By Marisa M. Tomasic, Ph.D.
Imagine for a moment walking along a path in the forest, a cascade of green highlighting the landscape as you savor the abundance of sights, sounds, and soothing aromas of nature. You feel present, taking in the moment. It’s certainly easy to comprehend the tranquility and feelings of well-being that might result from such an experience.
Scientific research is continually supporting what we mostly already know: Experiencing nature can play a valuable part in our health and well-being. Spending time outdoors can improve both physical and mental components of health. Being in natural settings, such as forests, has been found to boost immunity, lower stress hormones, enhance mood and lower blood pressure, and heart rate. Nature therapy, ecotherapy, forest therapy, and wilderness therapy use the outdoors to restore health and wellness. Much of the science supporting these programs originate in Japan. Shinrin-Yoku, or “forest bathing,” developed out of several years of research on the health benefits of being in nature, green environments, and forest areas. This exciting concept consists of walking in and connecting with nature, allowing one’s senses to be awakened and invigorated.
A consequence of the increasing body of research is that this intriguing area has been receiving attention among health professionals as a potentially beneficial component for the treatment of stress and various related disorders. Studies examining the beneficial health effects of forest therapy have yielded an array of positive results that offer promise for the alleviation of the stress and anxiety associated with trauma and PTSD. Some believe nature-based therapy has the potential to produce benefits; the more typical model of treatment might not. An appealing component of nature lies in its provision of retreat and respite from the fast, stress-filled pace of life. Nature therapy creates a softer, more mellow experience for those struggling with sensory overload. Research on nature-oriented treatments for veterans with PTSD shares a bit of history, noting that earlier roots lie in the horticulture programs that were created in 1918 to assist WWI veterans suffering from “shell shock,” which we know today as PTSD.
The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy’s blog is an exceptional resource for learning about the role of the outdoors in wellness promotion. It offers research-based information from studies of how nature works to promote health, and practical ideas for using the outdoors as a tool for healing and heightening well-being, whether as a guided forest walk or a retreat in one’s backyard. Among the objectives of the association is the education of healthcare professionals about prescribing and incorporating forest therapy into their practices. A further objective is to encourage and support awareness of nature and forest therapy via ongoing research efforts.
From a psychologist’s perspective, nature therapy for better mental and emotional health is refreshingly appealing. A newer, more inviting landscape of green, mixed with the tranquility that nature provides, is exciting to consider as an alternative or supplement to more traditional methods of treatment.