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Exploring Efforts to Use Nature to Heal Patients, and Lower Stress

Bernadette Scruggs sits in the healing garden at the UH Seidman Cancer Center (Photo: Lecia Bushak/ideastream)

Surrounded by herbs, flowers, and recorded nature sounds, horticultural therapist Kristina Arthur stands on the rooftop of the UH Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, where a garden gives kids a chance to feel normal again outside of the clinical environment.

"We have a sound garden feature here, and it is the sound of running water and bird calls… and in the evening it switches to crickets," Arthur said.

Arthur works with patients to facilitate nature’s healing properties, hoping to improve their state of mind during their hospital stay.

"Out here, I encourage people with doctor’s permission to come out and enjoy the garden with all their senses," Arthur said. "So I always ask kids, have you ever felt a flower? And they’re like, no, and I’m like, well let’s go do it!"

The rooftop garden isn’t the only therapeutic oasis for hospital patients. Just down the street, two-time breast cancer survivor Bernadette Scruggs sits in the healing garden at the UH Seidman Cancer Center. Whether she’s undergoing treatment or having a check-up during remission, she comes to the garden to find a sense of balance.

"It’s so peaceful to be out in nature, and then when you’re outside all the mental minutiae that you have, all the long laundry lists of things you have to do — they go away because you’re not looking at them," Scruggs said. "It makes you take a beat, and breathe."

Studies have shown that being near trees and green spaces reduces stress and anxiety, eases depression, and even replenishes attention. In 2015, a Stanford University study found that people who strolled through green areas experienced a decrease of activity in the parts of their brains associated with rumination, or negative thinking, compared to those who walked beside a busy urban street. Greg Bratman led that study, as well as a second one.

"In the other study we put out in 2015… we also looked at anxiety, and negative or positive mood or affect," Bratman said. "We noticed a pattern there as well… the nature walkers experienced decreased anxiety, decreased negative affect or feelings of negative mood, and also decreased rumination."

Green space exposure has also been associated with reductions in elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Kathleen Wolf, a researcher at the University of Washington who focuses on the link between nature and health, says one possible explanation for these physiological responses may be that humans are inherently wired to benefit from nature.

"There’s this theory, the biophilic hypothesis, that suggests that because of our long time — or long history of being engaged in nature and relying on nature for our fundamental needs of water, food, shelter, safety, and so on — that we have this innate affiliation with nature," Wolf said.

Deeper research is now underway to discover some of the biological mechanisms occurring in the human body that allow people to feel better in nature. The goal, Wolf says, is to use science to capture the attention of policy makers and prioritize green space… not only to beautify neighborhoods, but also to offer a service of sorts to mental well-being.


This "Tracking the Trees" story is part of the Be Well project, "Healthy People, Healthy Places"... exploring the intersection of people, place, and health.