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Benefits of Nature to Mental Health Disorders

April 2, 2019 by Etta Hornsteiner in Care Management, For Individuals, For Professionals, Health and Wellness, Intellectual Disability, Mental Illness, Special Needs Care

benefits of nature-mental health disorders

Spring is here. Trees are blooming. Plants that were once asleep magically peep out of the ground. New fresh green leaves appear, slowly unfolding toward the light. Everything is awakening. It is a time of growth and birth. It can also be a time of healing. Being in nature benefits our mental health and can have a positive impact on mental health disorders.

Grounding

In general, nature has a way of grounding us. Like the trees whose roots secure them to the ground, nature can help us feel safe and secure. By paying attention to the external beauty of nature, we can take a break from our overwhelming feelings or thoughts about the future. Even listening to natural sounds has a positive impact on the brain, according to a study: The natural sounds cause the “listener’s brain connectivity to reflect an outward-directed focus of attention, a process that occurs during wakeful rest periods like daydreaming.” The sound of nature physically changes our body and mind enabling us to relax.

Overall, as a recent finding concluded: “living close to nature and spending time outside has significant and wide-ranging health benefits”. To see, touch, smell and even taste the seasons, such as spring, and its changes can bring us closer to understanding and accepting the changes in our own lives.  Change is inevitable; yet it can be scary for some of us.

Impact of nature on mental health disorders

As human beings, we are part of nature, and, therefore, are able to experience and benefit from nature without the need for words. This sans words can have critical significance for individuals with mental and developmental disorders such as depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and autism.

Depression

In one study, participants suffering from major depression were instructed to take a nature walk. They were asked to think about a negative memory while walking. At the end of the study, the participants’ cognitive abilities were assessed. The participants showed an increase in cognition, namely memory. Although the study was unable to conclude that individuals’ depression improved, it did take note of the improvement in cognitive skills while thinking of a negative experience. This led researchers to suggest that walking in nature still has some overall benefit for those who have depression.

walking in nature

Dementia/Alzheimer’s

Patients with dementia are often confined to a safe space with limited exposure to nature. This limited confinement can “increase verbal and physical agitation and use of psychotropic medications,” says American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias.  The researchers had already noted that “several studies have reported that having access to unlocked doors leading to a garden or outdoor area may reduce the level of inappropriate behaviors in both residential and long-term dementia care facilities.” So they explored a study by adding a wander garden to a dementia unit to observe the impact on inappropriate behavior. All residents showed a reduction in agitated behavior. However, verbal inappropriate behavior did not improve significantly and physical incidents increased.

Though it was still unclear the impact of nature on these individuals, the study concluded that the wander garden had both a positive and negative impact.

In another study involving patients with advanced dementia, the results showed more of a clear connection to the positive impact of nature. Patients were exposed to a temporary Japanese garden and a multisensory Snoezelen room.  The patients attended each environment twice a week for 15 minutes.

Researchers took note of the attendees stress rate by measuring their heart rate and informant-based behavioral changes. The garden group showed positive behavioral changes and their pulse rate was significantly less than in their residential room. When patients were exposed to the Snoezelen room, there was little or no changes.

The researchers proposed that exposure to a small interior Japanese garden could be an effective intervention for individuals suffering from late stage Alzheimer’s disease.

Autism

According to the Journal of Neural Plasticity, an enriched environment can improve the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  For example, nature can be an enriching experience for children. When children with autism spectrum disorder were exposed to a natural setting, they experienced motor-sensory, emotional and social benefits.

The parents and children favored the natural parks that featured the wilderness. The nature visits helped to relax them, generate positive emotions and reduced negative emotions. The environment also provided an opportunity for social interaction, although this varied per child.

Special Needs

For those particularly in wheelchairs, horticultural therapy has proven to be undoubtedly therapeutic and useful.  “Horticultural therapy involves the use of plants and related activities as tools to promote healing” and rehabilitation with people with special needs,” explains Kendra Wills, Michigan University State extension educator.

Container and box gardening are particularly useful for the special needs population. They bring the soil and plants to their level and extender tools help them to reach, and horticultural therapists teach them how to use the tools.

Check out these techniques and tools for adaptive gardening.

Horticultural therapy is very holistic. Planting a seed requires dexterity and coordination. Watering the plants works the muscles in the arms. Paying attention to the moment without judgment helps participants to develop sensory awareness and, thereby, helps them to enjoy an enriching life.

Nature is undisputedly therapeutic with or without science to prove it. Intuitively, we know and feel it. Although more studies are needed involving special populations and nature’s impact, we should find safe opportunities to venture outdoors and enjoy fresh air. Seek to find a garden and gaze upon its beauty. Listen to the sound of birds chirping and water running from a nearby fountain or brook. Feel the moist soil between our fingers and underneath our fingertips. Nature brings healing and health to the body, mind and spirit. It is particularly beneficial to our mental health; spend quality time with nature.

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