Nurturing Well-Being with Nature

(Editor’s note: This article from the Fall 2017 issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

The emotive quality of feeling connected to one’s natural surroundings seems to be a powerful indicator of how we may recuperate from physiological stressors, such as anxiety and attentional dysregulation. Yet when we begin to explore how the natural environment triggers our feelings, we can start to address how beauty may factor into our state of developing mental well-being.

A 2014 study by Zhang, Howell and Iyer, titled “Engagement with natural beauty moderates the positive relation between connectedness with nature and psychological well-being,” investigated whether the degree of well-being people experience when connected to nature is determined by how significantly they experience positive emotional responses while witnessing beauty in nature. This study was able to confirm that the positive relation between connectedness with nature and life satisfaction was only significant for individuals with higher, and not those with lower, engagement with nature’s beauty, and that it is not affected by age, gender, social desirability, and personality traits. It is important to note that the connectedness people feel with nature only predicts well-being when they are also emotionally attuned to it.

As my mind wanders back to the beauty of my surroundings — the ocean, the horizon, and the warm sand between my toes — I begin to think again about my position in the pain clinic and my job as a holistic caregiver. I wonder whether my relationship to nature and its beauty could somehow be incorporated within my work with patients suffering from pain. A 2015 paper published in Neuropsychologia, titled “Overlapping neural responses to the pain or harm of people, animals, and nature,” investigated whether neural reactivity toward the suffering of other people is distinct from, or overlapping with, the neural response to pain and harm inflicted upon nonhuman entities, specifically animals and nature.

The researchers used functional MRI analysis in order to measure the neural activity of 15 participants, while they perceived and reported how badly they felt for the pain, or harm dealt, to humans, animals, and nature relative to neutral situations. To their astonishment, the researchers saw that neural regions associated with perceiving the pain of oneself and of other people (e.g., the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and bilateral anterior insula) were similarly recruited when perceiving and responding to painful scenes across people, animals, and nature.

These results suggest that similar brain responses are relied upon when perceiving the harm of social and nonsocial biological entities, broadly construed, and that activity within the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and bilateral anterior insula in response to pain-relevant stimuli is not uniquely specific to humans.

Yet pain is not just physiological but also psychological. Combat veterans who suffer from the pain of trauma have been constantly seeking treatments that bring them into relationship with themselves, their friends and family, and the environment in which they live. A 2014 article published by Caddick, Smith, and Phoenix, titled “The Effects of Surfing and the Natural Environment on the Well-Being of Combat Veterans,” explored the effects of surfing on the mental well-being on combat veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Through conducting interviews and participant observations, the researchers found that surfing facilitated a sense of respite from PTSD. Respite was defined as “a fully embodied feeling of release from suffering that was cultivated through surfing and shaped by the stories veterans told of their experiences.” Yet this is not the only study to reveal the significant beneficial effects of water-based nature contact with mental well-being.

A 2010 multi-study analysis published by Barton and Pretty from the Centre for Environment and Society, University of Essex, titled “What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise from Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis,” assessed the best regime of acute exposure doses to green exercise (activity in the presence of nature) that is required to improve self-esteem and mood (indicators of mental health). The study used a meta-analytic methodology to analyze 10 U.K. studies involving 1,252 participants while “dose response” was assessed for exercise intensity and exposure duration. Researchers found that dose responses for both intensity and duration of green exercise improved both self-esteem and mood. Age differences showed that the greatest self-esteem change was found in the youngest, with diminishing effects with age. For mood, the least change was in the young and the old. Yet, one of the most interesting findings of the study was that green exercise involving water generated the greatest effects of self-esteem and mood overall.

Due to the fact that the field of mental well-being and nature is still very new, many of the studies conducted are weakened by the fact that they are mostly correlative, not causative. This is especially true with linking biodiversity and health. Much more research is needed in order to unravel the causative mechanisms that may be at play when we consider our health in relation to the health of our natural environment. And more comparative research needs to be conducted in regards to various types of interactions humans can engage in with their surrounding environment, with water being of special interest.

As the sun starts to set, a cool breeze comes off the ocean and causes me to shiver — reminding me of where I am — exposed and in contact with the world. It may be something that I want to bring back with me to the city hospital, to speak with patients about their condition and its relationality with the natural environment. But before I leave, I may just jump into the ocean for a swim.

(Editor’s note: This article from the Fall 2017 issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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