By: Zino Ukulu, M.A.
It’s nearly summer in the Chicagoland area, and with the warmer weather comes more opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. Whether you are sunning on a beach, walking along the lakefront trail, biking on the 606, or relaxing in one of the many parks, spending time outside improves your mental health. Although it seems like it would take a week-long hiatus to a national forest to rest, relax, and reset from the demands of urban living, similar benefits can be gained by spending a little time everyday in natural environments or spaces with an abundance of greenery.
Urban environments, often referred to as “concrete jungles,” tend to lack widespread greenspaces, the effects of which contribute to residents feeling disconnected from nature and overstimulated from the fast-paced lifestyle. The societal priority of industrial innovation and capital profit has caused people to think of themselves as superior to and separate from nature despite the resulting detrimental environmental consequences. Chicago was recently bathed in smoke from Canadian wildfires burning thousands of miles away. That phenomenon brought our attention back to the state of our natural environments and the effects of such on us as human beings.
These developments shouldn’t drive us further away from cultivating a personal relationship with nature, but instead can be considered an opportunity to connect with our environment by learning about and engaging in sustainable practices coupled with recreational activities. The process of cultivating a relationship with nature can, at times, resemble therapeutic interventions used to boost self-esteem and regulate emotions.
Immersing oneself in nature is a preventative medicinal practice in Japan named forest-bathing which involves absorbing the natural scenery and the accompanying sensations through mindful awareness. Maintaining mindful awareness is the key to experiencing the full healing effects of nature because it allows the mind and body to slow down enough for psychological and physiological relaxation. Research shows that nature has specific therapeutic effects including improving the functioning of the immune system by boosting immune cells and assisting in cancer prevention, fortifying the cardiovascular system which helps to prevent high blood pressure and coronary artery disease, boosting the respiratory system to reduce allergies and prevent respiratory disease, treating depression and anxiety, creating mental relaxation, and instilling feelings of ‘awe’ which increase gratitude and selflessness.
Restorative nature-based experiences produce multifaceted beneficial health effects that exist across systems, from the personal level, through the community level, all the way to the global level. The first step on the path to building a mutually beneficial relationship with nature is right out the door.