Editorial: Nature and Mental Health

By The Beacon | September 16, 2015 10:30am
By Nathan DeVaughn

This week’s Beacon features a special section all about nature: why to enjoy nature, where to enjoy it and how to enjoy it. And with President Fr. Poorman’s email last week about about the University’s commitment to addressing mental health, we thought it was important to emphasize the mental and emotional benefits of exploring nature.

Last week, we wrote an editorial about the importance of asking for help. Seeking help from the Counseling and Health Center is important, but if the barriers to asking for help are too high, maybe you can try a little self-medication in its most natural formnature.

The benefits of being in nature are so well-studied, some therapists actually prescribe going out into nature as a treatment for a lot of health problemsnot only physical health concerns, like obesity or diabetesbut mental health concerns, like depression or anxiety.

A study conducted by the University of Essex in 2007 found that participants who spent as little as five minutes in nature experienced improved mood, self-esteem and motivation. Researchers concluded that being in nature reduced symptoms of depression in 71 percent of participants.

But most of us don’t need a study to tell us that nature can be therapeutic. We can recall our own experiences, or go out and test that theory for ourselves.

The act of climbing up a steep incline, having to calculate your next step, being acutely aware of the weight of your body as you balance on a boulderthe physical effort you exert when you hike requires a lot of attention, if not all of your attention. You become engrossed in the present, unable to think about the organic chemistry exam you have on Monday or your lack of post-graduation plans. You’re just in the moment. Hoisting yourself up onto a rock or teetering across a fallen tree becomes almost a mindfulness exerciserequiring all your attention to be on your body in the present. That can be incredibly therapeutic.

Or if scaling cliffs isn’t your style, maybe the peacefulness of working in the garden sounds more your speed. Working with your hands in the dirt can be very groundingliterally. The feeling of dirt in your hands as you plant a seed or pull a weed can remind you of the temporality of life, as you come back in touch with the most basic forms of life. Plants are simple. Plants let the earth provide the water and food they need. Plants can affirm the belief that the earth, or God, or Allah, or whoever you believe in, will provide the basic things you need to survive.

Nature is a powerful thing. It can cause devastating hurricanes, or it can build mountains. Nature is a powerful healer: both physically and mentally. We are lucky that Portland is so green and lush all year-round. There’s so much natural beauty all around us. Our campus is green and gorgeous. There are several parks and green spaces in the surrounding neighborhoods, where you can walk or sit or read or swing. And Forest Park is practically in our backyard.

There are so many opportunities for us to enjoy nature. It’s good for our bodies, for our minds, and for our hearts.