NATURE AS A HEALER OF DEPRESSION
Most of us live near somewhere that’s natural. Be it a backyard, nature strip, a stream, a riverside, a lake or a beach.
Research at the University of Minnesota reveals that environments can increase or reduce our stress, which in turn impacts our bodies. What you are seeing, hearing, experiencing at any moment is changing not only your mood, but how your nervous, endocrine, and immune systems are working.
Exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, it contributes to your physical well-being, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones.
Being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear, and stress and increases pleasant feelings. Exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, it contributes to your physical well-being, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones. It may even reduce mortality, according to scientists such as public health researchers Stamatakis and Mitchell.
And David Strayer, cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, who specializes in attention, is in a unique position to understand what the stress of modern life does to us. An avid backpacker, he thinks he knows the antidote to depression: Nature.
Real-Life Examples of People Helped by Nature
Cheryl: After months fruitlessly searching for a job after graduation, Cheryl was losing confidence in herself. Seeing she was depressed, her parents gifted her with two weeks of wilderness training. Cheryl returned as a new person.
Of her experience, she said, “I learned the depth of my strength and how much I could accomplish. My courage surprised me…Being surrounded by nature reminded me to keep the Big Picture in mind not only during my wilderness experience, but also when I returned home. Life is in front of me and I have lots of options.”
Terry: Terry was suffering from one of the most powerful bouts of depression in his life. His therapist chose an unconventional treatment and sent Terry to his farm, located several miles outside city limits.
It was winter, and Terry noticed the way the wind slapped him in the face when he got out of his truck. Snow covered the flat land as far as the horizon line. Terry’s boots sank into the snow as he walked. He settled beside a frozen pond and noticed that the sensory input from his surroundings—the frigid wind, the blinding snow—had distracted him from his own depressed mental chatter.
Sitting next to the pond, he began to think about what lay underneath the ice. The fish and frogs and larvae that normally thrived under the water were all sleeping, he realized. As the snow began to fall on his own body, he realized that he was not separate from the sleeping animals and organisms below the surface of the pond. “I realized that my depression is like the snow,” he said. “It covers everything in me, and it’s like my heart has gone to sleep…but I’m not dead inside. I’m resting.”
James: At fifty, James was beginning to feel the effects of working sixty hours a week, rarely exercising, and eating lunch at his desk. He was overweight, had high blood pressure, and always felt tired. On the advice of his doctor, James began a green exercise program with a local community group that walked through the countryside on Saturdays.
James was awed by the natural display of the trees and the quiet hum of wildlife along the hiking trails. The group gradually began jogging and rock climbing. Within a few months, James’s blood pressure had decreased, he had lost several pounds, and he had more energy. “Just by spending time outdoors each week I felt rejuvenated and relaxed when I came into the office on Monday,” he said.
And David Strayer said “If you can have the experience of being in the moment for two or three days, it seems to produce a difference in qualitative thinking.”
Strayer has demonstrated as much with a group of Outward Bound participants, who performed 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking. The three-day effect, he says, is a kind of cleaning of the mental windshield that occurs when we’ve been immersed in nature long enough.
Now I am not saying that you should go to the same extremes as the people in the above examples did, but you if you’ve been cooped up indoors ruminating in your own thoughts, even sitting out in the sun in your backyard could be a good start!
Today I walked up the hill to the top of local dunes. On the path near the top of the stairs a beautiful lizard stopped in front of my feet. Curious about what it would do, I watched it for a while and it continued its crossing into the bushes on the other side. I love our local wildlife!
Then I walked down the stairs to the beach, kicked off my footwear and walked toward the ocean. The sun was out, and there were a few fluffy white clouds in the distance. The sea was rolling gently toward the shore with the soft sounding waves breaking as they reached the shallows.
I walked northward along the beach. A few people were there with their dogs. A lovely black and white border collie ran toward me and allowed me to pat her. I patted her, waved to her owner then walked on.
Near the far end of the beach there is a group of flat volcanic rocks. I stood on one of rocks and let the waves lap gently over my feet. It felt so good. Sun, sea, air and spirit all in one. I indulged all my senses.
Not everyone is like me. Not everyone is a nature lover. But if you’re not, I do suggest you try being with nature for a while. It could bring about a total transformation.
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