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Finding ways to slay stress can be challenging when you’re concerned about the resurgence of COVID-19, the economy, your family’s health and everything in between.
No matter what’s going on in your life, a growing body of research shows stress, anxiety and depression can be reduced naturally by using techniques in an emerging field called ‘ecotherapy,’ nature-based activities intended to promote positive mental and physical health.
The premise, according to practitioners, is about getting ourselves in synch with more organic, natural rhythms of life. As simple as that sounds, it works.
Time spent in nature connects us to each other and the larger world, according to researchers at the Human-Environment Research Lab.
The amount of natural space is not as important as interaction within it, according to researchers at the University of Illinois who discovered that residents in Chicago public housing who had trees and green around their building reported knowing more people, having stronger feelings of unity with neighbors, being more concerned with helping and supporting each other, and having stronger feelings of belonging than tenants in buildings without trees.
Public parks provide a great gateway to help deal with stress, anxiety, PTSD and other pressures in day-to-day life. Most park systems offer many free and low-cost programs throughout the year. Popular among winter programs are snowshoeing, bird watching, guided trail hikes and other outdoor fitness classes. Studies show some remarkable benefits.
Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a forest-therapy expert and researcher at Chiba University in Japan, found that people who spent just 40 minutes walking in a heavily wooded area had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is involved in blood pressure and immune-system function, compared with when they spent 40 minutes walking in a lab, according to a report published in Time Magazine.
Individuals with ADHD who regularly partake in parks tend to have milder symptoms than those who spend more time indoors. The rate of relapses seems to decrease among substance addicts who participated in therapeutic camping programs. Those findings relate more to behavior and mood tied to physical well-being, according to an article in The Atlantic.
People who walk for 90 minutes in a natural setting, like a public park or nature paths, are less likely to ruminate – a hallmark of depression and anxiety – and had lower activity in an area of the brain linked to depression than people who walked in city environments, according to a 2015 study published in the Proceeding of the Natural Academy of Sciences.
Robert Zarr, a Washington, D.C., physician, writes prescriptions for parks. He details which parks his depressed, diabetic, anxious or obese patients should visit, which days and for how long they should stay there just as he would if he were prescribing a drug. He believes those details are just as important as telling a patient to take a medication a certain number of times a day and for how many days.
Researchers in the United Kingdom found when people participated in physical movement outdoors they experienced less anger, fatigue and sadness. The science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported walking in a park reduced blood flow to a part of the brain researchers Hope, Health & Healing December 2016 say was typically associated with brooding.
The study also reported patients healed faster and had fewer complications following gall bladder surgery when they had a view of trees from their windows instead of a wall.
Ecotherapy can range from outdoor sessions with a therapist to simple exercises you can do on your own. It can be one part of an approach to feeling better overall or a supplemental treatment for a health condition. A word of caution, it is not designed to replace traditional medical treatments.
”Ecotherapy can be as simple as leaving electronic devices at home, stepping outside and taking a walk. If you’re moving and interacting with nature with your senses, you’re seeing, hearing and smelling out in nature, that’s where the benefits start to kick in,” says Derrick Sebree, a psychotherapist who practices in Plymouth and Ann Arbor.
“Try to see some wildlife such as seeing birds or ducks in the park. It’s really about connecting with your environment, looking at the plants around you, looking at the sky,” says Sebree.
Japanese researchers studied forest bathing, the practice of walking or spending time in wooded areas. They found a three-minute walk in the woods can improve moods, boost the immune system and lower the heart rate and blood pressure, he says.
“It shows there’s a very big key to spending time outdoors,” Sebree says “It has its own inherent benefits. As society gets busier and moves at a faster pace, we’re not getting those interactions with the environment and studies are showing your environment affects your physical health.”
Sebree got involved in ecotherapy after spending time working in urban gardens in Detroit. After working in the dirt, he noticed differences in himself and the people around him. Those feelings and differences led him to the field of study.
When you don’t find your way into doing something outside, you may start feeling down in the dumps, angry and frustrated. Researchers call this feeling nature deficit disorder. Even imagining yourself in a green environment surrounded by tree, plants and flowers can make you feel better, says a 2010 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.
So work on getting out at least for five minutes each day.
Here are some ways you can incorporate more nature into your everyday life:
Editor’s note: Health writer Kimberly Hayes Taylor and staff writers at The Level contributed to this feature.