Research on mindfulness in nature

There's always been a strong affinity between mindfulness and nature based therapy: Meditation has been practiced outdoors for centuries. Despite such ancient origins, we've only recently started to research mindfulness in nature.

There's a wealth of research showing that spending time in nature is good for our mental health. Increased happiness, a greater sense of calm, reduction in stress, personal growth, enhanced creativity and greater compassion are all evidenced in the ecotherapy research.

I could say much the same for mindfulness, which has been promoted as something of a mental health panacea over the last few years. Mindfulness is typically used in the treatment of stress, anxiety, substance abuse, depression and PTSD, but that list is by no means exhaustive. The UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) website lists over 900 research reports on the effectiveness of mindfulness.

Theory

Scientific research into the relationship between mindfulness and nature is in its early stages, but the results so far are very significant. Recent research has found that nature connection, well-being, and mindfulness are interrelated; "higher degrees of connectedness to nature were associated with greater well-being and greater mindfulness" (Howell, et al, 2011). We don't yet know how these three are related, but there is good evidence that:

  • people who feel a strong connection with nature are happier (Capaldi et al., 2014), and
  • being in nature can facilitate and cultivate mindfulness (Huynh, 2017).

It seems that certain kinds of natural environment help create something akin to mindfulness. Recent research by psychologists from the University of Derby suggests that regular visits to a local rural landscape encouraged greater mindfulness (Richardson and Hallam, 2013). A key finding was that there's no need for long retreats into wilderness to experience the profound benefits of nature connection. This confirms my PhD research, which found that practicing mindfulness in nature in a local wood or park is deeply healing (Harris, 2008).

We know that spending time in nature can be healing, but why? Environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan believe that natural phenomena like birdsong, trees, or the gentle sound of a stream provide sensory stimuli that are effortlessly fascinating and promote a sense of well-being. This "soft fascination" is very restorative because it give our thinking minds time to rest. Nature encourages us to expand our sensory awareness and creates a space for us to collect our thoughts into a gentle focus.

Although soft fascination is not the same as mindfulness, both involve a present centred and relaxed state of awareness (Kaplan, 2001). It's perhaps no surprise to hear that natural environments are conducive to mindfulness, but we can now identify more clearly why this is so.

Practice

Mindfulness in nature as a therapeutic practice is in its early stages and constantly evolving. However, we know more than enough to put it into practice.

Nacadia, The Healing Forest Garden

Nacadia, The Healing Forest Garden, is an excellent example. The project was initiated by the University of Copenhagen and received its first patients, who were suffering from stress-related illness, in 2012. Nacadia uses a variety of approaches but the healing work is underpinned with mindfulness in nature.

Although Nacadia is a specially designed healing garden, we can gain many of the benefits of mindfulness in nature elsewhere. The kind of diverse natural environments found in and around Exeter are ideal, as they promote a present centred awareness which is conducive to mindfulness practice.

Many assume that mindfulness in nature is just for the Summer months, but that misses a fundamental aspect of the work; the seasonal cycle of nature serves to develop mindful acceptance. The changeable weather and the cycle of the seasons offer living examples of the inevitability of change. Winter will come and the leaves will fall: Paying mindful attention to natural change provides us with an ever present opportunity to learn non-judgemental acceptance that is dramatic but non-threatening.

A participant on a recent workshop I facilitated commented that "mindfulness in nature is the way forward." If you're interested in finding out more, please contact me.

References

Capaldi, C.A., Dopko, R.L. and Zelenski, J.M. (2014). 'The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness: a meta-analysis'. Frontiers in Psychology, 2014; 5: 976.

Corazon, S., Stigsdotter, U, Jensen, A., and Nilsson, K. (2010). 'Development of the Nature-Based Therapy Concept for Patients with Stress-Related Illness at the Danish Healing Forest Garden Nacadia'. Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture. 2010;XX.

Corazon, S.S., Stigsdotter, U.K., & Rasmussen, S.M. (2012) 'Nature as therapist: integrating permaculture with mindfulness and acceptance based therapy in the healing forest garden Nacadia', European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling, 14 (4): 335 - 347.

Harris, A. (2008). The Wisdom of the Body: Embodied Knowing in Eco-Paganism. PhD Thesis, University of Southampton.

Harris, A. (2013). Gendlin and Ecopsychology: Focusing in Nature, in Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies, 12 (4): 330-343.

Huynh, T. N. (2017). Understanding the roles of connection to nature, mindfulness, and distress on psychological well-being. MSc thesis, College of Education and Human Science University of Nebraska - Lincoln.

Howell, A. J., Dopko, R. L.,Passmore, H, Buro, K. (2011). 'Nature connectedness: Associations with well-being and mindfulness'. Personality and Individual Differences. Volume 51, Issue 2, July 2011, 166-171.

Kaplan, S. (2001). Meditation, restoration and the management of mental fatigue. Environment and Behavior 334, 480-506.

Miller, J. J., Fletcher, K., & Kabat-Zinn, J. (1995). Three-year follow-up and clinical implications of a mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention in the treatment of anxiety disorders. General Hospital Psychiatry, 17 (3), 192-200.

Sidenius, Karlsson Nyed, Linn Lygum, Stigsdotter. (2107). 'A Diagnostic Post-Occupancy Evaluation of the Nacadia Therapy Garden'. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2017 Aug 5;14 (8).