A Psychotherapist Explains Why Connection To Nature Is Essential For Mental Health
If you feel more relaxed and recharged after a day at the beach or a hike in the mountains, there is a psychological reason for that. Interacting with the natural world is good not only for our bodies but for our minds and spirits too.
What ecopsychology teaches us about why we need regular interaction with the natural world.
What we know intuitively—that interacting with the great outdoors is good for us—is now supported by a robust body of research that provides evidence that contact with nature lowers stress, reduces ruminations, and lessens anxiousness. Interacting with nature also fosters creativity, produces states of calm, restores attention fatigue, and can affect pro-social and pro-environmental behaviors.
One of the areas of psychology that has contributed to our understanding of the impacts of direct contact with nature is ecopsychology. This field of study focuses on understanding the human-nature relationship. A core assumption of ecopsychology is that the outer world and our inner world are intimately connected. After all, we are nature! Whether we're conscious of it or not, we need regular interaction with the natural world in order to thrive as individuals and as a species.
Yet we are spending less time in the natural world than ever before. More than 70% of the United States population lives in urban centers, and we're spending more time than ever focused on screens for work, school, entertainment, and socializing. A 2019 Nielsen report showed that the average adult spends nearly 12 hours per day interacting with some form of media. Studies show that kids are staring at screens for far too long each day on average and spending only four to seven minutes per day in unstructured outdoor play.
During the lockdown of the COVID pandemic, we were even more removed from nature and from one another. Health professionals are concerned about a growing epidemic of loneliness—not only among older adults but among young people as well. Recent studies point to loneliness as a major health risk, rivaling smoking. Some researchers suggest that our loneliness may also be rooted in "species loneliness"—our disconnection from other life on the planet.
One daily habit that helps me fight "species loneliness."
There are many ways we can develop our connectedness with nature, including activities that stimulate our senses and foster a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves. We experience our deep connectedness when we're hiking a mountain trail, walking the water's edge at the beach, or witnessing a sunset over a beautiful lake.
But we can also experience nature connectedness closer to home and in our everyday life—if we're open to it. In my new book, Grounded: A Guided Journal to Help You Reconnect With the Power of Nature—and Yourself, I suggest prompts and activities that deepen the experience of nature by emphasizing the sensory-rich world around us and by fostering intentional interactions with elements of the natural world in and around our homes.
One of my favorite activities in the book asks the reader to make it a daily habit to look for your "Nature Gift of the Day." It might be an unexpected rainbow, the melodious song of a wren outside your window, or the glistening of the first snowfall in winter. When we are intentional about noticing nature around us, we experience so much more!
As a species, humans evolved embedded within the natural world, and our bodies and minds are wired to interact with it. We need nature connectedness to feel fully alive. That's why I suggest getting outside and actively noticing (and keeping track of) the gifts that nature gives us daily.
Dr. Hasbach is a licensed psychotherapist, consultant, author, and college educator in Eugene, Oregon. In private practice for over 28 years, Dr. Hasbach offers therapy and counseling services to adults of all ages, couples, families, and groups. Areas of specialty include relationship issues, health concerns, life transitions, career issues, and managing anxiety and depression. She has been a pioneer in the practice of Ecotherapy—a method of treatment that recognizes the healing benefits of interactions with nature.
She consults with hospitals, schools, businesses, police departments and corrections facilities, architecture design and land use planning firms, and community environmental groups.
Dr. Hasbach’s new book, Grounded: A Guided Journal to Help You Reconnect with the Power of Nature – and Yourself, is published by Simon & Schuster and will be released in May 2022. She is also an author and co-editor of two MIT Press books: Ecopsychology: Science, Totems, and the Technological Species (2012) and The Rediscovery of the Wild (2013). Her book, Ecopsychology, was nominated for the 2014 Grawemeyer Award in Psychology which recognizes outstanding ideas in psychology and makes them available to a wide audience. She has published numerous articles in professional journals and been a guest blogger for the international online forum, The Children & Nature Network. Her work has been cited in Rich Louv’s books, Our Wild Calling, The Nature Principle and Vitamin N, and in several popular and professional magazines including Time Magazine, Vogue, Outside Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Columbia Sportswear Outdoor Gear Guide, WebMD, Sierra Magazine, the Psychotherapy Networker, the Utne Reader, The Observer (a publication by the Association for Psychological Science), The NY Times Sunday Magazine, The Monitor (a publication of the American Psychological Association) and Counseling Today (a publication of the American Counseling Association). She is a member of the Editorial Board of the peer-reviewed journal, Ecopsychology.
Dr. Hasbach recently retired as the co-Director of the Ecopsychology Program at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR where she taught in the Department of Counseling Psychology in the Graduate School of Education & Counseling for 13 years.
Dr. Hasbach is active in her local community. She serves as President of the Board of Directors of the Center for Community Counseling, sits on the Advisory Board of Nearby Nature, and is a community educator as a Master Gardener for the OSU Extension Service.