Ecopsychology And The Impact Of Nature On The Nervous System
Taking the time to decompress, center and relax allows us to be present when it is time to work, exercise, caretake and do all of the things that fill up our days. This is why there is so much emphasis on self-care these days: we simply have so much on our plates. From COVID-19 to job loss and health concerns, financial and family stress due to uncertainties of the future so many of us are feeling the weight of the current times.
There are so many ways to practice self-care and different strategies will work for different people. I often think about mindset shifts that allow for more kindness and less stress, traditional practices such as yoga and meditation and relaxing activities like reading or knitting.
One part of self-care that I’ve become increasingly interested in – and even prescribe to my patients – is spending time in nature.
Humans have lived on the Earth for 6-7 billion years, and over 99 percent of that time we lived intimately with the natural environment.
It’s only been in very recent history where we’ve congregated in cities and even more recently that we’ve experienced a drastic increase in technology.
It seems many of us have access to everything we need without having to leave our home or neighborhood.
On one hand, these modern constructs might lead to more efficiency and ease, but one downside is that we’ve removed ourselves from the earth that sustains us.
Being out of rhythm and disconnected from the natural world, and living in highly urbanized or polluted environments, most certainly increase stress on the body and nervous system. And, getting back to nature might just be the part of self-care that truly brings us back into balance.
Today I will share more with you about:
- The emerging field of ecopsychology
- The many health benefits of spending time in nature
- 30 ways to bring more nature into your daily life, even if you live in a city
Let’s dive in!
What Is Ecopsychology?
Ecopsychology explores the human psychological interdependence with nature. Because of the amount of historical time that we’ve lived in close harmony with nature, our psychology is well adapted to being in the natural environment.
We experience an emotional and physical response just by being in close proximity to nature and experiencing it with our senses.
Ecopsychology is both an exploration of the human connection with the environment and a therapeutic technique that is utilized in psychology and medicine as part of a holistic treatment approach for various conditions or symptoms.
By building greater connections between people and the planet, we not only create more attachment and stewardship for the earth, but in terms of our health, there is a clear impact nature has on the health and well-being of each individual.
Health Benefits of Nature
The health benefits of nature are far reaching, with the nervous system and mental health having particularly strong evidence in the research.
Nervous System Benefits
The normal nervous system state is the relaxed, or parasympathetic state; yet, many of us spend the majority of our time in a stressed, “fight or flight” state. Nature therapy, or spending time in nature, has been shown to shift the body more into its natural, relaxed state.
Much of this type of research has been done on the Japanese practice of forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, which means “taking in the forest atmosphere.” This doesn’t necessarily mean exercise, although walking through a forest or other natural environment while using your senses to get the full experience is a common way to practice.
Forest bathing decreases the stress hormone cortisol, decreases pulse rate, decreases blood pressure which all correlate with an increased parasympathetic nervous system state and decreased stress. The best part is that the results can be experienced in as little as 15 minutes and have lasting effects.
One study of young women compared the stress reduction capacity of walking in a forest versus a city and found that the forest promoted significantly higher parasympathetic activity. In addition, those who walked in the forest felt more comfortable and relaxed while negative feelings such as tension, anxiety, hostility and fatigue decreased.
Similar results were shown in a study where middle-aged participants walked for 80 minutes in either an urban or natural setting twice per week. In addition to increased parasympathetic activity, measured by heart rate and blood pressure, this study showed lower adrenaline and dopamine levels in those who walked in nature.
Adiponectin, a hormone involved in the regulation of blood sugar, was greater in those who had nature exposure also, suggesting that nature may play a role in preventing insulin resistance.
This all goes to show that time in nature helps to balance the HPA-axis and foster our natural nervous system state. Since not everyone easily has access to a forest, similar results have been seen with exposure to urban green spaces.
Living in a place with accessible green spaces increases longevity and shows a similar parasympathetic response to forest bathing.
Mental Health and Other Benefits
The natural environment provides basic services to humans including water purification, a stable climate, protection from natural disasters and so much more. These “ecosystem services” help to improve quality of life and psychological well-being.
When they are not in place, they contribute to mental distress.
Experiences in nature have been shown to increase psychological well-being in terms of positive affect, happiness, positive social interactions, improved manageability of life tasks, improved cognitive function, memory, attention, imagination and creativity.
