Published on January 20, 2022

The Power of Nature to Ease Anxiety

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The calming effects of being in nature, especially the wilderness, have been well known for most of human history. In the 19th century, writers like Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Muir laid the foundation for conservationism, which created the National Park system. Their experiences in nature to overcome anxiety of the modern world and trauma from childhood is well documented in their writings and encouraged others to use wilderness experience for similar healing.

Over the decades since, millions of people have had similar healing experiences in nature without the need of any scientific evidence of its effectiveness. For those in the medical community who prefer scientific evidence before recommending a treatment, evidence is now available.

Annette McGivney, writer, outdoors enthusiast and anxiety sufferer, summarizes this research in her 2018 Backpacker Magazine article.  “In an effort to make this brand of wilderness medicine a reality, the Sierra Club has teamed up with scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, to create the Great Outdoors Lab, which compiles research to quantify the effects nature has on chronic health conditions. ‘We hope to make public lands part of a common health care prescription,’ says Sierra Club Outdoors director Stacy Bare, who is also an Iraq War veteran diagnosed with PTSD.”

Over a three-year period, researchers took 180 people, war veterans and children from underserved communities, and took them on whitewater rafting trips. They measured participants’ stress hormones, immune function, dopamine regulators and proteins that control inflammation, before, during and after the trips. All of these physiological markers for PTSD showed improvements. One week later, participants reported continued reduction in PTSD symptoms and an increase in feelings of well-being. The greater the level of awe that a person experienced, the longer the positive results lasted.

McGivney quotes UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, who co-authored the GO Lab study, “Time outdoors changes people’s nervous systems. It is as effective as any PTSD interventions we have.” The results of the GO Lab study were published in Emotions, a publication of the American Psychological Association.

In a separate study, Nooshin Razani, a pediatrician and director of the Center of Nature and Health at Children’s Hospital Oakland in California, took 78 pairs of parents and traumatized children into nature for one full day three times a week for three weeks. They saw positive changes on the participants’ responses on surveys on psychological wellbeing, as well as parasympathetic nervous system markers such as cortisol and alpha amylase (obtained through saliva samples), heart rate and blood pressure, before, during, and after the outings. Razani is calling it the “park prescription,” and says that it decreases the trauma response, improves cognitive function, promotes healing and increases resilience in children. 

For anyone who has spent much time in nature these results are not surprising. Best of all, no one needs a doctor’s prescription to use this treatment for anxiety, and, if appropriate footwear and good judgement about one’s ability are used, there are little to no negative side effects. Nature is waiting to help in the healing process. If those in need can get out in nature on a regular basis, they will likely feel more at ease.

For those who need more intense treatment for mental health conditions, MyMichigan Health provides an intensive outpatient program called Psychiatric Partial Hospitalization Program at MyMichigan Medical Center Gratiot. Those interested in more information about the PHP program may call (989) 466-3253. Those interested in more information on MyMichigan’s comprehensive behavioral health programs may visit http://www.mymichigan.org/mentalhealth.