August 23, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

The Healing Powers of Nature

Independent studies celebrate the ability of nature to improve human health and well-being.

Nature in prison: Inmates are people, too. Most of us forget them after they are sentenced. Lock them up and throw away the key, some think. But they live on. Each day the reality of incarceration wears on them, often increasing levels of aggression and hopelessness. Anything that can reduce aggression would be welcomed by guards and other inmates. The American Psychological Association is trying a simple idea: nature videos. Science Daily explains what happened in an experiment:

Researchers have identified a simple intervention that may help reduce levels of violence in maximum security prisons. Inmates who viewed nature videos showed reduced levels of aggression and were less likely to be disciplined than those in similar cellblocks, according to research presented at the American Psychological Association’s 124th Annual Convention.

We need nature for our physical and psychological well-being,” said clinical psychotherapist Patricia H. Hasbach, PhD, who presented the research. “Although direct contact with real nature is most effective, studies have shown that even indirect nature exposure can provide temporary relief from psychological stress in daily life.

The videos were not documentaries, but just images of oceans, forests, rivers, an aquarium, or the earth from space. Inmates who had the opportunity to watch the videos committed 26% fewer infractions in the hours that followed, a “substantial reduction” in violent behavior, probably because the views of nature reduce stress and the mental fatigue of looking at walls and bars all the time. “The intervention has been considered so successful that it is now being used in other areas of the prison” and may find its way to other correctional institutions.

Get a horse: Our hearts go out to refugee children. Ripped from their homes, their emotions are scarred for life. One charity in Austria has found a way to begin to heal the hearts that have gone through hell: bring them a horse. When children stroke and interact with a pony or horse, the animal responds with its emotions, and a bridge of trust is created as both learn to be sensitive to each other. Medical Xpress calls this “equine-assisted therapy.” Trust and confidence grows as the children first pet the animals, then lead them, then ride them. “The parents notice as soon as they get home that the children are calmer, better able to concentrate.”

Nature in meadows: “Flowering meadows benefit humankind,” writes Science Daily. Beautiful as they are, flowery meadows come with lots of pollinators—i.e., bugs. But “the more it swarms, crawls and flies the better it is for humans.” Why? The players all contribute to biodiversity. No bugs, no flowers. “Even rather unpopular insects and invisible soil-dwelling organisms are important in maintaining a wide range of ecosystem services,” German scientists say. “The results underline the necessity of maintaining species-rich ecosystems for the good of humanity.”

Nature makes you appreciative: On The Conversation, professor Viren Swami discusses “How being in nature makes us appreciate our bodies and reject unrealistic beauty standards.” His latest journal publication goes beyond the obvious mental and physical health benefits of nature hiking. He shows evidence that it enhances your body image and improves social interaction.

One can only imagine the breath of fresh air to see beautiful natural scenes when cooped up in a prison, a hospital, or a care home. Whatever you do, don’t show prisoners any evolution documentaries! That will only make them feel more hopeless and cynical. Why not show them the Design of Life videos from Illustra Media? Better yet, teach them about their Creator, who can also forgive their sins through Christ. Awana Lifeline is having spectacular success doing just that, bringing prisoners to Christ and discipling them. They also unite inmates with their children (Returning Hearts), teaching the men to be better fathers (Malachi Dads) and the women to be better mothers (Hannah’s Gift). Stories of lives changed through this ministry are incredible. Can you believe that Angola Prison, one of the toughest, most brutal and hopeless prisons in America, has become a lighthouse for the gospel? Multiple inmate-led churches are turning criminals into saints, while many maximum-security cells are now empty. What a tremendous example of the power of the gospel to change lives!

We encourage Awana Lifeline to take a look at the healing power of nature videos as a supplemental resource. These can help those still inside the walls after the ministers leave. Sounds like a winning combination. Get them saved and into the word of God, then feed their spirits and emotions with the beauty of the world God made. Here’s a good video you can buy cheaply in bulk quicksleeves to give out to those who cannot get outside: King of Creation. It has beautiful nature photography, hymns and scriptures blended in 8 episodes that are sure to lift a heavy heart. You don’t even have to turn on the sound to benefit from the visual therapy. Works well for hospitals and care homes, too. Any of us can use these as ministry giveaways.

If you’re not walking outdoors regularly, give it a try if you can. We all need exposure to the environment God made for us. The world is fallen from its original perfection, and often harmful or dangerous. Nevertheless, God has not left himself without witness, Paul said, in that “he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). There’s enough beauty in a tree, a star, or a friendly animal to lift our spirits, replacing apathy with smiles and gratitude.

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