In any season – even on a snowy day – connecting with our natural surroundings can foster calm and healing. And in a world that’s unpredictable and often violent, doctors and therapists say nature can nurture our wellbeing.
Ralph Jassen and his wife Carole are volunteers at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
“Maybe it’s your hormones or whatever else is happening … but whatever it is it takes hold and you just feel it and you just feel good,” Carole Jassen said.
“There’s always a healing quality when you can use your hands on something, getting into the dirt. It’s magic,” Ralph Jassen said.
Kelly Warnick studies horticulture therapy. She and her colleague Alicia Green introduce veterans, people with depression and anxiety — even children with ADHD and autism — to the benefits of natural beauty.
“So humans are very genetically wired to need nature, not only for healing but also just for wellness,” Warnick said.
“It does actually effect you in a way deeper than you are realizing,” Green said.
“There is this restorative aspect of nature where it utilizes a different path of your nervous system,” Green said.
Taking in the natural surrounding requires less energy and less thought than other daily activities.
“That gives your nervous system a break,” Green said. “So you’re not as tired, you’re not as fatigued.”
At the Morton Arboretum in west suburban Lisle, Sydney Musselman found a way to heal after the death of her father.
“I have had mild depression my entire life,” she said. “I picked up anxiety in my 20s and then the grief with my dad, so mental health is a huge part of my life.”
So, she turned to trees.
“The first time I did forest therapy it quieted my mind, and that has never happened before. I have a constant narration going in my head,” she said.
Working with forest therapy guide Laura Kamedulski, Musselman learned simple exercises to help her form a deeper connection with nature.
“I am an advocate of medicines for mental health issues but also the nature piece is so beneficial for people who are experiencing difficult issues with their mental health,” Kamedulski said. “Absorbing those green colors, blue colors, all of the colors of nature. Smelling, feeling, noticing things in present moment rather than worrying about the future or the past.”
“The fact that I can bring myself down from an anxiety spiral is massive,” Musselman said.
Dr Tyler Saunders is an internal medicine physician at NorthShore University HealthSystems. He says a consistent dose of the outdoors can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
“We’re constantly being notified by our phone, by our watches, by other people, by the internet, that this is what we need to be paying attention to,” he said. “(Nature) allows the body to calm down. We’ve even seen changes in heart rate and changes in blood pressure.”
The benefits can be felt in all seasons … if you take the time to reflect.
Spending time in your own backyard or a local park – even in urban settings — can have the same impact. And doctors say there is some evidence the wilderness may even boost a type of immune cell called the natural killer t-cell, which is critical in fighting cancer.
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