Nature and Its Impact On Mental Health
By Genesis Morales, LMFT & Sonia Fregoso, LMFT
We realize that by talking about the impact of nature on mental health, people probably expect us to talk about all the evidence and list common benefits. However, being the type of therapists we are (person-centered), we realize that everyone will have a different experience and have different beneficial results. Instead of generalizing the impact of nature on mental health, we will share our personal experience with nature and the benefits we have experienced. We chose to write about this topic to empower you to experience it for yourself and to find out how nature can benefit you. We want to honor everyone’s lived experiences. Anyone can write about what it “should ” be like or what you “should” feel or tell you all the awesomeness of nature, but until you experience it for yourself, you’re not going to have that connection.
Our experiences and how we connect with nature have been influenced by our journey to reclaim our ancestral knowledge and cultural traditions tied to the teachings of nature. We have also been influenced by books, such as Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer and Woman Who Glows in the Dark by Elena Avila. There are several ways to connect with nature, but we want to take the time to share our most meaningful experiences and how they have nurtured our mental, emotional, and spiritual growth, through activities such as admiring neighborhood gardens, camping/hiking, and gardening.
Admiring Neighbors Gardens (Sonia’s Individual Experience)
Admiring neighborhood gardens is one of the most accessible ways for me to connect with nature. I am fortunate enough to have an amazing home garden, thanks to my suegra (mother-in-law). She has lived in South Los Angeles, CA, for over 30 years, and she has all the medicines in her garden. From roses and sage to cilantro and nopales (cacti). If I ever need a lemon or guayaba (guava) during the fall, I just have to walk outside and pick them from the trees. It’s a beautiful experience, but even more beautiful are the feelings I experience when I see neighbors come over and trade goods for a bag of lemons or a bunch of sage. It almost brings me to tears as I write this. My point here is that taking a walk down your street (when it’s safe) can bring you closer to nature and your community. How does this impact my mental health? It brings me a huge sense of belonging. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a social butterfly, so I don’t go around the neighborhood talking to everyone. However, taking walks has given me the courage to introduce myself to neighbors and ask about their gardens. My next step is to find the courage to ask for a cutting or a bunch of something in exchange for goods. It’s going to take me a while to get there, but I’m working on it.
When I walk down my block, I also reflect on how to connect with nature. For most of my adult life, I thought I had to go to the beach or some faraway forest to be in nature, but that is not true. Nature is right outside your door, on the sidewalk, and in your neighbor’s garden. My favorite part about admiring neighborhood gardens is when I can identify flowers and trees just by looking at them or smelling them. Learning how to identify plants in this way has been a huge part of my process of reclaiming ancestral knowledge. And reclaiming ancestral knowledge has had the greatest impact on my mental health; I feel grounded, connected, and I trust myself more often than before. Mother nature is everywhere, and this reminds me that I am never alone, I am always connected, and there is always an opportunity to ground and center myself.
In my role as a therapist, I like to prescribe two specific activities to take a break and connect with nature: first, find a patch of grass and stand barefoot for a few minutes, wiggle your toes and visualize the soles of your feet kissing Mother Earth. Second, find some loose soil, bring out your inner child, get playful with it, and have fun! Both of these activities are grounding and can help settle the body after a stressful day. Lastly, When you’re feeling called to connect with nature, but you don’t have time to go anywhere, remember to step outside for a minute, look up at the sky, find a tree, a patch of grass, or simply take a deep breath. Mother Nature is always with us.
Camping/Hiking (Gen’s Individual Experience)
I feel most connected to myself emotionally, physically, and spiritually when in nature, and some of the ways I engage with nature are camping, hiking, or gardening. There is something about nature that calms my nervous system. But what is it about nature that evokes this connection and how does it impact my mental health?
Now, when I go camping, the sensations and connections evoked are very similar to hiking and gardening, but the energy is different. Being surrounded by Sequoia trees that are 800 to 3,000 years old does something to you. Their energy and presence are breathtaking. The smell of cedar and wet dirt is grounding. The breeze carried by the rustling leaves feels like a delicate whisper to my ears. As Robin Wall Kimmerer expresses, “ One thing I’ve learned in the woods is that there is no such thing as random. Everything is steeped in meaning, colored by relationships, one thing with another” (Kimmerer, 2013). This is exactly what I feel. My connection and relationship to everything. This sense of belonging is what is evoked when I am camping. The realization that there are bigger things out there than myself surpasses my stress, anxiety, and worry. It’s as if the energy of the Sequoia trees washes away all that my body carries. That is how camping impacts my mental health.
