Monday, July 13, 2020
July 13, 2020

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In Our View: Reconnecting with nature a good prescription

The Columbian

During these trying times, we all could use a little sunshine — both literally and figuratively. Fortunately, Mother Nature is cooperating by providing bright skies and warm temperatures.

With the coronavirus pandemic leading to lengthy stay-at-home orders and economic uncertainty that is just starting to ease, and with attention to police brutality leading to numerous protests and a reckoning over race relations in the U.S., it has been a stressful spring.

A poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 39 percent of Americans said the pandemic has played a negative role on their mental health, with 12 percent saying it has had a major impact. Meanwhile, a poll this month from The Associated Press found that only 24 percent of Americans say the country is headed in the right direction.

Of course, individual results may vary. But for those who are worried about the state of the world and those who are thriving, we offer some advice now that summer has arrived: Get outside. Social distancing is necessary, and Washington has a statewide facial covering requirement that takes effect today for those in close quarters. But even with necessary precautions, nature can provide some solace.

As journalist and author Richard Louv told The New York Times: “Ironically, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, as tragic as it is, has dramatically increased public awareness of the deep human need for nature connection, and is adding a greater sense of urgency to the movement to connect children, families and communities to nature.”

Washingtonians long have felt that connection, being situated in a bucolic spot that provides access to forests, beaches, rivers and mountains. In Clark County alone, there are walking trails and state parks and local parks and even a national wildlife refuge. Each offers a sense of exploration and beauty that is essential to preserving our mental health.

A 2015 study from Harvard Medical School, for example, found “those who did a nature walk had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is active during rumination — defined as repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions.” And research in the growing field of ecotherapy has shown a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.

That connection is particularly important for children, who spent the final months of the school year learning at home and now are facing a summer of limited contact with friends and few camps or activities. Louv, the journalist and author, said, “As young people spend less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, both physiologically and psychologically.” Numerous studies have confirmed the physical and mental benefits of outside play time or spending time in nature for children, and Louv has coined the phrase “Nature Deficit Disorder” to explain how a lack of outdoor time can lead to behavioral changes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers tips for managing mental health during the pandemic, noting that “coping with stress in a healthy way will make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger.” And the Southwest Washington chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health offers local services.

While the slow-but-steady easing of restrictions related to COVID-19 has deflected attention from the pandemic, it remains essential to take care of your health — both physical and mental. One way to do that is to nurture yourself by getting back to nature.