Author, journalist describes benefits of nature on the brain - Titusville Herald: News

Author, journalist describes benefits of nature on the brain

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Posted: Saturday, April 7, 2018 5:00 am

Imagine being able to receive a treatment for things like depression, anxiety, stress, ADHD, respiratory problems, PTSD, and a multitude of other health problems without experiencing any sort of side effects. While this may seem unlikely, bestselling author and journalist Florence Williams, who spoke before a crowd of around 60 people at the University of Pittsburgh’s Titusville campus on Friday, said it may be more attainable than you think.

Williams, who has done freelance writing for The New York Times, New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, and more, set out to discover the effects of nature on the brain and body in her book, “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.”

Williams said she had gone form living in the rocky mountains of Colorado to the bustling streets of Washington, D.C., where she began to wonder how nature affects the brain and what scientists had to say about it.

Throughout her journey, she ventured from Japan, to South Korea, to Denmark, Scotland, Europe, and beyond, leading her to discover that spending time in nature can be healing and therapeutic, as well as lead to a plethora of health benefits.

Through her research, she discovered that the closer you live to a green space, the better, leading to a 15 percent decrease in stress related diseases. Williams attributes this change to biophilia, a theory presented by biologist, researcher, theorist, and naturalist Edward Osborne Wilson.

Biophilia hypothesis states that because humans lived outside for thousands of years, our brains are most comfortable in nature. Additionally, our brains are designed to grow and evolve more when we are exposed to a natural environment.

Throughout her travels, Williams noticed several of the places she went to utilized nature as a healing resource. She said that in both South Korea and Japan, forests are used as places of healing.

In Japan, she said there are forest therapy trails, that have been studied by scientists for their effectiveness. What they have found is that those who regularly visit the trails have seen a 2 percent decrease in blood pressure, a 4 percent decrease in heart rate, and a 16 percent reduction in cortisol, a chemical responsible for producing stress in the brain.

Additionally, scientists monitored trails through a city environment to see if the same results could be produced and to determine if the results were created by time spent in nature or simply being outside and walking, however they found that the results were not the same, she said.

In South Korea, Williams said she learned about healing forests, where everyone from pregnant women, to school bullies, to firefighters with PTSD are taken to heal. She said after spending days in the forest, bullies saw a significant drop in behavioral problems while those suffering from PTSD saw a 75 percent reduction in feelings of stress and anger.

She said several forest rangers for these particular forests have been trained to help guide people through hikes, yoga, and other healing activities.

Additionally, she said several children in South Korea benefit from spending time in the forest to treat technology addiction, which is known as “forest bathing.” The goal of which, Williams said, is to engage all five senses.

In Scotland, she found forest therapy programs for those who had left a mental health institution. The programs helped to reintegrate former patients back into society by taking groups of people who struggled to socialize and putting them in a natural environment.

She said while they may not be comfortable being in a group or talking with others, being out in nature provided a distraction, if they chose not to socialize, or an easy way to strike up a conversation.

Additionally, she said perhaps one of the most crucial benefits in this program is nature’s ability to serve as a way to facilitate conversation to combat loneliness.

In Denmark, she found programs designed to help people who struggle with “work burnout,” or being so depressed they are unable to work, by spending time in forests or greenhouses. She said that people can become so depressed that they begin to lose touch with their senses, creating a sort of disconnect between their senses and their bodies. By spending time in nature, Williams found that these senses can be reinvigorated.

The program, she said, has a 60 percent success rate that results in the participants returning to work.

For someone who lives in a big city, Williams said she struggles with noise pollution and an overabundance of stimuli.

According to Williams, being constantly surrounded by stimuli and trying to focus on daily tasks can be draining. Often, she said, our brains will tune out a good portion of the stimulation in order to focus on day to day tasks, leaving us grumpy at the end of the day.

Whether most people realize it or not, filtering out distractions from stimuli can be exhausting and cause more stress to the brain, she said. Throughout her research, Williams found ways that big companies and industrial cities have attempted to combat this.

In Singapore, she said there are policies in place for those hoping to build for their business. In order to put up a building, the company must replace the greenery they take down, plus a bit more.

Several buildings and businesses in the city have “green walls,” garden areas, greenhouses, an abundance of plants, or some other “green space” in place.

These spaces not only put greenery back in the city, but they serve as a decompression zone for employees to take their lunch breaks and unwind. In turn, Williams said there have been studies done to show that employees who have spent time in these spaces are happier and more productive than their counterparts.

Perhaps the time when nature is most crucial is during adolescence, which Williams said has become a bit of a problem over the past decade due to the rise of technology.

For many children today, playing outside is a thing of the past, which Williams said can lead to the brain developing in a much different way. Williams said nature often leaves us in awe, and studies have shown that experiencing awe can lead to a change in behavior and our brains, making us into more empathetic, creative, happy people. This change in behavior, according to Williams, begins when the part of the brain associated with negative thoughts begins to shrink, while other areas begin to grow.

“The adolescent brain is made to learn through exploration, and yet we are removing that capacity from so many kids today,” she said.

The effects of nature on children has been seen multiple times, she said. She said many children view nature as their happy place where they feel most at ease, and exposing them to nature on frequent basis has led children on anxiety medication or ADHD medication to be able to stop taking it.

Additionally, Williams said young girls who have spent more time playing outside experience higher levels of confidence, self-esteem, and are more likely to describe themselves as brave. Additionally, she said as they get older, girls who played outside are more likely to see higher pay in their field of choice.

In some areas, Williams said pediatricians have begun recommending time spent outside for children who suffer from anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

Williams cited that some cultures view time in nature as a right of passage, and that time spent walking in forests can help a person learn more about who they are and what they hope to do in life. While many may associated adulthood with making lots of money and finding pleasure in material things, Williams said it’s more so about taking on responsibility, being the best that you can be, and helping people as well as your community to the best of your ability.

When spending time outdoors away from distractions, Williams said people are more likely to realize this as well as realize details about themselves. In turn, she said, this time spent outside can benefit communities.

While it may be hard to find green spaces or have access to undisturbed nature, Williams stressed the importance of making time to explore nature and allow your brain to recharge.

“Go outside,” she said. “Go often. Go with friends or go alone, and don’t forget to breathe.”

Dodd can be reached by email, at ndodd@titusvilleherald.com.

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