Mental health: Green places and wild spaces

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By Emily Reiblein, Crowley

I have a colleague who recently admitted to feeling a loss of connection with nature. As a young man, he was a hunter and a fisherman. Today, he sits behind a desk lost in KPIs with a quiet yearning for those days surrounded by trees and water. I started to wonder why nature is so compelling to us and if its effect is measurable on our health.

Americans recognized early in our history that we needed a connection with wild places. Lincoln signed one of the first federal land preservation bills in 1864 to protect Yosemite National Park. Other federal, local and town governments also fought to preserve green spaces, and by 1916, the U.S. government formed the National Parks Service to maintain the largest of these federal lands.

During this time, 40% of American families lived an agrarian life. Today, a mere 1.9% does. U.S. statistics on hunters tell a similar tale of a decline in human contact with the natural world. Fifty years ago, 50% of the U.S. population was involved in some type of hunting activity, forging a connection between human, land and wild creatures, while only about 5% of the population do today. Urbanization with reduced green space, dwindling numbers of species, expanded indoor entertainment options, an abundance of cheap and readily available food has reduced the need, access to and limited the engagement in the great outdoors.

Cost to Mental Health

Our yearning for green space is not just a “nice to have.” Research shows that our break with nature comes at a cost to mental and physical health. In 2015, a study at the University of Derby and The Wildlife Trusts asked participants to do something in the “wild” every day for 30 days. The results showed a 30% increase in participant health and happiness after their time outdoors. This study was further supported by one published in Frontiers in Psychology (April 4, 2019), where Dr. MaryCarol Hunter found that the outdoors is “the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol. … You should spend 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature.”

Walking in nature is good but great things may come to those who get a little dirty. Christopher Lowry, a neuroscientist at the University of Bristol, injected a common bacterium found in dirt into animal subjects before putting them through a series of stress tests. The ones inoculated with the bacteria showed far less stress related behavior (equivalent to those on antidepressants) than their undosed counterparts. The bacteria activated neurons in the brain responsible for producing serotonin, the hormone that regulates happiness, sleep and immune system response. The conclusion suggests a webbed connection between the bacteria in dirt, the immune system and emotional health.

Dirt and green spaces may be available or they may need to be cultivated. Here are a few considerations to help establish a connection with nature

  • Digging Into The Wild!

On Land: 35% of American families now grow food in a backyard garden or urban common garden. They actively forge a green space, play in dirt, and allow greenery to contribute to the flavors of life. Furthering the benefit, the Center for Disease Control says gardening is exercise. Activities like raking and cutting grass might fall under the category of light to moderate exercise, while shoveling, digging, and chopping wood might be considered vigorous exercise.

At Sea: Ships are surrounded by nature. Adding a bit of green to the greenish-gray, white and blue landscape is not hard. Vegetable gardens can thrive on the bridge, in the wheelhouse or in a porthole (apartment dwellers take note as well). Potted plants, particularly herbs like basil and oregano need little more than water and sunlight. Moreover, you can clip pieces of fresh herb to add fresh, natural touches to salads and pastas.

  • Take a Vacation

Spend time in green spaces. For those who want more than a walk in the park, tent camping and trailering are all available at low cost or even no cost providing a range of engagement options. For those wanting to relive their younger years without the tent, glamping rental locations (already set-up trailers with water, electricity and/or sewer) are now cropping up around State and National Parks and surrounding National Forests.

A yearning for the wild is more than just a deep desire to connect with nature. The need to wander down wooded trails and walk through a manicured park has been recognized by the oldest and wisest of us and protected, allowing us to bring measurable good to our hearts, minds and collective soul.

Nothing in this article constitutes medical advice. All medical advice should be sought from a medical professional. 

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