Medication isn’t the only way to treat your mental health when you live with a chronic condition. You might be surprised by all the benefits you can find right in the world around you. In Vancouver, Canada, doctors can prescribe an annual pass for patients to visit national parks, free of charge.
Nature refers to both human-made landscapes (e.g., parks, gardens, trails, campgrounds, etc.) and naturally occurring ones, like beaches and rock formations. It also includes pets, wildlife, plants and weather patterns. Nature Based Therapy (NBT) is an umbrella term for activities that promote engagement with nature. These activities can be spontaneous, such as watching birdlife or playing with your dog. Other times, NBT requires planning and preparation, such as going for a hike or attending an outdoor yoga class.
It makes intuitive sense that viewing beautiful scenery would have a calming effect on your brain and nervous system. Apparently, flowers and plants can help create a similar effect indoors. Research has found that looking at photos and videos of nature led to greater relaxation than non-nature-related images. In addition to being aesthetically (visually) pleasing, viewing these images had a physiological effect by lowering blood pressure and heart rate and improving recovery from stress.
NBT researchers have described nature as a “secure base” and an “unburdened and uninterrupted space.” Participating in NBT promotes feelings of comfort, safety and relaxation.
One of the reasons people find gardening so appealing is that it engages your mind and body. Through repeated engagement, you begin to internalize memories and physical sensations. Moreover, tending to a garden is not unlike taking care of a beloved pet. Firstly, both activities involve the sense of touch. Giving back to another living being provides a sense of meaning and purpose. Being a caregiver to your dog can help you see yourself as a person of worth. Being with a pet can also help you focus on the here and now, rather than getting overwhelmed by anxious thought.
Research supports the idea of using nature-based therapy to improve mental health. What’s especially promising is the flexibility and adaptability of these therapeutic approaches. If you’re outdoors, you can also use breathing exercises or guided meditation as part of a walking tour. You can also bring nature indoors using windows, plants, photos and artwork.
So often, having a chronic illness can leave you feeling as if you’re a burden to others. You feel isolated. You worry about being sidelined by your symptoms and unable to fulfill your obligations. As an unburdened space, nature allows you to explore and experiment freely. It reminds you that you’re profoundly connected to everything around you, from the stars in the sky to the ground beneath your feet.