By Branden Henline, PhD, LMFT
I have always loved the outdoors, from playing in the gully near my home as a child, to camping with my family growing up, and going on scouting adventures as a teenager. Now, as an adult, I still love camping, hiking, mountain biking, road cycling, kayaking and paddle boarding. My wife, Tiffany, and I love the national parks and have visited 21 of them so far in our goal to see all 63. For me, being out in nature is a core part of recreation in my life. Yet, aside from just liking being outside, I am learning more and more about all of the health benefits of nature!
When I say that, some people reading this may say, “No thanks, I prefer my home … or a hotel … or anything that is not out in the dirt, with the bugs, requiring sweat and backpacks and other such nonsense!” The good news is that you do not have to go on a month long back country excursion to Patagonia to get the benefits of nature in your life (although, seriously, who wouldn't want to do that trip, am I right!?).
Biophilia is a term coined by 1970s therapist Erich Fromm meaning “the passionate love of life and all that is alive.” Biophilia research has studied the impact of spending time seeing and experiencing nature. There are many avenues to explore in this research, but the take home message is that any time we spend seeing, smelling, enjoying or otherwise experiencing nature can help us to destress, relax, increase our creativity and productivity, and even heal.
In Japan, the connection between humans and nature has been studied and celebrated for centuries. The Japanese term Shinrin Yoku is commonly translated as “forest bathing”. Having explored this concept for the past few years, I prefer to translate the term to mean “nature soaking” or “soaking in nature”. Recent research has found that even brief amounts of time in a city park can result in people forming more “natural killer cells” which are a boost to the immune system to help us fight off illness and disease. The research is so compelling that some severely ill patients (think heart disease, diabetes, etc.) are being taken into the woods to simply sit, or meander around, or find their own way to soak up some nature, and it is having healing effects. If you are interested, use “shinrin yoku” and “biophilia” as search terms in Google Scholar and look through some of the studies.
But, while the idea of “nature soaking” may be interesting on the surface, many people “just don’t have time” to get outside and do all of that nature stuff. Here is the part where we each get to choose our own adventure and choose whatever level of involvement we want with the outdoors. Consider any of the following practical ideas and try out whatever is interesting and works for you. Whatever you do, consider how you can slow down a bit and enjoy the view.
If getting out in the national parks or kayaking in the local pond or reservoir is not your thing, consider finding ways to bring nature to you. Biophilia research has found that simply finding plants that you enjoy and bringing them into your home and your workspace can benefit your health and sense of well-being. Another option is to take time to look out the window and enjoy the view. This is like the proverbial recommendation to “stop and smell the roses”. You can catch the view for 2 minutes or 20 minutes and take time to simply take in what you see. Letting your mind wander and consider what you are seeing (without busying your thoughts with other tasks or entertainment) appears to allow your mind to rest and recover. Research shows that people who do so have lower stress levels and also higher creativity. Would either of those help you in your day!?
If you are ready to do more than look, hop on out there and enjoy being outside. A meaningful level of benefit can be achieved through 20 minutes of time outside just three times per week. You can take a walk in a city park, drive up the canyon, play catch with a child, or a friend, or even invite a coworker. With all types of nature soaking, try to pay attention to any or all of your senses wherever possible. What are the colors, objects, people, animals, light, shadow, or other things that you see? What are all of the things you can hear when you stop to listen? If you are willing, stop and actually touch a tree or other items out in nature. What are the different things you can feel or touch? What does it smell like out in nature? Are there any pleasant or unpleasant aromas? As an example, many say that the bark of a Ponderosa Pine tree smells like vanilla or cream soda! What do you taste out in nature (if anything)? COnsider bringing a snack to enjoy while you are out ;) Lastly, while you are out in nature, what thoughts or meaning do you give to what you are seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, or tasting?
With your regular 20-minute jaunts outside under your belt, when you are ready to level up, consider making regular plans to be outside for more extended periods of time. The Shinrin Yoku literature finds that just five hours per month of charging your nature batteries can keep you de-stressed and riding a wave of an improved immune system every month. Find something that you love. Some ideas could include photography, having a picnic or campfire dinner, bird watching, painting or other art, swinging in a hammock, or sitting by a stream to read a book. Whatever tickles your fancy! If possible, spend half a day outside once each month to hit your five hours or break it up into two outings about 2.5 hours each (or more … there is no upper limit on enjoying time in nature!).
One principle that I recommend for a lot of purposes fits this topic as well: Look Forward Twice! Start by deciding on two different days and times that you can get outside to do something you enjoy. If you have something planned for this month, you can look forward to that activity and also have something else on the agenda for after that event. Whenever you finish one outing, plan another thing so that there is always something on the horizon and something else to look forward to after that!
Lastly, if you really want to glean the benefits of nature, make time at least once each year for a 72-hour trip out into the woods. Do a river rafting trip, a back country hike, a three-day glamping excursion, soak in some hot springs, go fishing, or hunting, or even relax in a cabin. Do all you can do to change your scenery to something natural and to your liking. Why three days? Well … why not? But, truly, neuroscientists have estimated that our short term memory can span up to 72-hours of recall. When a person is able to change their patterns and environment for at least 72 hours, it can serve as a cognitive reboot. Our brains are no longer holding on to the typical patterns of input from our day to day surroundings and are able to refresh and restart new memories and processing.
Also, as one other essential, perhaps even mandatory (insert grimacing face emoji), aspect of a three-day outdoor retreat … you gotta do it unplugged. Leave the smart phone at home, or in the car, or turned off in your gear bag. If you have the self control to not use it for anything else, maybe you can use it to take photos. Giving yourself time for a “digital detox” once per year is part of letting your brain reset and renew. Some people literally go through the stages of grief when experiencing a digital detox (think denial that it will be difficult, anger or irritability when you do not have your regular entertainment or social media fix, bargaining with yourself or others to “just check one thing really quick”, depression from FOMO or the shock of not being online for a while, and then acceptance with the feeling of awe about the world around you and often relief from not being on a “digital leash” all the time. When you truly detox from your devices, it can open your mind and your life to new ideas and patterns.
So, as seen in the satirical and humorous videos at nature-rx.org, when you are ready to find ways to lower stress and improve your health and creativity, consider trying some prescription strength nature with all of the benefits and no side-effects (except perhaps finding yourself in a sporting goods store trying to expand your gear options for new adventures).
Be well and opt outside!
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