We are born from nature, live in nature, and return to nature, yet we get disconnected from nature. This disconnection causes profound suffering. Nature is our primal mother, and our body is her direct extension. When we are separated from nature, we become disconnected from the body, causing various physical and mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. Studies on Interoception, a new branch of neurobiology, have provided strong evidence of these links. The role of nature in emotional and mental health problems is so vital that the new disciplines of ecopsychology and ecotherapy have been formed. But in this discussion, we are going to mainly focus on how nature can help in relieving anxiety and depression.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is the perception of a threat to physical or mental safety and well-being. It is a state of persistent stress in which the sympathetic nervous system is hyperactive. Excess adrenaline, noradrenaline, and steroids are released in the body resulting in a wide variety of symptoms, including pounding heart, sweating, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, chest pain, and fear of dying.
What is Depression?
Depression is a feeling of sadness, fatigue, lack of pleasure, and loss of interest in life’s activities. Depression is caused by an imbalance of various neurochemicals including serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline. Genetics plays an important role in making an individual susceptible to depression – often there is a history of many family members being affected by the condition. However, adverse life events such as bereavement, loss, and disappointment can also trigger a bout of depression.
Also read: Nature: A Home for True Happiness
How does nature help in relieving anxiety and depression?
Since ancient times, people have been aware of nature’s role in emotional and mental health. In India, traditional schools or Gurukul (“family of Guru”) were situated in a forested area close to a river. Proximity to nature created a suitable environment for learning as well as to maintain a happy mood and vitality. India’s tradition of worshipping rivers, trees, rocks, sun, moon, and other elements of nature was to remain connected with nature and protect it.
In Scandinavian countries, there is a long tradition of establishing schools in natural settings. A similar movement started in the USA to bring enhanced learning with a feeling of well-being amongst students.
Nature’s healing role in anxiety and depression is not simply a theory or a belief but has become well established through scientific studies. The primary mechanism through which nature works on the human body and mind is by reducing stress. Ulrich developed a theory of stress reduction in 1991, which states that if we are close to a forest, river, lake, ocean, mountain, or other natural environments, we experience positive feelings and emotions, reducing our stress and giving us a sense of calmness. It restores our energy and focus. We experience what is called ‘soft fascination.’ Soft fascination is a state in which our attention is held by a less stimulating activity, bringing calmness and relaxation. Proposed by Kaplan, soft fascination is activated by sitting on the grass, walking through the forest, hiking a mountain, taking a dip in a river, lake, or ocean, or gazing at the moon, stars, clouds, and the blue sky. It helps in rest, rejuvenation, reflection, and contemplation.
Studies on Japanese forest bathing or Shinrin-Yoku is an increasingly popular way of experiencing calmness and mental well-being. Studies done by Song in 2016 indicate that the plants and trees emit a healing substance, phytoncides. Even indoor plants emit phytoncides and help in mental well-being and improving immunity.
As we connect to nature, the activity of the sympathetic nervous system and the release of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol in the body is reduced, resulting in a decrease in anxiety. The neuroscientist Norman Doidge described the role of the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic system, in bringing a state of calmness, collectedness, and connectedness. Simultaneously, serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins reach a healthy level, relieving the symptoms of depression and inducing the experience of pleasure and happiness.
Studies have shown that direct exposure to sunlight increases serotonin in the brain to help deal with depression. In addition, ultraviolet light stimulates melanocytes in the skin, which help release endorphins, bringing calmness and good feelings.
Research in ecotherapy suggests a strong connection between nature and reducing anxiety and depression. In addition, exposure to nature is cost-effective and without any side effects.
It is not only nature in its pristine and natural form that can help our mental state, but also urban and indoor nature can relieve stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms. Such nature includes flowering plants, water, urban wildlife, pets, and trees. In 2016 a study showed that visiting or walking in a park can reduce the risk of stress, anxiety, and depression. It is like taking a ‘Nature Pill’.
Also read: Nature: Mother to all
How much exposure to nature is needed to obtain a healing effect?
In a press release about her recent research, Dr. Mary Carol Hunter from the USA said, “Our study shows that for the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature.” Matthew White, in Europe, conducted a study on twenty thousand people and concluded that a minimum of two hours a week of exposure to nature is essential to experience a sense of mental well-being.
In summary, connection and exposure to nature are like natural remedies to help in dealing with anxiety and depression.
With our upcoming series of blog posts with Dr. Jivasu, we hope to provide an even greater understanding of the concept of Somatofulness and exploring ways in which nature nurtures humans.
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