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Take a Breather: Ecotherapy During COVID-19

By: Wafa Akbar

Across the globe, we are all united by one crisis: the 2020 pandemic. I do not even want to mention its dreaded name. It negatively affected many people’s mental health and created new barriers for those already suffering from mental illnesses and depression.


In a recent KFF Poll, nearly 45% of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the virus. But did you know that taking a breather outdoors can significantly decrease that feeling, even if it is just outside your front porch? There are plenty of contradictory and uncertain findings in psychology, but the benefits of nature are not among them. Health professionals agree that spending time in nature makes us happier, in a better mood, less stressed, physically healthier, and even slows down the aging of the brain.

Research in a growing scientific field called ecotherapy has shown a strong link between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression which is especially important in the times we face today. Ecotherapy, or nature therapy, comes from the idea that people are part of their environment. Eco-psychology says that our minds are not isolated from the world around us — in fact, our emotional and mental states are hugely impacted by it.


Now I am not saying to go outdoors and not social distance during this crisis, but there are many safe, alternative ways to enjoy the benefits of the outdoors that can significantly improve your health. In a 2015 study, researchers compared the brain activity of healthy people after they walked for 90 minutes in either a natural setting or an urban one. They found that those who did a nature walk had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is active during rumination — defined as repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions.

"When people are depressed or under high levels of stress, this part of the brain malfunctions and people experience a continuous loop of negative thoughts," says Dr. Jason Strauss, the director of geriatric psychiatry at Harvard’s Cambridge Health Alliance. Dr. Strauss often prescribes the therapy of nature to his patients struggling with stress, depression, and anxiety, and many of them report that they experienced better results than they did with prescribed medication. So how can you enjoy the benefit of this amazing, cost-friendly therapy for your troubles? Here are a few ways you can spend your time outdoors during the pandemic:


· Involvement in conservation activities: Take a short walk with a family member. This can allow you to bond with them at the same time, improving your sense of wellbeing.

· Read a book outside. If you love reading novels or any type of newspaper in the morning, take that outside!

· Horticultural therapy: The use of plants and garden-related activities can be used to promote well-being. Activities may include digging soil, planting seedlings, watering plants, weeding garden beds, and trimming leaves.

· Eat your meals outside and observe nature. No Technology Allowed!

· Nature meditation: Go to isolated parks in your area if you live in a small city and take a walk. Let nature do its work!

· Physical exercise is a natural environment: Take a run if you want to get that workout done too. Just remember to follow social distancing guidelines when outside!


If you really cannot go outdoors whatsoever, there are still other options for you! Listening to nature sounds can have a similar effect, suggests a report published online by Scientific Reports. Researchers used an MRI scanner to measure brain activity in people as they listened to sounds recorded from natural or artificial environments. Listening to natural sounds caused the listeners' brain connectivity to reflect an outward-directed focus of attention, a process that occurs during wakeful rest periods like daydreaming. Listening to artificial sounds created an inward-directed focus, which occurs during states of anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. Even looking at pictures of nature or a place you want to visit can help! In one well-known study, for instance, psychologist Rachel Kaplan, a professor at the University Of Michigan found that office workers with a view of nature liked their jobs more, enjoyed better health, and even reported greater life satisfaction.

Nature doesn't just affect the mind. Roger S. Ulrich, Ph.D., the director of the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University, has found that nature can help the body heal, too. In his most well-known study, Ulrich investigated the effect that views from windows had on patients recovering from abdominal surgery. He discovered that patients whose hospital rooms overlooked trees had an easier time recovering than those whose rooms overlooked brick walls. Patients able to see nature and greenery got out of the hospital faster, had fewer complications, and required less pain medication than those forced to stare at a brick wall.

If you are in a stressful situation or going through hard times like many of us around the globe, going outdoors has been scientifically proven to reduce those symptoms. Researchers had noted that people who had recently experienced stressful life events like a serious illness, death of a loved one, or unemployment had the greatest mental boost from a nature outing. So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and take a breather!



References:

1. Clay R. Monitor on Psychology: Green is Good for You. American Psychology Association. 2001.

2. Good Therapy Writer. Ecotherapy/Nature Therapy. Good Therapy. 2018.

3. Harvard Medical Researchers. Sour Mood Getting You Down? Get Back To Nature. Harvard Health Publishing. 2018.

4. Josh Laskin. A Hike Can Make Your Entire Vacation More Relaxing, Studies Show. AFAR. 2020.

5. Namita Panchal, Rabah Kamal, Kendal Orgera, Cynthia Cox, Rachel Garfield, Liz Hamel, Cailey Munana, Priya Chidambaram. The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use. KFF. 2020.

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