Updated: May 14
"Just living is not enough… one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower." – Hans Christian Andersen
Quite a while ago I had listened to a BBC podcast called ‘The Why Factor: Why Does Nature Calm Anxiety' . Here, Jordan Dunbar spoke with many psychologists, one of whom I thought was particularly interesting – Lea Kendall, an environmental psychologist. She mentions that anxiety is one of the most diagnosed illnesses in the world today, and it is, apparently, only getting worse - partly due to human’s growing disconnect from nature. In this article we’re going to discuss this idea, along with a few others, while remaining as objective as possible, with the help of Ken, who is currently living in Oregon, USA. There’s a particular reason why I asked Ken if he would like to contribute to this article, which you’ll find out as we go.
There are endless amounts of reasons as to why people suffer from anxiety. As always, no two cases are the same, and this is why we have professionals. I am no professional. Nor am I telling you how to cure any form of anxiety. I am just another person with a curious mind. Nature is not the answer to anxiety. What I found interesting, was that it was known come to help many patients who do suffer from it. Having done more digging, I’ve come to find there are scientific reasons for this. As always, if we interpret the scientific research correctly, there is no one answer: there are the facts and then there are our speculations. This is why we must be careful. I am not preaching that nature cures anxiety, just because we have some facts does not mean we can make that sort of statement. Instead, I will say this; to a certain degree, nature might be able to help.
I would like to ask you what environment you’re in. Where are you right now? What’s going on? Who’s with you? What noises are there? (This is called mindfulness, do you like it?). What you see and hear is called your Environment, and it effects you in almost every way you dare to imagine. And I mean this quite literally, “What you are seeing, hearing, experiencing at any moment is changing not only your mood, but how your nervous, endocrine, and immune systems are working” . That’s extreme.
I have another question, have you ever heard of "Forest Bathing"? This is a simple Japanese practice where you engage with nature. This doesn’t have to be exercising, you can just sit there and take in everything around you. What if I were to tell you that on average, people who practiced Forest Bathing had better heart health, less bowel disorders and a mighty fine immune system (this is where we have to be careful to suggest correlation rather than causation). According to the psychiatric counsellor Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury at Positivepsychology.com, this goes much further; “The Forest Bathing research also suggested that by stimulating the production of anti-cancer proteins, frequent walks or trips into the wilderness help patients in fighting terminal diseases” .
This is where Ken comes in. He is older than some of our previous contributors and throughout his life he has had many different experiences when it comes to nature – as I’ll mention throughout – which means that he has a considerable and admirable amount of insight on this topic. No one person’s words are gospel, however much of what he knows will help us to discuss the facts, their relevance and their practicalities. Before we go further, one thing to mention is that Ken has taken up gardening in his recent years, meaning that he now spends a considerable amount of time in nature, possibly more so than ever before. The first question I asked him was ‘Would you consider gardening as being out with 'nature'?’
In his reply, he stated that he has had two different types of exposure: the first one being “a property adjacent to a wild green space. Though suburbia surrounded it, the green space could sometimes fool me into feeling like a secluded woodland. The garden was often a serene oasis embedded within a hive of human activity.” His second experience is his present one, “My current garden is in a quiet residential neighborhood surrounded by houses and a few tall trees.” This information is rather necessary for his answer, which was “The privacy and ever-present local fauna provide many of nature's benefits, but too few to replicate the isolation of a forest.”
To what extent must we dwell in nature to get all of its benefits? Can we get all of its benefits in the lifestyles that most of us live today?
Taking further the physical impact of immersing with nature, I’d like to bring your attention to the famous study of Roger S. Ulrich, PhD, where hospital patients in recovery were either facing a brick wall, or a window with the view of trees. The results came to show, that those overlooking the trees had an easier time recovering. Trying this again, in a Swedish hospital, patients who were undergoing heart surgery had lower levels of anxiety, and a slightly lower rate of pain medication use when they were surrounded by images of trees – not even an actual view of the natural world . Interesting, right?
If you’re someone who likes going for walks in a nature setting, and has actually somewhat benefited from it, you’d probably know that there are huge physical benefits, beyond metabolic levels. Ken mentions that “Contrary to the common stereotype of losing one's self in nature's verdant and idyllic embrace, I consider it more of a playground for physical fitness. I enjoy powering up inclines and scurrying over obstacles.” He continues, “Depression has been an unwelcome companion most of my life. Though I've never deliberately sought nature as a balm to mitigate depression's effects, I've hiked while depressed on many occasions. On those occasions, I benefit most from the experiential memories. I usually remember the experience fondly and forget that I was depressed at the time.” Ultimately, this bring us to the next point; the mental benefits and the correlation to Urbanisation.
Going back to Dr. Ulrich, he believes that “one explanation for the current epidemic of depression lies in the near-universal experience of uprootedness and alienation fostered by the environments in which we live.” In fact, as Ken mentions, “I accept as given that humans are animals -- a fact we too often forget -- and are relatively recently removed from our primate progenitors." As humans we have been living in largely urban areas of 0.01% of our existence. You might ask, are we facing the impacts due to not having enough time to adapt?
“Epidemiological studies which find that individuals living in the greenest urban areas tend to have better mental health than those in the least green areas” . There has been an abundance of research experiments trying to answer the question as to whether or not we are mentally deteriorating (on a large or small scale) due to our ever reducing contact with nature. However, they have often failed to come to a specific conclusion.
