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How Nature-Based Therapy Can Improve Your Mental Health

Mental Well-Being

May 27, 2022

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by Nandini Maharaj

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Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT

Medically Reviewed

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•••••

by Nandini Maharaj

•••••

Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT

Medically Reviewed

•••••

•••••

Medication isn’t the only way to treat your mental health when you live with a chronic condition. You might be surprised by all the benefits you can find right in the world around you.

I live in Vancouver, Canada, where doctors can prescribe an annual pass for patients to visit our national parks, free of charge. As someone who grew up avoiding nature, a prescription like this would have ended up crumpled at the bottom of my bag, never to be filled.

My haven was the great indoors. I would flee from the sun like a vampire, in search of an air-conditioned bubble to hide from the elements. So, what changed?

For starters, I got a dog in 2006. He wasn’t my first dog. In fact, Dally was my fifth, and he loved to spend every waking hour of the summer snoozing on the deck.

When I started having migraine episodes in 2010, the backyard became our sanctuary. Dally and I would squeeze in together on a chaise lounge, his fur sticking to my legs and his warm breath tickling my feet.

The sun’s rays didn’t trigger my sensitivity to light, as is common with migraine. Being in the fresh air provided relief from the pain throbbing on one side of my head. Often, my symptoms would subside long enough for us to venture out for a walk around the neighborhood.

Whether you’re a lifelong nature lover or a latecomer like me, there are science-backed reasons for getting out and enjoying what nature has to offer. Aside from promoting physical activity, nature can help boost your mood and ease stress.

And you don’t need a prescription to enjoy these mental health benefits.

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What do we mean by nature?

Nature refers to both human-made landscapes (e.g., parks, gardens, trails, campgrounds, etc.) and naturally occurring ones, like beaches and rock formations. It also includes pets, wildlife, plants, and weather patterns.

Nature-based therapy (NBT)” is an umbrella term for activities that promote engagement with nature.

These activities can be spontaneous, such as watching a squirrel foraging for berries or in my case playing with my dogs. Other times, NBT requires planning and preparation, such as going for a hike or attending an outdoor yoga class.

Another approach to NBT is structured activities or programs that take place under the guidance of a mental health practitioner. As with park prescriptions, therapist-led activities can be part of a formal treatment plan designed to address physical and mental health concerns.

For instance, you might work with a therapist on developing strategies to relieve anxiety or depression. The therapist might recommend practicing mindfulness during a nature walk and help you track your progress toward your goals.

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What are the benefits of nature-based therapy?

Inspiring awe

As twilight rolls in, nature offer new sights and sounds to delight our senses. According to a 2015 study, looking at the night sky triggers the experience of awe — which, in turn, can inspire greater empathy and concern for others.

Think about it this way: When you’re confronted with a starry expanse of sky or the vastness of the ocean, you can’t help but feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself.

When Dally passed away in 2017, my friends and family would often tell me, “He’s still with you.” But I didn’t feel his spirit. What I felt instead was a cloak of emptiness that would surround me until I stepped out into our backyard to look at the stars.

Since Dally’s passing, two dogs have come into my life. Every night before bedtime, I go outside with them to spend a few minutes in the night air.

Sometimes the sky is hazy with purple clouds. Other times, you can see the glow of the moon and stars. It’s one of the pleasures of living near a park that drowns out traffic lights and allows you a moment of respite from your chronic illness.

Providing aesthetic enrichment

It makes intuitive sense that viewing beautiful scenery would have a calming effect on your brain and nervous system. Apparently, flowers and plants can help create a similar effect indoors.

A 2019 review found that looking at photos and videos of nature led to greater relaxation than non-nature-related images. In addition to being aesthetically (visually) pleasing, viewing these images had a physiological effect by lowering blood pressure and heart rate and improving recovery from stress.

The allure of nature is twofold when you have a pet. Watching my dogs become captivated by the shadow of a butterfly flapping its wings or the movements of a woodpecker allows me to appreciate nature through my dogs’ eyes and mine.

Getting hands-on

In a 2017 review of studies on NBT, researchers described nature as a “secure base” and an “unburdened and uninterrupted space.” Participating in NBT promoted feelings of comfort, safety, and relaxation.

One of the reasons people find gardening so appealing is that it engages your mind and body. Through repeated engagement, you begin to internalize memories and physical sensations.

Moreover, tending to a garden is not unlike taking care of a beloved pet. Firstly, both activities involve the sense of touch. You pet and groom your dog. In the case of gardening, you handle tools and work the soil.

Secondly, giving back to another living being provides a sense of meaning and purpose. Being a caregiver to my dogs has helped me see myself as a person of worth outside of chronic migraine.

Something as small as sinking my fingers into their fur and watching them get excited helps me stay present and engaged. I can focus on the here and now, rather than getting overwhelmed by anxious thoughts that only worsen my migraine condition.

The takeaway

Research supports the idea of using nature-based therapy to improve mental health. What’s especially promising is the flexibility and adaptability of these therapeutic approaches.

NBT can have an element of spontaneity or involve structured activities under the guidance of a therapist. If you’re outdoors, you can use breathing exercises or guided meditation as part of a walking tour. You can also bring nature indoors using windows, plants, photos, and artwork.

So often, having a chronic illness can leave you feeling as if you’re a burden to others. You feel isolated. You worry about being sidelined by your symptoms and unable to fulfill your obligations.

As an unburdened space, nature allows you to explore and experiment freely. It reminds you that you’re profoundly connected to everything around you, from the stars in the sky to the ground beneath your feet.

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About the author

Nandini Maharaj

Nandini Maharaj, PhD is a freelance writer covering health, work, identity, and relationships. She holds a master’s degree in counseling and a PhD in public health. She’s committed to providing thoughtful analysis and engaging wellness content. Her work has appeared in HuffPost, American Kennel Club, Animal Wellness, Introvert, Dear, and POPSUGAR. She is a dog mom to Dally, Rusty, and Frankie. Find her on Twitter or her website.

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