Friday 14 September 2018

The healing power of nature

An American study has revealed that nature is a fantastic source of healing in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Both psychological and physiological information was compiled and measured from the participants in the study. 

Psychologists investigated the healing power of nature in 72 (military) veterans and in 52 teenagers from disadvantaged communities during and after one-day or two-day rafting trips. Some veterans were subjected to a longer rafting trip, which lasted for four days. The results of both studies resulted in two publications in the psychological journal “Emotion” .



The studies suggest that particularly awe and wonder of nature contribute to general feelings of wellbeing, in contrast to the feeling of delight, pride, amusement, contentment and positive feelings during the rafting trips. Especially being active and awe/wonder about nature increase positive feelings and reduce the feelings of stress. After the rafting excursion it was found that post-traumatic stress symptoms had reduced by an average of 29 percent. General stress symptoms reduced by 21 percent. Social relationships, satisfaction and feelings of happiness seemed to have improved by 10, 9 and 8 percent respectively. It was also found that, even after a week, the stress situation had improved.

An interesting finding was that the participants, divided into teams, had similar experiences and showed similar scores. That may have been caused by the fact that emotions and feelings of awe are ‘socially contagious’. Furthermore, it was found that the concentrations of hormones (hormone profiles) measured in the saliva and blood were comparable for each team.


Causes and symptoms of PTSD

The study focussed on war veterans and marginalised young people. These people are frequently exposed to traumatic stress that can then cause PTSD. As well as war situations, armed robberies, rapes, traffic accidents and natural disasters can also lead to symptoms of PTSD. Over time, events of this type can cause serious disorders, such as feelings of anxiety, horror and helplessness. But also paranoia, social isolation, poor immune function, an increased risk of heart conditions, flashbacks and nightmares. Domestic violence, self-harm and suicide cannot then be ruled out.


Blood counts and biomarkers

As well as the psychological aspects of the study, physical aspects were also investigated. In other words, stress hormones and biomarkers of the immune system of both populations were analysed before and after the rafting excursion. Also monitored were facial expressions and emotional responses using video images of the participants. Body language and (social) interactions were captured. It was clear that the wild-water rafting had significantly improved the participants’ health and welfare.

A separate study, published in the same journal, involved a comparable study amongst 119 students at the University of California - Berkeley. It was once again seen that the encounters with – and the awe of - nature improved the students’ feelings of wellbeing. In summary, the researchers concluded that nature is a powerful source for improved health.



Anderson CL, Monroy M, Keltner D. Awe in nature heals: Evidence from military veterans, at-risk youth, and college students. Emotion. 2018 Jun 21. doi:10.1037/emo0000442. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 29927260.