The above statement is a little misleading, because, in fact, the results have come to show that there is an initial reduction of depression among people who move from cities to rural areas, however it doesn’t last. Once the subjects got used to their surroundings, everything went back to normal. A study was published in 2013 called ‘Longitudinal Effects on Mental Health of Moving to Greener and Less Green Urban Areas’, which came to make this very crucial point, “There may be an initial peak in mental health following the move to a greener area before adaptation takes place and people return to premove levels (i.e., the adaptation hypothesis)” . In fact, they took it even further, saying that it could take years to see any sort of actual mental health benefit to living closer to nature (dubbed the sensitization hypothesis).
There are many, many negatives (and positives) to urbanization, but this isn’t one of them.
This same study also examined the reverse – when someone moved to an urban area. There was a decline in the subjects mental health, but, as is stated in the paper “The predicted decline in mental health for this group occurred before the move and was followed by rapid adaptation to the new circumstances.”
So the effects of being with nature seem to be quite immediate, with little long-lasting effect. Unless, you actually take up Forest Bathing as a hobby and spend at least an hour a day in natural locations. Even then, to see actual physical and metabolic benefits, you’d have to be doing it for a long time.
So for the everyday person, who can’t just pack bags and build a fort in the woods, nor has time to dedicate to Forest Bathing, what does this article offer you? It offers a suggestion, and that suggestion is…
According the paper mentioned earlier, “This study examined whether interacting with nature has beneficial effects on cognitive and affective functioning in Major Depression Disorder. We found that individuals diagnosed with MDD exhibited cognitive and affective improvements after walking in a nature setting. These effects were observed even though participants were instructed prior to their walks to think about a painful negative experience, which has been shown to prime rumination” . This is a statement that I asked Ken to comment on, and I think his entire answer is very important and for some, it's relatable.
“Depression has been an unwelcome companion most of my life. Though I've never deliberately sought nature as a balm to mitigate depression's effects, I've hiked while depressed on many occasions. On those occasions, I benefit most from the experiential memories. I usually remember the experience fondly and forget that I was depressed at the time.
“Though I rarely feel a measurable mood improvement after time spent in nature, I'm certain my depression would be worse if I had limited access to wild places. In that sense, I value the potential and possibility as much as the experience itself.”
Taking you back to that suggestion, I think it should come from our contributor himself; he proposes that we should “visit a natural area with deliberate intent. Approach it as a psychological experiment. Academic research demonstrates the benefits, but not everyone will experience them. Test their hypotheses… Be aware of their feelings before, during, and after the visit. Try to observe the sensations with a minimum of judgment. Compare experiences with a friend who performs the same experiment. The goal is knowing for the sake of knowing. File it under "nosce te ipsum": "know thyself".”
As Ken does “subscribe to the voluminous evidence that time spent in nature has therapeutic value, as well as to research demonstrating the detrimental impact on quality of life caused by urban areas devoid of natural elements,” it is important to note that “Some will benefit. Others will feel the same. A few may feel worse. Many may be unable to notice a difference. All are valid. Those who notice positive changes gain a valuable mood improvement tool that they can deploy as needed.”
If you’re interested in mindfulness, this suggestion is perfect. If you’re not, I’m going to take a guess and say it’s still perfect.
Some will feel the effects immediately, and for some it might take a certain amount of time. Most importantly you must do it several times before you come to a conclusion for yourself, “the more data [you] gather, the better [you’ll] understand the effects.”
If this isn’t a sufficient answer for you, Ken has more to say: “Seek a diversity of experiences in an array of environments: urban vs. rural, crowds vs. solitude, quiet vs. loud. Observe and document how you feel in different environments. This form of deliberate practice hones one's self-awareness and observer self. Doing so helps one identify which environments are most beneficial and most detrimental.” I’m confident that there is a slot for all of us – there has to be – we just ought to find it.
So, back to anxiety getting worse due to human’s disconnect from nature. As we’ve mentioned, the reason isn’t because we’re living in towns and cities now. It’s possibly because an increasing amount of people are using a car to get from one end of the house to the other (what?) - you get the point. With the introduction of things like the Segway, this might even have made situations worse (or better for some).
I chose and wrote this article in an effort to help you – as the reader – to understand the benefits and necessity of going backwards and returning as often as we can to the very thing our species came from – nature. I’m not telling you to pack your bags and move to a tree house, because that won’t get you very far (plus, some of us are scared of heights). But maybe just spend a little more time outside, if you haven't been doing so already. I will leave you with one more suggestion from Ken, for anyone who might be struggling with anxiety or depression: “I've kept an emotion journal for more than half of my life. I write about how I feel with the explicit purpose of leaving record for my future self's benefit. I recommend it to everyone.”
Back to the title, what deal can we make with nature? The deal can be somewhere along the lines of living the lives we live today, but with enough time spent in the green that we can reside in the benefits of both.
For anyone who is interested to read more of what Ken had to say, you can access the whole document of his response to my questions on the Further Reading page, linked here. There are several more points that he makes, and several sources that he elaborates on, which I suspect you’ll find interesting. Ken also goes much deeper in his descriptions of the experience he has had gardening.
Please join myself and Ken for the upcoming podcast episode on Geeky Conversations in due time, where we will be talking about a language created by a Polish ophthalmologist (a branch of medicine dealing with the diagnosis of eye disorders and treatment), known to be the “most widely spoken [purposefully] constructed international auxiliary language” .
Jack, in collaboration with Ken, at Interconnected.
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