Outdoor experiences offer unique benefits for well-being.
By Katherine Duncan
It could be the sound of the waves and the feeling of sand between your toes at sunrise, or it might be the call of an osprey and the sight of the sparkling marshland at sunset. Nearly everyone has found moments of peace, clarity and inspiration while immersed in a natural setting. The sensation is supported by science. Studies have shown that spending time outside can lead to improved mood, concentration, memory and sleep quality, among other positive effects.
“Being outdoors helps our physical bodies, decreases blood pressure, decreases cortisol levels and increases oxytocin—the ‘feel good’ hormone,” explains psychotherapist Elizabeth Corbett, who is certified in ecotherapy. It also reduces stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety, which is beneficial for all. “That’s not even a pathology, it’s just that we are humans and we exist in this world and we have situations that can cause [those feelings],” she explains. “Nature therapy is a great modality to work toward wellness because it causes a physiological shift that promotes an inner wellness … and it teaches our brain how to seek and find more of that balanced state—more of being in homeostasis. I think it’s amazing for people who are just looking to journey further into living their best life, accessing the most joy and purpose they can.”
From gardening to equine encounters, discover a few of the wide variety of therapies that incorporate organic elements and settings to promote well-being.
Plant and Grow
The therapeutic benefits of gardening have been recognized since ancient times, when the Mesopotamians used horticulture to calm the senses. Around 500 B.C., Persians created gardens that combined fragrance, the sight of beautiful foliage and the sound of running water for a soothing experience.
According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, the first person to document the positive effects of gardening on mental health was Dr. Benjamin Rush, an esteemed 18th-century physician (and a political leader who signed the Declaration of Independence). Horticulture therapy, in which participation in the activity is facilitated by a registered horticultural therapist to achieve specific goals, became more common after World War II, when it was used in the rehabilitation of hospitalized veterans. Now, it is a widely accepted therapeutic option for a range of diagnoses.
Shepherd’s Hill Academy, a therapeutic boarding school in Martin, Georgia, includes gardening and animal husbandry as part of its sustainable development program. Students cultivate crops, plant herb gardens and maintain fruit trees. “It gives a really good metaphor for life that you can bring a lot of therapeutic value to,” says Clinical Director Elise Thrift. “… Also touching the dirt with your hands, harvesting corn or tomatoes—that tactile sensation and building skills that they might not have been able to learn somewhere else can build confidence.”
However, the activity does not have to be formally guided to offer benefits. Avid gardeners often note a sense of well-being that comes from planting and harvesting. As people across the country spent more time at home this spring, they turned to horticulture as an outlet. More than half of American adults were gardening or caring for their lawns, and two-thirds were growing, or planned to grow, their own produce, according to research conducted on behalf of ScottsMiracle-Gro. In addition to the desire to stay busy, many people also cited reduced stress and feeling a sense of accomplishment as their reasons for spending more time outside.
“Gardening really improves the vitality of your life, which is something that is so important these days,” says Sean Nelson, who maintains the nearly half-acre garden at Broadfield, A Sea Island Sporting Club and Lodge. “Fall is my favorite season to grow. … I just feel more grounded to the earth during the fall because the plants are more root-based—turnips, radishes, carrots and beets, for example.” She finds that weeding helps her feel less anxious, and notes how rewarding it is to “take a blank slate of garden bed and turn it into something that will produce 100-plus pounds of collard greens throughout the season.”
Like horticulture, equine therapy also has a long history. According to Shepherd’s Hill Academy, therapeutic horseback riding is documented in Greek literature from as far back as 600 B.C. Modern equine relationship therapy, also known as equine-assisted therapy, uses interaction with horses to promote emotional, behavioral, relational and spiritual growth. At Shepherd’s Hill, a student will choose his or her own horse to bond with during weekly equine relationship therapy sessions. “Equine therapy is really amazing because it is an experiential form of therapy where they are learning relationship skills with their horse,” Thrift explains. “It is really good for building interpersonal effectiveness within a family system.”
Allie Zorn, owner of The Stables at Frederica on St. Simons, has seen firsthand how beneficial horseback riding can be for young people. “I like to use horses as a means to accomplish things with my students. Whether it’s trying to understand how to increase their presence around other people or learning how to overcome challenges, we can actually take some of the strategies from riding and utilize them for what they are going to need in everyday life,” she says.
Zorn notes that skills learned at the stables can even help students when they begin driving a car.
