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Nature and mood: using ecotherapy to treat depression

Posted Aug 26 2008 4:29pm
Running in Golden Gate Park the other day, I followed a circuit that tracks major roads which, though not freeways, still have regular traffic in cars. As I ran, I paid attention to my mood and thoughts, partially to see how to make it ease- ier , and partially as an ongoing education in my own idiosyncratic experience of the effect of exercise on well being .

At one point towards the end of the run, I had to decide whether to take another road-hugging route, or cut down a little path that was mostly surrounded by trees, with grass either close by or underfoot. I chose path #2, and as I entered that path, immediately I could sense something shift.

Two analogies come to mind: if you have ever visited the chiropractor, and had an adjustment to some area that released tension you didn't even know was there...well, it felt a bit like that. Or: it was akin to what you feel when a storm is coming in, especially in San Francisco, as either a quick shift in temperature or barometric pressure. Except internally.

I'd actually forgotten about this experience until today, when I came across a report issued by a group in the U.K. (called Mind), which studied the effects on mood of walks taken in "green" areas (and "green" activities like gardening) vs. exercise at urban areas (a mall). The findings are listed below, but to summarize, they found that a substantial percentage of participants reported decreased depression and increased self-esteem in green activities, while an also substantial percentage described just the opposite after the "non-green" exercise.

It strikes me as pretty intuitive that this should be the case, though the report does not try to definitively answer why. (The studies had a number of factors aside from location--such as being part of a group, who your group-mates were, the controlled boundaries of the group vs. the random people at the mall--which make it difficult to just say that nature is the key factor in alleviating depression.) But it does give a spin to the widely accepted and tested connection between mood and exercise, that apparently not all exercise is created equal.

For those of you suffering from depression or anxiety, it is something to experiment with--literally experiment with. Take a 20 minute walk through your neighborhood, then take a walk of equal intensity and length through a park. And then through a forest. Then by the ocean or a lake. On a mountain. In the desert. Keep notes on the differences, on what seems to brighten your spirits, what gets your serotonin flowing, as it were. Pay attention to how the natural world actually affects you.

What I find in working with depression and anxiety is this experimental attitude is so important in breaking out of mental loops, in reconnecting or reestablishing contact with the real world, of here-and-now experience. Depression and anxiety are so much about part of the mind telling entrenched negative stories about oneself and the world, so as a method, experimenting with seeing what the world is outside of one's stories (without needing to then attack the stories) is key to breaking down their toxic effects.

So, here's the summary of findings, and a link to the report is below under resources.

  • 71 per cent reported decreased levels of depression after the green walk.
  • 22 per cent felt their depression increased after walking through an indoor shopping centre and only 45 per cent experienced a decrease in depression.
  • 71 per cent said they felt less tense after the green walk.
  • 50 per cent said they felt more tense after the shopping center walk.
  • 90 per cent said their self-esteem increased after the country walk.
  • 44 per cent reported decreased self-esteem after window shopping in the shopping center.
  • 88 per cent of people reported improved mood after the green walk.
  • 44.5 per cent of people reported feeling in a worse mood after the shopping centre walk, 11 per cent reported no change and 44.5 per cent said their mood improved.
  • 71 per cent of people said they felt less fatigued after the green walk and 53 per cent said they felt more vigorous.

(Resources: Mind's report )

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