"Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean."-John Muir
If you follow the Blackbird Counseling & Wellness Instagram feed, you may have noticed that I have been spending some restorative time outdoors as a part of my own self-care. Boy, it sure has made a difference in what is often a hectic couple months for me.
The psychological benefits of nature may seem intangible and difficult to embrace -- after all, those who spend time in the great outdoors may themselves have a hard time pinning down why they love it. They may say that there is a certain "feel" to being connected to nature; that being outdoors increases their own feelings of being "present" or "in the moment."
But can we quantify the psychological benefits of being in nature? Not surprisingly, the answer is yes.
The Stress Reduction Theory (SRT) plays a large role in looking at how humans respond to the natural world. The idea here is that natural environments have an advantage over artificial, or man-made, environments -- especially when we're talking about how effective something is at being restorative (Ulrich, 1981).
Attention Restoration Theory (ART) also plays a role here. This theory works especially well when discussing using nature as a tool, as it focuses on the idea that we take in our environments both consciously and subconsciously. When you're out in nature, you may be very aware of the sound of leaves rustling in the trees, or the smell of slightly damp soil under your feet -- but there are underlying effects going on which you are not immediately aware of, but that are still benefiting you (Kaplan, 2001).
Go to the Outdoors
The main logic both with SRT and ART is that after exposure to natural environments, you are able to perform better on tasks that depend on directed-attention abilities. This means focusing more on your family, your work life, and your personal needs.
Depending on the time you have and where you live, it's remarkably simple to start opening up your life to the natural world. One of the important things is to try and get out of more developed environments, so while going for a walk in your neighborhood is a good idea, it won't reach the full effects that ART and SRT talk about. Instead, look for state, city, or county funded parks that you can spend some time in by yourself or with family. Depending on the season, you can even look into some brief camping or hiking trips around your state or federal parks. The US National Park Service provides multiple tools for doing just that, as well as informing nature-lovers about what kinds of experience they can expect to have while visiting.
Bring the Outdoors to You
With SRT in mind, we can use these tools to help bring the great outdoors into our homes and office and channel some of these restorative and rejuvenating practices without needing to go on week or month long "escapes." There are a few very specific ways that views of nature help us to feel restored -- Ulrich found that scenes of nature actually activate our parasympathetic nervous system, reducing stress and autonomic arousal. His research found that images of grasslands with sporadic clusters of trees had the most striking impact on our innate connections to nature and, therefore, provided the easiest feelings of rejuvenation.
Shop around for photographs or prints of grasslands, valleys, or fields that are appealing to you -- the American landscape, especially the west, are composed of an amazing number of grasslands, all of which have been photographed extensively. More recent research has even found that viewing photographs and video of these natural images is shown to reduce skin conductance and heart rate, two prime indicators of stress (Gladwell et al., 2012). Use these as tools to help bring nature into your home or office space, and explore some of Ulrich's Stress Reduction Theory for yourself.
With these tools, you can use the natural world to ease stress and reconnect with your family, your work, and yourself. Call me to schedule an appointment and we can explore more ideas on ways to harness your own self-focusing abilities.