Time in nature and different nature experiences have also been shown to reduce risk factors for mental illness by improving acute and chronic stress, sleep issues, depression and anxiety.
In addition to the nervous system and mental health benefits of nature, nature influences other health factors as well.
Being outside in the natural environment increases the exposure to negative ions in the air, which have been shown to increase alertness, decrease nausea, headaches and other negative symptoms, help balance neurotransmitters and increase immunity.
Another benefit to time outside is exposure to microbes from the soil – either through the natural food we eat or contact with our skin – which help to support the human microbiome.
An urban environment tends to be a more sterile environment and exposure to many microbes helps to build robust and resilient microbiome and support immunity.
This is why we need more time in nature and why it’s so important now, more than ever!
30 Ways To Bring More Nature Into Your Life
Opportunities for nature experiences and time in nature may be decreasing due to pollution and increased urban environments. Many of us live in circumstances where we need to make more of an effort to bring nature into our lives, daily if possible.
Here is a list of ways to get more nature in your life. If you live in a city or have a hard time getting out into nature, you can bring nature into your home too! Remember that we experience nature with all of our senses so consider ways that you can see, smell, touch, taste and feel the natural world.
- Go for a walk, hike or bike ride on a trail.
- Sit in a park or under a tree.
- Practice forest “bathing”.
- Go camping.
- Go swimming in a lake or ocean.
- Visit local, state or national parks.
- Find a park or greenspace near you and visit as part of your daily or weekly routine.
- Look at the sky, trees and animals out your window.
- Look at visuals of nature such as photos or video.
- Garden in your yard or get a plot in a community/urban garden.
- Explore gardens in your neighborhood or visit a botanic garden.
- Decorate your home with houseplants.
- Buy yourself flowers, especially beautiful and fragrant ones.
- Use wood and other natural materials indoors.
- Smell essential oils of citrus, roses or cedar.
- Open your windows at night to hear the sounds of nature or listen to recorded nature sounds.
- Visit your farmer’s market for the freshest tastes of nature.
- Go foraging for wild mushrooms or herbs. Note: be careful to only select safe and edible mushrooms and do your research before consuming anything you are unsure of.
- Feel the sunshine on your face.
- Take your shoes off and put your feet on the bare earth. If indoors, try a grounding pad.
- Take your meditation, yoga, chi gong or other practices outside.
- Go on a wilderness retreat.
- Pick up trash from local waterways or volunteer for ecological restoration.
- Read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.
- Interact more with animals – pet your dog or cat, ride a horse, etc.
- Join an outdoor exercise class or training group.
- Watch the sunrise or sunset.
- Go on a picnic.
- Sit in an outdoor hot spring.
- Choose work that allows you to be outside or bring more nature to your indoor job.
There are many ways to interact with nature and harness the healing benefits that that aligning more closely with nature brings.
If you are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, disconnected or that is more to life than what is inside the four walls of the room you are reading this article in, consider all the ways to reconnect with nature. Your nervous system will thank you!
- Song, C., Ikei, H., & Miyazaki, Y. (2016). Physiological Effects of Nature Therapy: A Review of the Research in Japan. International journal of environmental research and public health, 13(8), 781.
- Ideno, Y., Hayashi, K., Abe, Y., Ueda, K., Iso, H., Noda, M., Lee, J. S., & Suzuki, S. (2017). Blood pressure-lowering effect of Shinrin-yoku (Forest bathing): a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC complementary and alternative medicine, 17(1), 409.
- Song, C., Ikei, H., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2019). Effects of Walking in a Forest on Young Women. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(2), 229.
- Li, Q., Kobayashi, M., Kumeda, S., Ochiai, T., Miura, T., Kagawa, T., Imai, M., Wang, Z., Otsuka, T., & Kawada, T. (2016). Effects of Forest Bathing on Cardiovascular and Metabolic Parameters in Middle-Aged Males. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2016, 2587381.
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- Franco, L. S., Shanahan, D. F., & Fuller, R. A. (2017). A Review of the Benefits of Nature Experiences: More Than Meets the Eye. International journal of environmental research and public health, 14(8), 864.
- Jo, H., Song, C., & Miyazaki, Y. (2019). Physiological Benefits of Viewing Nature: A Systematic Review of Indoor Experiments. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(23), 4739.