Nature as Therapist: How the Natural World Aids Mental Health
Most people will be familiar with intervention therapy and its use of animals to complement traditional therapy and assist people – and particularly children – with autism, medical conditions, or behavioural issues.
Keeping a dog helps relieve stress and boosts happiness, cats help with relaxation and therapy horses are well-known for their calming and confidence-boosting attributes on children who have behavioural issues.
But recently in therapy there has been a separate shift towards nature and its own therapeutic powers, with some therapists advocating the Great Outdoors itself as a Great Healer – and some patients even writing books about their own experiences with nature and how it has helped with their own conditions.
In her book The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us, author Emma Mitchell describes her 25-years of suffering with depression – “the grey slug”, as she calls it – and how moving away from the city to live in the countryside helped her condition. She explains how she allowed her body and mind to respond to wildlife and flora as well as the seasonal ups-and-downs that she experienced when living alongside nature.
In an age when public mental health services are at breaking point, and innovative online therapy organisations like BetterHelp are becoming ever more essential, it seems psychology is waking up to the therapeutic power of Mother Nature herself – something that BetterHelp and their therapists would advocate.
Hospitals are already being designed with recuperative ‘healing places’ that allow patients to interact with nature and wilderness centres are being rebranded as ‘portals to present-centredness’ – basically, places where humans can attune to the here-and-now, or, as Terry Williams wrote in her book The Hour of Land: “breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath.”
A simple walk or, even better, a hike can become a meditation – a process where the mind disengages, enters theta rhythm and, in a way, self-heals. This connection with nature expands our own capacity to connect with others, as well as giving us a greater sense of our part in the world and the greater scheme of things. In a concrete city, with little space to think, it is little wonder that some people can use their sense of self.
Biologists will tell you there are well-understood chemical mechanisms at play in humans during the soothing process of nature at its most serene. Calming signals are sent to the visual cortex which automatically triggers the nervous system to lower the heart rate and blood pressure. In addition feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin are boosted while stress-related hormones like adrenaline are suppressed.
So there is tried-and-tested scientific fact in amongst the psychological conjecture and ongoing studies.
What is also without doubt is experiencing nature, whether it’s a walk in the park during your lunch break, or a weekend away in the Yorkshire Dales, can work wonders for your state-of-mind – and could even give a bright green boost to your mental health.