IN RECENT YEARS, Western researchers have become aware of a powerful new kind of therapy which might be as effective against depression as traditional psychotherapy or medication.
What’s remarkable is that it’s free and completely accessible to anyone at any time.
It is ecotherapy — the use of nature as a treatment for physical and mental wellness.
While traditional indigenous cultures have always understood the significant bond between human health and nature, it’s taken a while for Western psychologists to catch on.
In 2010, Deakin University of Australia published a study showing that people who live in nature, near wooded areas, mountains, water, national parks or nature preserves were less likely to suffer from anxiety or depression.
Similarly, other findings in this study concluded that nature triggers the relaxation response, restores health and encourages healthier development in children.
Other ecotherapy benefits include:
• ADD and ADHD reduction
• Stress, anxiety and depression reduction
• Heart health
• Sleep improvement
• Brain development
• Increase in vitamin D
• Eye Health
• Lung Health
• Weight management (circadian rhythm)
Contact with nature can also transform us spiritually.
This is certainly true for me.
I have what one might call “awakening experiences” very frequently when I’m in nature.
If I go walking on the beach, there usually comes a point when a feeling of well-being begins to well up inside me, and then the waves and the grasses and the sky around me seem to be more alive and beautiful.
This almost always gives me a sense that “all is well.”
Countless poets have written of the states of awe and ecstasy they’ve experienced while alone with nature.
This is what William Wordsworth’s poetry is most famous for: his sense that nature is pervaded with what he called “a motion and a spirit which rolls through all thinking things, and all objects of thought.”
Other poets such as Walt Whitman, Emerson, William Blake and W.B. Yeats also have left us many descriptions of the sense of meaning and harmony and inner joy they experienced while contemplating natural scenes.
Why does nature have this effect on us?
It’s not surprising that nature has a therapeutic effect when you consider that the human race — and all our evolutionary forebears — have been closely bonded with it for all our existence.
It’s only in recent times that so many of us have been confined to human-made environments.
Thus, contact with nature is like going back home, and it fills us with the same sense of safety and belonging.
We crave nature in the same way that a child needs a mother, and derive the same feeling of comfort from it.
But the main reason why nature can heal and transform us, I believe, is because of its calming and mind-quietening effect.
In nature, our minds process a lot less information than normal, and they don’t wear themselves out by concentrating.
At the same time, the beauty and majesty of nature acts a little like a mantra in meditation, slowing down the normal “thought-chatter” which runs chaotically through our minds.
As a result, an inner stillness and energy fills us, generating a glow of being and intensifying our perceptions.
For me personally, I often feel as close to God in nature as I do in the sanctuary of the congregation I serve.
So the next time you feel depressed, frustrated and fearful that everything around you is falling apart, please put on your walking boots and try some ecotherapy.
You might not just get a boost of well-being, but a spiritual awakening experience as well.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Kate Lore is a minister at the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Townsend. Her email is [email protected]