Since camping isn’t always accessible, one of the ways I connect with nature during the week is by hiking at Griffith Park (Los Angeles, CA). I begin my hike by taking a deep breath and observing any physical sensations. As I begin my hike, I observe flowers blooming, birds chirping, and rustling sounds from the bushes by squirrels and rabbits. The climax of my hike is greeting a Sycamore tree that sits at the top of a hill. I place my hand on the tree trunk, as I catch my breath, and thank it for always being there and motivating me to reach the top of the hill. Hiking impacts my mental health by giving me a sense of ease, clarity, and gratitude, it sets the foundation for the rest of my day. It inspires me to maintain the same energy for the week and it fills me with gratitude. Gratitude for Griffith Park, but also for the resiliency and strength of my body, as it moves through those hikes.
Gratitude for the surrounding Sycamore trees, California poppies, and nature’s critters that live in this ecosystem. And gratitude for the ecosystems that support each other and maintain the cycle of life. It connects me to myself and everything outside of myself.
Gardening (Sonia & Gen’s Collective Experience)
House plants became trendy during the pandemic, and it makes sense why this happened; plants make our home feel comfortable, but this shouldn’t be the sole reason for you to join the trend. Instead, we want to invite you inside our minds to experience what we feel when we connect to our plants. When we think about gardening, the word that comes to mind is reciprocity. We give to the plants, and they give to us.
By creating our dirt concoctions, pruning, tending to, repotting, fertilizing, and watering plants, we attempt to give them an optimal environment to thrive. In return, plants ground us, boost our energy, and reduce our anxiety. How do plants give this to us? Let’s take you inside our experience:
Imagine this: It’s Sunday morning, and you are preparing to garden because you know it’s plant day. You clear your space, prepare your dirt concoction, and you’re ready to get your hands dirty (or you could wear gloves). You grab your plant (pothos are very popular and easy to maintain), inspect it by sticking a finger in the soil, and then look at the bottom of the pot to see if any roots are coming out of the pot. You notice the roots are outgrowing the pot and immediately realize, “I need to repot this plant.” Excitement exudes because your plant is ready for a new home! This is exciting to us because we see this moment as an opportunity to give to the plant. To us, transferring a plant to a new pot involves the practice of mindfulness because it requires focused attention and delicate care. We connect with the plant and its needs by using our senses: feeling the texture of the dirt, smelling the dirt, observing the color of the plant and its roots. This is one example of how we experience reciprocity– we give the plant focused attention and delicate care, and the plant gives us the opportunity to practice mindfulness.
Take a moment to observe any physical sensations after reading this visualization. Is there anything you connected with? Have you had similar experiences? We hope this tickled your curiosity and that it gave you an opportunity to be mindful. As therapists, we know that mindfulness reduces stress and anxiety, emotional reactivity, increases cognitive flexibility and focus (apa.org). It is pretty incredible what gardening can do for your mental health.
To wrap things up, we want to share some of the lessons we have learned from nature:
- Rooting/Grounding: nature has taught us to stay rooted and grounded by modeling patience, stillness, and resilience.
- Outgrowing spaces: our house plants model shedding and letting go of the things that no longer serve us.
- Expectations: our relationship with nature has also taught us the importance of not having expectations, just accepting things for what they are.
- Belonging: connecting with nature has taught us that we are an extension of the earth. We are in a relationship with the earth. And our sense of belonging is deeper than what we think it is. Our sense of belonging does not come from what society demands but from what nature needs of us.
We want to remind you that everyone has a unique experience with nature. It’s up to you to build that connection with mother nature and feel the impact it has on your mental health. We hope our experiences motivate you to make connections and explore how nature can benefit you.
Davis, D. M., & Hayes, J. A. (2012, July). What are the benefits of mindfulness? Monitor on Psychology, 43(7). http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner
Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions.