Natural Medicine

By Dr. Emily O’Leary

Natural Medicine
It may seem like an oversimplified solution in our currently overstimulated world: to take a walk in the park to clear our heads, but the relationship between nature and our mental health and wellbeing has been the focus of more and more studies in recent times, providing us with intriguing results.

In our fast-paced lives, it is easy to forget to smell the roses. In many cases, smelling the roses is labelled lazy or unmotivated. These days, the need for us to be constantly busy is a product of our immediate environments and larger cultural contexts.

The link between nature and mental health is often forgotten. In our busy lives, remembering to build in some “green time” can be vital. During lunch last week with my daughter, I bought myself five minutes of peace and gave her my phone to watch ABC Kids. As I did so, I noticed that every other person at that café was also looking down at their phone, tablet or iPad.

We are becoming a culture of overstimulation. What impact does this have on our development? Does this change the way we interact with others? Since the early 1980s, environmental psychologists have concluded that nature is not only important for our primary needs but also for our emotional, psychological and spiritual needs.

The reported benefits for people who visit green open spaces is associated with improved stress levels and lower depression rates. I first heard this concept as an undergraduate student. We were taught by a Swedish lecturer who emphasised treating individuals in their cultural context. We are influenced by the weather, the landscape and cultural norms. Perhaps because of the increase in mental illness there has been renewed interest in the link between wellness and nature. Researchers at Deakin University, Professor Mardie Townsend and Ms Rona Weerasuriya, have argued that access to the natural environment improves health and wellbeing. Researchers reviewed current Australian and international literature on the links between mental health and wellbeing and the availability of green spaces.

According to the research, those with less access to private or shared gardens experience higher levels of stress. People who perceive their neighbourhoods as less green have a lower likelihood of good physical and mental health. They also pointed out that those living in areas with fewer green spaces have higher morbidity levels for several diseases, including anxiety and depression.

For children, proximity to green spaces is associated with reduced prevalence of mental disorders as well as other health issues. Outdoor play has a multitude of long-term benefits for physical, social, emotional and cognitive development, and fosters a sense of identity, feelings of autonomy, psychological resilience and healthy behaviours.

In addition, children who tend to experience high levels of contact with nature have higher levels of self-worth and higher cognitive function.

Beauty at home

It seems in recent times our attention has turned to using substances, activities and people to regulate our emotions. Stopping and taking stock of what is going on around us and the inherent beauty of our world has been forgotten. This is impacting our mental health and, on a simpler level, our happiness. There is a need to simplify and learn to tolerate our emotions through health activities rather than the “quick fixes”.

With a team, Harvard researcher Peter James looked at the relationship between exposure to green spaces and mortality rates. They studied 100,000 female nurses living across the US over an eight-year period and found those living in the greenest areas had a 12 per cent lower mortality rate compared with those living in the most built-up areas. Researchers were quick to point out that the results did not mean everyone should move to a farm, but rather small things such as lunch in a park can have a significant health benefit.

So how can we use this knowledge? The answer may be walking. A study led by Stanford researcher Gregory Bratman showed that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, had decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression. Two groups of participants walked for 90 minutes – one in a grassland area; the other along a traffic-heavy road. Before and after, the researchers measured heart and respiration rates, performed brain scans and had participants fill out questionnaires. They found little difference in physiological conditions, but marked changes in the brain, notably in the prefrontal cortex.

A sharper mind, naturally

What does all this mean? There are measurable positive changes occurring in the brain when we engage with nature that help our mental health. The authors concluded that there is a causal link between increasing urbanisation and increased rates of mental illness. Many scientists believe our brains are not made for the degree of overstimulation we expose them to, for example, mobile phones, television and computers.

Researcher David Strayer of the University of Utah showed that hikers on a four-day backpacking trip without technology could solve significantly more puzzles requiring creativity when compared to a control group of people waiting to take the same hike – in fact, 47 per cent more.

Another study led by Peter Aspinall at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, showed that participants who had their brains monitored continuously using mobile electroencephalogram (EEG) as they walked through a park had lower frustration levels and higher meditation levels while in the green area, and higher frustration levels when moving out of the green area. This lower level of arousal in the green areas may be what allows for attention restoration, encouraging a more open, meditative mindset.

Mental illness does not discriminate. The Western urban environment does not cause mental illness, as mental illness occurs across many cultures under a different name. For example, some seal hunters in Greenland experience a condition called kayak angst, characterised by feelings of panic out in the ocean, along with an intense need to seek security back on land. Although kayak angst appears on some lists of culture-bound syndromes, it strongly resembles the Western condition of panic disorder with agoraphobia, marked by extreme fear of situations where escape would be difficult in the event of a surge of overwhelming fear. We know that given the genetic underpinnings of mental illness we cannot stop it from often appearing.

Adjusting your thoughts

As I emphasise to my clients, we can change the way we process or interpret our thoughts, and relate to our environment. Nature matters and it’s important to sit back and be present in our surrounding beauty. At home take the time to sit on the porch and simply look at the leaves, reflect on the colour of the leaf and shape. It’s not the big things we do in life that cause change, but the everyday things. Invest in yourself – you are worth it!



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