Nature nurture

by Suzannah Ferron, M.A.

Too much stress doesn’t just feel bad for you: It really IS bad for you.

Going for a walk or getting outdoors has long been regarded as being as much a panacea for the stressors of life as a nice cup of tea. Now research is backing up the idea that one of the best ways to reduce stress and improve your sense of wellbeing is to nurture yourself with nature.

Recent studies show that spending time in nature can help you relax and focus, and improve your mood. Getting out in nature is associated with lower levels of cortisol, a hormone secreted by the adrenal gland that kicks into high gear under times of stress. Too much cortisol can negatively affect your memory, learning, immune functioning, bone density, weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease and, of course, mental health.

It turns out that connecting with nature is a great antidote.

In Japan, taking brief, leisurely strolls in the forest is called “Shinrin-Yoku” or “Forest Bathing”, and it has long been a popular way to deeply de-stress, relax and reconnect with the slower-paced, more oxygen-saturated natural world. Studies suggest that Forest Bathing, which combines the exercise of walking with the therapeutic effects of being out of doors and inhaling the essential oils released by the trees, can help build immunity and positively affect mood.

Organic gardening is another way to connect with nature to reduce stress and anxiety, and to refocus your mind-body-spirit. Your efforts can be as elaborate as a flower or vegetable garden (your own or a plot in a community garden), or as simple as tending a small herb garden of herbs or plants on your porch or balcony. I put the emphasis on organic because of the unique way it requires a deeper and more nurturing relationship with plants, the soil and the local ecosystem. Not only will you benefit through organic gardening, your local ecosystem and its inhabitants will be the healthier for it.

Another way to reduce stress and increase your sense of wellbeing is to spend time with a beloved pet or other animal. Time spent among animal companions is being recognized as having a positive physiological effect on humans, and it’s good for the animals as well. Equine therapy for teens and therapy dogs that visit eldercare centers are obvious examples of therapeutic animal-human connection, but even a few minutes spent with a pet or a visit to an animal sanctuary can offer positive effects for humans and non-humans alike.

Think of a time when connecting with nature or animal companions has improved your mood or had you feeling more relaxed or focused. How did that experience affect you?

What are some ways you can spend time in nature or among animal companions this week? Today? Perhaps even this very moment?

© Suzannah G. Ferron, 2014