Wild Ideas: Nature as medicine

Nature can inspire awe through spectacular views, such as of Dark Hollow Falls, in Shenandoah National Park.
Nature can inspire awe through spectacular views, such as of Dark Hollow Falls, in Shenandoah National Park. By Pam Owen

Having a passion for nature can be rewarding in many ways, but now scientists studying the relatively new discipline of “environmental psychology” (aka “ecopsychology”) are finding that being out in nature has real health benefits.

And nature can inspire awe through the little things all around us, such as a flowerlike mushroom growing in a yard.
And nature can inspire awe through the little things all around us, such as a flowerlike mushroom growing in a yard. By Pam Owen

As an article in the June issue of “University of California, Berkeley, Wellness Letter” puts it, nature offers “medicine for the mind.” The article cites studies that show that “green exercise” — just walking in nature — can give people “increased vitality (physical and mental energy) and a greater sense of well-being” over walking inside. Walking through forests, according to some researchers, can help reduce stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate and improve immune function for hours, or even days.

Ever have a sense of awe when viewing some sweeping landscape, or just seeing a bear going about its business? That awe that nature inspires can make us feel part of something bigger, says the article. Or, according to the University of Minnesota (UM) website, that awe gives us a sense of “meaningfulness.”

For me, it doesn’t take a view of the Grand Canyon to put me in awe of nature. Just finding the brightly colored millipede I featured in my last column, or a somewhat water-soaked, flowerlike mushroom growing in the yard — or mantis nymphs emerging from their egg sac — brought an involuntary “wow!” from my mouth.

Research indicates that experiencing nature may lower levels of chemicals that affect systemic inflammation, reduce muscle tension and the production of stress hormones, increase the attention span of children with ADHD and, as the UM website put it, may even reduce mortality” from some diseases or conditions.

Where to hike nearby

Our area offers a wealth of opportunities to get out and enjoy nature, from short, easy hikes, to treks along the Appalachian Trail and up mountains to see spectacular vistas, including those listed below.

Guided walks and hikes:

  • Shenandoah National Park, which offers hikes and other nature activities throughout the year through its Ranger Program (nps.gov/shen/planyourvisit/calendar.htm). On National Trails Day (June 4), the park partners with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club in offering guided easy to advanced hikes starting from the Byrd Visitor Center (9:30-3:30).
  • Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, which manages Virginia’s state parks, where nature activities are offered year-round (dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks). Sky Meadows State Park (in western Fauquier County) and Shenandoah River State Park (south of Front Royal) also have special activities celebrating National Trails Day.
  • Virginia Native Plant Society, which offers guided walks on public and private property throughout the year (vnps.org/events).
  • Piedmont Environmental Council, which offers walks on private properties throughout the year to show the benefits of naturalizing, including for birds and pollinators (pecva.org/events).
  • White House Farm Foundation, in Luray, which has naturalized preserves at White House Farm, near Luray, and at Leopold’s Preserve, in Haymarket (whfarmfoundation.org), offers walks at both locations.

Self-guided hiking options:

Researchers studying dementia have also found that access to nature can “play a key role in restoring a sense of purpose, unlocking memories from the past, bringing meaning to patients’ experiences and providing a calming affect for people living with dementia,” according to an article on the UK National Health Service website.

Nature can improve cognitive function in young people, too. A study about creativity in the wild, published in the journal Plos, found that several days of immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multimedia and technology, increased performance on a creativity, problem-solving task “by a full 50 percent” in a group of young adults.

Pointing to new research, Richard Louv, author “Last Child in the Woods,” said in an interview for National Geographic that nature is a “good antidote” for depression, ADD, physical health, child obesity and the epidemic of inactivity.

Nature can also distract us from our pain and discomfort, as I’ve found in my own experience battling fibromyalgia and arthritis, both of which can make it hard for me to get out of bed some days. But I’ve learned that just a short walk in the woods that surrounds my house in the morning, or when I start to lag during the afternoon, can ease pain and clear the brain fog I often experience, enabling me to on with my work and enjoy my life.

So next time you think you have too much to do, are feeling lousy or just don’t seem to have the energy to drag your butt off the couch, think about taking a dose of “ecotherapy.” If you’re new to experiencing the glory of the outdoors and leery of its challenges (rugged terrain, rash-causing plants, biting insects or larger, fearsome-looking critters, etc.) — or want to deepen your knowledge and appreciation of nature — take advantage of the many guided nature walks and other activities regularly offered nearby (see sidebar).

On June 4, join Shenandoah National Park and nearby state parks in celebrating the enjoyment and health benefits that come with walking out into nature on American Hiking Society’s National Trails Day, “the country’s largest celebration of trails,” according to the society’s website. (See sidebar for nature-walk and hiking opportunities that day and at other times.)

Even if you spend just five to 20 minutes outdoors in a natural setting, you can boost your mood and energy levels, according to the “Wellness Letter” article. And if you can’t get out, “even a simple plant in a room can have a significant impact on stress and anxiety,” adds the UM article. A study of patients who underwent gallbladder surgery found that hospital patients who had just a view of trees tolerated pain better, appeared to nurses to have fewer negative effects and spent less time in a hospital than those with a view of a wall, according to the article.

To quote the famous biodiversity proponent, E. O. Wilson, as I do at the end of all my emails, “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.”

© 2016 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 346 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”