Counselling Resource

Psychology, Philosophy & Real Life

Dr George Simon, PhD

Landscape Therapy: Emotional Healing Courtesy of Mother Nature

Photo by Frank Kovalchek - //flic.kr/p/6AFXDS
Photo by Frank Kovalchek - http://flic.kr/p/6AFXDS

Sometimes when I’m stressed, and need relief, I’ll conjure up a memory of a picturesque landscape and use the natural world as an antidote for emotional distress and malaise — “landscape therapy,” I sometimes call it.

Some research indicates that having plants around us can have an emotional calming effect. Exposing ourselves to plant life, taking in the colors, and, of course, breathing the oxygen the plants release, seems to enhance our sense of well-being. Just taking a walk outdoors or ambling along a nature trail also has the power to relieve stress and, perhaps, even to heal. (See, for example, here, here, and here.) Hearing the sound of gently flowing water, smelling the fragrances in the air, and sensing a gentle breeze, all have soothing powers. Nature has gifted us with some magnificent landscapes, and just bearing witness to them in various ways can refresh our spirits. Sometimes, I refer to this as “landscape therapy.”

I’m blessed with a primarily visual information processing system and memory. Sometimes, I think that if it weren’t for my visual memory, I’d have no memory at all. I don’t have a “photographic” memory by any means (how I wish I did sometimes!), but my visual memories are the strongest and most reliable. I recently had confirmation of this when my wife and I were trying to remember the name of a friend’s wife whom we’d met for the very first time at a convention. I could see the woman’s face but couldn’t recall her name for the life of me, even though she had mentioned it to us several times. I was eventually able to bring to mind an image of her wearing her name tag (I remember glancing at it several times during convention events so I’d have a better chance at remembering her name), and there it was! I’m grateful for this visual memory, especially because sometimes, when I’m “in a funk” and really need to “refresh my batteries,” I can recall the images of beautiful landscapes I’ve had the pleasure to witness and be instantly refreshed in spirit.

Many years ago, I took a trip to one of my favorite spots on earth: Arizona’s Oak Creek Canyon. True, that other big hole in the earth they call the Grand Canyon is a mighty impressive place, too, but I have a special fondness for Oak Creek. I’ve been there many times, hiking along the canyon trails, “tubing” in the chilly creek, and sliding down the popular Slide Rock. This particular trip there was the first occasion my wife and I had been to the canyon as a couple. We sat on the edge of an overlook, with the canyon far below us, watching and listening to the flowing waters. The magnificent “red rock” structures with their stratified limestone layers and colorful patterns surrounded us. Directly ahead and above us was a jet blue sky. Behind us, the sky was pink and golden as the sun was just beginning to set behind some mountains. The vistas took our breaths away, and we just sat there, transfixed, taking it all in. (There’s evidence that this kind of “involuntary attention” to natural landscapes is in itself therapeutic). I wanted to freeze the moment in time. And in a sense, I did, as I snapped an indelible image of the most striking landscape in my mind. To this day, when I’m really stressed, and even a walk in the woods or a bike ride along a nature trail is insufficient, I mentally take myself back to the canyon by recalling that image, gazing once again at that wondrous landscape, and all the pressures and troubles seem to fade away, and I’m alive again.

There’s something about the vastness, power, and majesty in nature that can comfort you. While sometimes you can feel dwarfed by it, most of the time you can’t help but feel nurtured. After all, none of us could even be here were it not for this magnificent planet and the abundant resources on it. Of course, when nature flexes its power, it can be more than just awe-inspiring. Sometimes it can be downright frightening. I live in the very heart of “tornado alley” so I’m all too familiar with the anxiety that can accompany some of nature’s more violent displays of power. But most of the time there’s a comfort to be taken in the power that sustains life. And placing yourself in the middle of a stunning landscape and feeling a part of it gives you a sense of the timelessness of the universe and the majesty of its creation.

Whether it’s simply walking, hiking, canoeing, biking, or gardening, the natural world seems to be the natural antidote for emotional distress and malaise.There’s evidence that folks who spend time outdoors experience less depression than those who spend most of their time indoors. Despite the fact that I spend more time outdoors these days than I ever have, I still feel the need to escape my all too familiar surroundings from time to time and experience a new landscape. When I feel that way, I generally head either to “big sky” country or to the beach. Some years, it just has to be the wide open spaces: there’s something about the vastness and the quiet (being away from all the noise pollution of the city) that can really help restore a city dweller’s sanity. This year, it will be the beach. It’s been too long since the last time, and I’m already chomping at the bit. I’ll tune into the rhythmic pattern of the waves for sure, but mostly I’ll be refreshing myself with all the visuals: the palm branches swaying in the gentle breeze, the gulls gliding, and the white sand glistening — all set against a clear blue sky. I’ll take in all the vistas and take a mental snapshot or two for future reference. And when I’m stressed, and need relief, I’ll conjure up a picturesque landscape and do my therapy. Then all will be well. In my mind, I’ll be miles away from any troubles or concerns and firmly planted in mother nature’s arms, safe, grateful, inspired, and restored.

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