatically,” Quiles said. “And she said, ‘I never thought about it like that, but I think you’re right.'”
Camp also provides our young people a chance to face their fears and know the feeling of pride for accomplishing something despite challenges arising. Quiles gave the example of canoeing, and how she’s seen many people overcome their fear of water and know the feeling of successfully maneuvering the boat.
“[It gives them an idea of] what is possible,” she said. “[They can say], I’m not defeated … I can also participate and make a difference in my life and do something meaningful.”
It also gives our coworkers and the other kids an opportunity to be encouraging with each other and build stronger bonds by helping others achieve their goals.
“For all of us to be rooting for each other is just so powerful,” Quiles said.
There’s also a final benefit that many may not have considered: enjoying nature is an inclusive experience.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or a boy … you’re welcome in this experience, you know?” Quiles said. “I think that makes it powerful because it’s not about your race, your gender, what you believe–this is just our earth and we get to enjoy it.”