How Nature Imagery Can Help With Suffering.


We tend to think of suffering in hospitals as being directly related to physical pain. We think of sharp instruments piercing skin, or of the nauseating side effects of some medications.

In actuality, this is only part of the picture. There is also mental suffering from the psychological effects of fear, stress, and anxiety that arise from going to the hospital, sitting in the waiting room, or entering/leaving the surgery room.

During a hospital visit, fear of pain may be the most obvious cause of mental suffering, but patients can also feel a sense of weakness, vulnerability, guilt, shame, or paranoia. These feelings don’t just make the patient emotionally miserable; they have a physiological effect as well.

Stress has physical manifestations. It raises our blood pressure, releases ‘stress hormones’ (that prevent other body processes like proper digestion or healing), and interrupts sleep (ever needed for cell health and healing).

Moreover, if we associate stress with the doctor, we’re likely to avoid seeing one at all, prolonging and perhaps exacerbating whatever physical ailment haunts us.


So what can be done?

Hospitals attempt to alleviate the physical pain part of suffering with research, medication and surgery.

However, an article for the Harvard Business Review called “A Framework for Reducing Suffering in Healthcare” suggests that over the centuries they’ve become so effective at it that healthcare has bent a bit more toward efficiency, results, and bottom lines. Patient needs and experience have taken a back seat.

The article suggests that to help reduce suffering in patients, we must:

  • define suffering
  • break it down into categories
  • help caregivers figure out how to relieve it

Two very basic categories of suffering are Unavoidable and Avoidable. Unavoidable suffering is caused by disease symptoms, post-operative pain, side effects, and the like. But what is avoidable suffering? 


Avoidable suffering results from the myriad decisions that take place in healthcare settings – from how providers communicate, to how treatments are administered, and of course, to how the physical environment is set up.  This is where I fit in. While I am no medical practitioner, one thing I can do is to help create a calm, beautiful atmosphere using nature imagery.

From waiting rooms to recovery rooms, large nature imagery has a measurable effect on the brain. It creates a lower experience of pain, lower blood pressure, and can even shorten recovery times.

Did you catch that? Filling your space with beautiful nature scenes actually affects the very thing that has pushed patient suffering to the back burner – efficiency, results, and bottom lines. Patients who experience less pain and stress require less medication, have shorter hospital stays, and have better temperaments working with staff.

It's no wonder the movement to bring evidence-based art into hospitals and clinics is picking up momentum.