Anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors has most likely noticed the transcendent feelings that nature can provide. Whether we are on an overlook gazing out over a vista, traversing through thick old-growth forests or sitting on a bench in a local park, nature seems to always find a way to leave us inspired. John Muir, Ansel Adams, Teddy Roosevelt and all of the most revered conservationists often wrote of this feeling bestowed by nature. The majority of the most famous writings about the power of nature have been undertaken in a philosophical manner, seeking to understand the connection between the souls of human beings and the soul of nature. Scientists, doctors and psychologists have been studying this powerful connection between humans and nature, and it turns out that the correlation has its roots in the tenets of psychology (specifically mood and behavioral studies). The scientific discoveries have been so profound that they have even inspired an entirely new field of psychology: ecotherapy.
The term ecotherapy was coined by Howard Clinebell, and it takes into account the important fact that people are intimately connected with nature. The perspective acknowledges the power nature has on the human mind and it seeks to promote healing and growth through interactions with the outdoors.
Research in the field of ecotherapy began primarily as a result of the high relapse rate that medicinal therapy has seen when treating mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression (some studies show a 70% relapse rate). This high rate caused many psychologists to seek a way to further help patients in their treatments. Ecotherapy was one such supplement to medicinal therapy that professionals thought would help, and the research from the studies they have conducted have been astounding.
One study involved participants who had been struggling with depression. The participants were split into two groups: One group was assigned to spend time walking through a shopping center every day, and the other group was assigned to spend time walking a nature trail at a local park every day. The results showed that the group of depressed patients who walked through nature experienced a 71% reduction in their depressive symptoms, and a 91% increase in their self-esteem. A survey asked the participants how walking through nature effected their mood, and 94% of them said they felt as if their personal feelings of well-being had increased since spending more time outdoors.
Another very similar study was conducted with children who had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. One group of children spent their playtime indoors, and the other group spent their playtime outside in a "green environment." After two weeks, the children who played outside experienced far fewer ADHD symptoms. This study further exhibits that nature does have a profound impact on our mood and behavior.
In fact, the correlation between nature and feelings of well-being are so intense that you don't need to be outdoors to feel the effects. Other studies show that corporate workers who have office windows with views of nature experience greater feelings of life satisfaction. Another shows that patients in an intensive care unit after surgery experienced reduced anxiety and reduced desire for pain medication after being shown vivid and detailed photographs of nature landscapes. Studies such as these have led some professionals to start encouraging patients to listen to bird sounds, maintain their own gardens, and hang scenes of nature around their homes.
The most recent theories have attempted to provide a biological basis for this correlation between nature and our well-being. According to these theories, exposure to nature, and the awe it inspires, reduces levels of cortisol in our bodies. Cortisol is typically referred to as our "stress hormone" because it is released in response to stress. Therefore, if nature reduces cortisol levels in our blood, then it reduces feelings of stress. This theory has yet to be proven as factual, but people in the scientific community feel it is a plausible explanation.
It is important to note that ecotherapy is not intended as a replacement for biologically-based medicinal treatments. However, it is a great supplement that does seem to improve the mood of individuals. Mood and behavior are huge aspects of our well-being, so the fact that nature has been shown to increase those portions of our personality suggest that this is a topic worth delving into.
Nature is powerful, often times beyond our understanding. These studies in the field of ecotherapy show that our connection with nature may be more grand and detailed than previously thought. There seems to be a symbiotic relationship between humans and the outdoors, and this is a relationship that should not be taken lightly. By spending time outdoors both respecting the beauty that we see and seeking to preserve it, we are not only helping nature, but we are also helping ourselves to improve our own mood and well-being. A beautiful relationship, indeed.