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Outdoor Therapy and Grounding Techniques for Mental Health

calm focus foundations joy Sep 28, 2018

By Tim Culbert, MD

Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

-John Muir

Where do I go when I feel burned out? I head to the mountains, forests, rivers, lakes, and desert landscapes for rejuvenation and a sense of calm. That simple step of heading outside almost magically shifts my internal landscape. I think of this immersion in a wild environment as “swimming with the senses.”

As a physician, I’ve sought out the scientific support for how these healing effects of nature take place. It's a free activity, there are no side effects, but is it just good for me or is something my patients should do too?

Well-known authors, poets, political leaders, and healers from all over the world have understood this connection between health in mind, body, and spirit, and the natural world. I love Seth Adam Smith’s perspective on the subject:

I am Mother Nature. All of creation bows before me. When people leave their cities and learn of me—walk in my woods, bathe in my rivers, eat of my harvest—they will find healing to their souls. But stray from me and return to the supposed wisdom of men, and they will find themselves in chains once more.

-Seth Adam Smith in Rip Van Winkle and the Pumpkin Lantern

Many cultures identify the powerful healing aspects of nature and have a real reverence and respect for the power and beauty of the natural environment. One vivid example occurs in Japan, where the activity of “forest bathing” is well recognized as an age-old practice for restoring health and wellness. This is called Shinrin-Yoku Forest Therapy, the medicine of simply being in the forest. Shinrin-Yoku means "taking in the forest atmosphere." It was developed in Japan during the 1980s and has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Health benefits from “forest bathing” can include improvements in immune function, less stress, better mood, enhanced attention, and more restful sleep.

The forest makes your heart gentle. You become one with it. No place for greed or anger there.

-Pha Pachak

Unfortunately, daily life is often spent indoors and engaged with electronics. This may contribute toward a more sedentary lifestyle, sleep problems, cognitive fatigue, and increased EMF radiation exposure- which may be a risk factor for poor health.

Consider this:

  • Fifty percent of children worldwide get less than 30 minutes a day being outside.
  • A typical prison inmate in the USA is allowed 2 hours each day out of doors. 

That's perhaps good news for inmates, but bad news for kids. The Huffington Post reported that children today spend only half the amount of time outside than their parents did. Perhaps the climbing incidence of mental health problems worldwide could represent a “nature deficit disorder” as author Richard Louv suggests.

Several studies have documented (in different countries) that a brief walk in a natural environment- such as a park, urban green space, forest or a place with plants and trees- can result in more positive thoughts, less anxiety and stress, better attention, and more prosocial behaviors such as kindness and enhanced social connection. How does this happen?

Find a place where you can walk barefoot. Connect with nature, let her transmit all its healing power to you.

-Roxanna Jones

There are several theories of how time in nature supports mental health:

Awe and Wonder. Experiencing awe and wonder in natural settings can promote loving-kindness and other positive behaviors. A decrease in the release of inflammation promoting chemicals (called cytokines) can also occur. This is important for mental health as an excess level of cytokines has been linked to depression. The experience of awe when viewing something considered beautiful also appears to facilitate the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with motivation, desire, reward, and euphoria. 

Chemical Messengers. Breathing outdoors is very different than breathing indoors. When you’re outdoors, you can breathe in chemicals released by trees and plants called phytoncides. These are natural compounds which include terpenes. These volatile phytochemicals are the scent molecules of trees and allow plants to communicate with each other and maintain the forest ecosystem. Some plants give off very active substances which prevent them from rotting or being eaten by some insects and animals. These chemicals are in the forest air, can be breathed in, and may support the human immune system!

Stress Balancing. Studies also support that time in nature can help turn off the stress nervous system and increase the relaxation response as the nervous system is rebalanced. This induces physical changes like lowered blood pressure and increased heart rate variability (HRV). Increased HRV is a positive marker for general health and wellness. 

Recharge Your Brain Batteries. Natural settings can also make a meditative state more likely. The brain drain of multiple devices and media 24/7 requires brain engagement of the prefrontal cortex area. This constant engagement depletes cognitive resources and brain energy. A stroll outside can reduce active engagement of brain resources, offering a restoration of attention and encouraging a more open meditative state. Scientists think that this kind of activity engages the brain’s “default mode network,” which is a brain function related to creative thinking and appears more prominent when not active thinking tasks are not occurring.

The Body Electric. Did you know that you can get electrically out of balance and that an imbalance can then affect your mental health? More evidence continues to support this idea. Electronics emit positive ions and our bodies build up an excess positive charge as we go through our average day getting exposure to cell phones, TVs, computers, and appliances. The earth is a huge negative ion reservoir that we can use to rebalance our charges. We need to get in contact or “grounded” in dirt, grass, rock, unpainted cement, or water for about 20-30 minutes daily as a way of discharging the positive ions and then recharging our bodies with negative ions which are health promoting. See www.earthinginstitute.net for more information. 

I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in tune once more.

-John Burroughs

The summary of all this is pretty simple: Go outside!

In reality, getting outside can sometimes be hard. Most people work inside, have houses to clean, tasks to complete… you know the drill (and the drill is mostly inside). It’s worth your time though to carve out some outdoor moments to rebalance your system. Even five minutes. Find some tips below to make it happen.

If you have 5 minutes:

  • Get your bare feet on the grass, and feel the sensation between your toes
  • Slow down and connect with nature on your way to your next appointment.
  • Gaze out your window at something green, natural and beautiful

If you have 25 minutes:

  • Go for a walk, breathe in some fresh air
  • Find an outdoor space to eat your lunch
  • Meditate lying on your back in a quiet spot outside

If you have 2-3 hours:

  • Pack a picnic and bring some friends with you.
  • Explore the parks and trails in your own neighborhood
  • Read a book outdoors in a hammock

If you have all day:

  • Get out in your garden or yard and get dirty with a landscape project
  • Take a day trip and canoe or kayak at a lake, or river nearby
  • Take an adventurous bike ride

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