A dose of nature: doctors prescribe a day in the park for anxiety

For many patients, like Lauren Huddle, 31, a big dose of Mother Nature is exactly what she needs after a stressful day.

“I have pretty bad anxiety and depression,” said Huddle of Bellingham, Washington. “And I don’t do well with pharmaceuticals, so my husband Nate would actually tell me all the time, ‘just go outside, you’ll feel so much better.’”

And that’s exactly the plan that Lauren and her doctor laid out. The Huddle’s family physician wrote her a prescription that read: “Five times a week… spend 30 minutes at a park near your home.”

Huddle’s treatment plan is part of a growing field of medicine called “ecotherapy” — nature-based programs and exercises that can help patients cope with mental and physical illnesses. Instead of prescriptions for more pills, doctors around the country are increasingly prescribing trips to the park for a range of conditions, including anxiety and depression, attention deficit disorder and chronic illness such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

There’s plenty of evidence of the healing power of a walk in the woods. “Forest bathing,” a version of the Japanese practice Shinrin-Yoku, is taking off in American as a way to boost happiness and help with insomnia. And scientists have long studied how going into nature changes the way the brain works.

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