“One of the first things that we teach them when they are riding is that where you go is by far the most important thing—you have to steer,” she explains. “… It’s a whole lot easier to learn to drive when they are already used to that idea.”
Interactions with horses can be just as beneficial for adults. Equine assisted therapy has been shown to reduce depression, anxiety, stress and symptoms of PTSD, in addition to improving overall mood.
Corbett grew up with horses, and her personal experience with them inspired her to pursue certification in equine therapy. “It’s not magic, but sometimes it sure feels like it—the way being around a horse can provide wisdom about yourself that a human can’t,” she says. “I think they are tremendously healing and they are also incredibly fun and powerful.”
In fact, one of the most powerful moments in her career occurred when she was co-leading an equine therapy session for a group of women who were recovering from addiction. The small group sat in a circle for a mindfulness exercise while three horses looked on from across the arena. For the exercise, Corbett asked the women to visualize a person who had cared deeply for them, and then send “thoughts of loving kindness, thoughts of appreciation, thoughts of gratitude, to this person.” That was when the horses responded. “While they were sending that out, the horses who were at the far end of the arena … came running up to the group and they actually inserted themselves into the group. They joined the circle—it was amazing. In that moment, it was these women seeing and experiencing that they could send good out into the world and they drew good to them.”
Take it Outside
Research has shown that outdoor experiences that involve some type of exercise, such as hiking, are especially beneficial. A Stanford University study found that a 90-minute walk in a natural setting decreased activity in a part of the brain that is associated with depression. “Our bodies are made to move, and movement kind of settles our nervous system, stabilizing it, and it also helps our thought processes become more clear—a little bit more accessible,” Corbett says.
At Sea Island, Lead Naturalist Haley Watkins finds relaxation in her seasonal Sea Turtle Dawn Patrols. “One of my favorite things that I get to do here as a naturalist is leading all of our sea turtle research programs, which means that every morning at sunrise I go out and patrol our full 5-mile stretch of beach looking for sea turtle nests, and watch the entire Island wake up. There’s definitely something very relaxing and therapeutic about starting your day that way,” she says. Another one of her favorite routes around the resort is the Marsh Habitat and Wildlife Walk. The approximately 1-mile-long tour goes from the Beach Club to Rainbow Island with numerous opportunities to see a wide range of flora and fauna.
Corbett, who splits her time between Atlanta and Asheville, North Carolina, takes her clients for strolls outside during her walk-and-talk therapy sessions. “We might walk somewhere and then sit on a boulder and talk, but part of the session always involves physical movement,” she says. The movement does not have to be strenuous to be effective, however. For clients who have physical challenges, Corbett might meet them at a park, where the only walking involved is a few steps from the parking lot to the green space. Now that many of her sessions are being conducted virtually due to the pandemic, she still encourages clients to go outside while they chat. Another way that she incorporates the outdoors into her virtual sessions is through use of natural objects like a stone or seashell. “It helps clients get grounded in a similar way to what I see when they are outdoors,” she explains.
She also gives her clients assignments to complete between sessions, such as going into nature or just finding an outdoor “sit spot” that they can visit regularly. They will gradually increase the amount of time that they spend at their sit spot, ultimately incorporating breathing, meditation and mindfulness exercises while they are there.
“That’s the core of what nature-based therapy is: It’s about increasing mindfulness so you are fully present in the moment,” Corbett explains. “You aren’t ruminating about the past, you aren’t worrying about the future, you are really learning how to consistently try to pull yourself into the moment and stay there.” Whether it’s the beach, maritime forest or marsh, natural settings are sure to inspire moments of mindfulness.
Bring the outdoors in with these naturally inspired items.
Picture Perfect: Studies have shown that viewing nature scenes causes a positive physiological shift in our bodies. Next time you are out in a beautiful natural environment, snap a photo of your favorite vista and then have it printed on canvas to hang in your home for a decorative reminder.
Refreshing Smells: Scent is closely tied to memory. Whether your happy place is the beach, the forest or a flower-filled garden, when you need to unwind, try lighting a candle that is reminiscent of your favorite natural environment. Illumecandles.com features scents like fresh sea salt, evergreen and gardenia.
Soothing Sounds: From crashing waves to crackling campfires, find these natural tunes and more on the White Noise smartphone app (available for both iOS and Android), tmsoft.com/white-noise.
Natural Keepsakes: The most meaningful mementos are often the ones we gather ourselves. During an outdoor excursion, seek out a small piece of nature that inspires you, such as a seashell, stone or pinecone, to take home.