Have you ever let out a deep, satisfied sigh as you sat down on the beach, stuck your feet in the soft warm sand and drank in the view of the ocean rippling all the way to the blue horizon? What about the view from a mountain peak of hills and forests stretching all the way into the distance below you while you are on a hike? Or what about looking up into the canopy of a tree while lying back on a sun-dappled picnic blanket you have just spread out on the fragrant grass?
Since roughly 80 percent of Americans now live in urban areas, such moments of connecting to nature are becoming increasingly rare for most of us. According to scholars working in the relatively new field called ecopsychology, human physiology evolved to inhabit natural environments rather than concrete-lined, air-conditioned spaces humming with electricity. We all have an innate instinct to connect emotionally with nature. In fact, various studies suggest that spending time outdoors and connecting to nature improves emotional well-being and even interpersonal relationships.
In Japan, there is a practice called forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku. Dr. Qing Li, a professor of the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, spent years researching and promoting the topic. Essentially, shinrin-yoku involves walking through and even staying overnight in the forest. In addition to lowering stress, this practice has been shown to induce physiological changes associated with better immunity, lower blood pressure, and protection against cancer. Forest bathing also brings relief from symptoms of anxiety and depression.
While I also enjoy the forest, my favorite way to connect to nature revolves around the ocean. Both my husband and I are avid surfers, and since we live in Southern California, there are many others who share our passion. On weekends (and, work permitting, sometimes also weekdays), the rising sun often finds us floating on our surfboards while we search the horizon line for the next set of waves. When I paddle into and catch a wave, my mind has little space for anything but the turquoise water and white foam around me. Often, we encounter dolphins and seals just a few feet away from our surfboards. I love to feel the sea salt, the breeze and the warm sunshine (Vitamin D!) on my face. The vastness of the Pacific Ocean stretching towards the horizon dwarfs me, and any problems seem insignificant in comparison.
The large number of people participating in California’s favorite pastime certainly gives proof of the sport’s benefits, which include aerobic exercise and improved balance. As with many other forms of exercise, the surfing brain produces a cocktail of feel-good hormones: adrenaline which increases breathing and heart rate, the natural painkiller endorphin, the mood enhancer serotonin, and dopamine which controls the brain’s reward system. By contrast, the stress-hormone cortisol drops significantly. Surfing changes both alpha and theta brainwave activity in such a way that we experience meditative states while on the water and deep relaxation afterwards. In 2018, the US Navy even embarked on a million-dollar research project to study the therapeutic value of surfing for military personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.[i]
But you don’t have to surf to reap the ocean’s rewards. Even sitting on the beach will have a positive effect on you: the negatively charged electrons of the oxygen atoms produced by the crashing waves increase the oxygen flow to your brain. Like an anti-depressant, they can trigger serotonin release, promote alpha brainwave activity and boost your mood. Such negative ions are equally abundant in forests and on mountains. In addition, a study conducted at the University of California, Irvine, has shown that individuals exposed to a picture of nature for 60 seconds felt more socially conscious, generous, and kind. As it appears, many kinds of exposure to nature can produce positive benefits for your well-being.
So what can you do to fit some outdoor therapy into your daily routines?
- Instead of meeting family and friends in a café or restaurant, organize an outing to a park, a beach, a forested area, a lakeshore, a trail or hiking path…
- If you don’t consider yourself a particularly “outdoorsy” person and don’t know where to start, join a club or community program that offers introductory organized activities, such as birdwatching or surf camps. By joining a community, you will also make new friends who share these activities, and you will be more likely to integrate them into your life.
- If you are working with a therapist, ask whether they would be willing to take your sessions outdoors - weather permitting.
- Some gyms, fitness trainers or yoga studios offer workout programs in parks or on trails, so you can take your exercise regime outdoors. You will find it easier to get more exercise outdoors, where there is pleasant scenery to distract you—I would not want to spend three hours in the gym, but I regularly do so on my surfboard, without even noticing how time flies.
- Gardening, even if only planting a few potted herbs on an apartment balcony or tending to a succulent on your desk, can also give you some of the benefits of connecting with nature.
- For your next vacation, consider a trip that revolves around an outdoor activity (such as camping and/or hiking in a state park, or a beach) rather than city-sightseeing or outlet-shopping.
Whether you prefer your “outdoor therapy” to take place in the mountains or near water, it is certainly a good idea to surround yourself with nature, producing a sense of deep relaxation and calmness. Beyond a doubt, spending time in nature will improve your mood and your overall well-being. And we could all use more happiness and kindness.
- Matilda van den Bosch et al. (ed.), Oxford Textbook of Nature and Public Health: The Role of Nature in Improving the Health of a Population (Oxford University Press, 2018).
- Octavia Drughi, Your Brain on Surfing [Infographic], https://www.booksurfcamps.com/news/surfing-impact-brain-mood
- Qing Li, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness (Viking, 2018).
- Wallace J. Nichols and Celine Cousteau, Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do (Back Bay Books, 2015).
- Alexandra Sifferlin, “The Healing Power of Nature,” Time Magazine, 2016, https://time.com/4405827/the-healing-power-of-nature/
- J. W. Zhang, P. Piff, et al., “An occasion for unselfing: Beautiful nature leads to prosociality,” Journal of Environmental Psychology
[i] “Riding the waves to better health: Navy studies the therapeutic value of surfing,” Washington Post, 10 March 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/riding-the-waves-to-better-health-navy-studies-the-therapeutic-value-of-surfing/2018/03/09/254df9e2-06ca-11e8-94e8-e8b8600ade23_story.html
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