An unpleasant environment can increase our stress, elevating our blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension, and suppressing our immune systems. A pleasant environment reverses this. According to the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Health nature heals, soothes, and restores us. It also connects us to others, helping us cope with life’s demands, lowering levels of violence and aggression.
How much time do we need in nature to receive its emotional and physical benefits? One study found we need to be in nature 30 minutes or more each week to reduce depression and high blood pressure. A 2016 UK study reported the impact of a public campaign to spend time in nature for fun each day for a month. Results exceeded expectations. There was a 30% increase in people reporting their health as excellent. Benefits for children who spend time in nature include increases in self-esteem, willingness to take risks, and be creative. Spending time in nature improved ADHD symptoms for some children, helping calm them and improve their concentration. Overall, UK study participants were more satisfied with their lives, happier, and less anxious. More importantly, the benefits of this month in nature extended beyond the 30 days of the UK campaign. A 2019 US study had similar findings for people spending at least 200 minutes each week in nature.
Spending time in nature improves the health of adults and children in a wide range of areas. For adults it helps with dementia, PTSD, heart disease, or Type II Diabetes. For children it helps with stress and depression, as well as symptoms of the autism spectrum and ADD/ADHD. It isn’t just about than emotional benefits. When we engage with nature our memory improves.
Some doctors prescribe time in nature to their patients. Park RX America identifies specific parks for doctors to help them prescribe nature to their patients. Pediatrician Nooshin Razani’s practice focuses on the importance of nature for urban families with less access to healing greenspaces. Research by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health found a strong correlation between low exposure to nature during childhood and high levels of nervousness and feelings of depression in adulthood. Spending time in nature can help children and adults deal with effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Access to the benefits of nature has become a social justice issue. The Sierra Club argues that access to nature, especially for children, is a human right.
Are there any spiritual benefits to being in nature? Pope Francis observes, “In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good.” For Jews and Christians, humans are part of nature, because God formed Adam out of the dirt (Genesis 2:7-8). St. Francis of Assisi understood humanity as part of nature, in relationship with animals, plants, Brother Sun, and Sister Moon. For Francis, God is revealed in nature. The Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen considered nature a mirror of God, and also a mirror for our souls. Part of a spiritual practice is learning to see God in nature.
When we are present in nature, we are on a spiritual journey to become our true selves as part of God’s creation. The quality of our presence influences how we this journey. Greenspace existing outside our doors, like the FUMC prairie trails, Memorial Garden, or Children’s Play Area is not enough. We must allow ourselves to slow down, to be present and connect to nature, which includes the people around us, for they are part of nature, as well. For God to catch up with us, we must slow down. So…take a walk by yourself or with someone (perhaps a child). Notice the flowers and grasses, feel the ground beneath your feet, watch a butterfly, or listen to a bird. Get closer to nature by working in a garden or working at one of the monthly FUMC Plant and Prairie Days (May through October).
Beginning with the September 21 Plant and Prairie Day, there will be childcare in the Children’s Play Area to make it easier for parents and other family members to get closer to nature by caring for God’s creation at FUMC. Please join us! Whatever you do, go outside. Be present. Slow down. Listen. Connect to nature emotionally, physically, and spiritually.