Science Says We Are Healed by Nature (And Even Houseplants)

Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you. ~Frank Lloyd Wright

Green growing things heal us in surprising ways. Communities are trying to bring plant life to areas that lack it.

Via Yes! Magazine

In some of my earliest memories, I’m perched between two branches of a plum tree that grew in front of my house. To climb, I’d grip the lowest branches and stretch my foot as high as it would reach, pulling myself up to sit comfortably in my little throne of branches. There, I’d peer through the pale purple blossoms, across the sidewalk, admiring the tops of cars.

I don’t remember any fear—just the scrape of callused feet on bark; the triumph of successfully hoisting my knee onto a branch; the comfort of my hands circling that final limb as I reached the perfect nestling spot.

Growing up with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, I was anxious a lot. I procrastinated constantly because I didn’t know how to prioritize. I was worried I might be stupid because I couldn’t finish basic tasks. Sitting still in a circle was torture. But at the tops of familiar trees, seeing everything through a veil of leaves or delicious-smelling blossoms, I could make my brain stop spinning.

Even now, laundry stays in the washing machine for three days because I forget about it. I leave half-full glasses of water all over the house. Currently, I have 52 tabs open in three Chrome windows. The other day I went into my bedroom to get my phone charger but only managed to change my shirt. Spending time with plants is still my reset button.

In my quest for introspection and mental quiet time, trees have been my most stalwart allies.

Nature’s “cognitive restoration”

Globally, more than 300 million people live with depression, 260 million with anxiety, and many with both. An estimated 6 million American children have been diagnosed with ADHD. Physical activity is known to help combat and prevent these disorders, but a walk down a busy traffic-filled street doesn’t cut it. A walk in the woods, however, works. Just 90 minutes can decrease activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex—a region associated with rumination (dwelling on negative thoughts, for example).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, exposure to nature can significantly reduce stress. It also alleviates symptoms of anxiety, depression, and ADHD. Spending even a short amount of time in green space can lower blood pressure; it can also help people develop healthier habits and form more positive relationships. People’s mental health is markedly better in urban areas with more green space.

Attention Restoration Theory helps explain why.

Urban environments are overwhelming. City dwellers are constantly bombarded with complex sights, sounds, and smells. Researchers believe that this has a negative effect on executive functioning, making us less able to cope with distractions. Captivating natural scenes, however, can restore attention and help combat mental fatigue.

Interestingly, some built environments can have the same effect. Cities that incorporate water, or “blue space,” are more restorative than those without. Monasteries and countryside cottages fit the bill because, like nature, they evoke a sense of “being away.” Museums and art galleries are restorative because they provide an escape from the cacophony of urban life. These scenes all give one a sense of space—of room to explore.

The more interactive we are with restorative space, the better; a weekend stay in a cozy wooded cabin will do more good than staring at a picture of one.

The problem with urbanization

More than half of the world’s population, and counting, lives in an urban setting. People in cities run a higher risk of both anxiety and mood disorders than people in rural areas—20 and 40 percent higher, respectively. We’re also more sedentary than ever, and green space has been shown to promote critically important physical activity.

Apartments, office buildings, subways, traffic-filled streets—we’re spending more and more time away from nature. Researchers estimate that if every city dweller spent just 30 minutes per week in nature, depression cases could be reduced by 7 percent. Globally, that’s a whopping 21 million people. But for a busy city dweller, a visit to a beautiful monastery isn’t always feasible. We all have read about the benefits of “forest therapy,” but a half-day hike in the woods is a luxury many can’t afford.

The answer lies in incorporating green space into urban planning, weaving nature into the fabric of everyday city life.

To understand our fraught relationship with urban nature, consider the evolution of big cities. Urbanization exploded in the 1800s as more people left their rural homes to look for work. With the focus on high-level priorities such as sanitation, not to mention basic transportation and housing, green space just wasn’t considered sufficiently important for human welfare.

Kathleen Wolf, a social science researcher at the University of Washington, studies the human benefits of nature in cities.

With the industrial boom and huge population influx, rates of disease went up, she says, and we focused on clearing space for sanitary engineering systems. “What we think now is that, maybe, the pendulum went a little too far in removal of nature from cities.”

About the author:

Natalie Slivinski wrote this article for The Mental Health Issue, the Fall 2018 issue of YES! Magazine. Natalie is a Seattle-born biologist and freelance science writer. She focuses on mental health, disease, pollution, and sustainable biotech.

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