Why Nature is Good for our Mental Health
Why Nature is Good for our Mental Health
Have you ever heard the advice to “walk off a bad mood”? It turns out that’s actually pretty good advice, as long as you’re walking outside. The connection between nature and improved mental health is a popular talking point, but why does being in nature improve our mood? And what’s the extent of the help that Mother Nature can give?
In 2016, a study in the UK looked at three types of “ecotherapy” or “nature-based interventions” including “social and therapeutic horticulture, environmental conservation interventions and care farming” and found that the benefits included:
- Psychological restoration and increased general mental wellbeing
- Reduction in depression, anxiety and stress related symptoms
- Improvement in dementia-related symptoms
- Improved self-esteem, confidence and mood
- Increased attentional capacity and cognition
- Improved happiness, satisfaction and quality of life
- Sense of peace, calm or relaxation
- Feelings of safety and security”
- Increased social contact, inclusion and sense of belonging
- Increase in work skills, meaningful activity and personal achievement”
That’s a pretty big claim, but there are several countries around the world that take nature-based interventions quite seriously. Starting in the 1980’s, Japanese doctors began prescribing “Forest bathing,” or “shinrin-yoku” for stress relief and general health. Forest bathing is simply visiting a forest (or even trees in the city) and spending time there without any devices and without any purpose, taking in the forest through all five senses. Forest bathing has become a cornerstone of Japanese preventative medicine, and there have even been multiple studies that have shown the tangible health benefits of forest bathing.
South Korea is building a total of 37 “healing forests,” and the national agency in charge of the massive project takes blood pressure and heart rate variability readings on all visitors before and after their walk with a plan to assemble an extensive dataset to prove the value of these awe-inspiring places.
Other countries that are beginning to focus on the healing power of nature include Finland, Australia, New Zealand, and the US. Clearly, there are benefits to getting into nature. But why?
One healthy aspect of being outside is simple: moving and exercising, even at a gentle pace. Exercise triggers the release of feel-good hormones throughout the body, and getting outside for a walk can feel less daunting than heading to the gym, especially if you’re suffering from depression.
Part of the benefit of being out in nature is the tendency to focus outside of yourself. It’s easy, particularly when suffering from bouts of depression or anxiety, to ruminate on our own issues. Getting out in nature has been proven to help people get a bit more out of their heads; one study showed how, after walking in nature, blood flow decreased to the part of the brain used for obsessive rumination. This release allows us to broaden our perspectives about ourselves and other people. At its essence, this is an exercise is mindfulness… and being in nature makes it a bit easier to get present and see what’s around us.
This is closely related to the feeling of “awe” we can get when confronted with stunning natural vistas. Those epic views pull you away from your day-to-day, helping you let go of obsessive thoughts – and you can even get some of the benefits by looking at beautiful images of nature. Being out in nature also lowers your blood pressure, and being in natural light can help with Seasonal Affective Disorder by triggering your body to naturally create vitamin D, which is essential for mood and general health.
You can also add activities to your nature exposure like gardening. Taking care of a living being, seeing it grow and thrive, and the simple, repetitive tasks of weeding or trimming can allow for your mind to have a bit of space. Simply going for a walk with a friend is low-key and can even allow for a bit more freedom of expression with nobody around to overhear your conversation and more limited opportunity for eye contact, which can inhibit your willingness to share.
So if you can, get out into nature. That doesn’t have to mean getting out of the city – try visiting a park, joining a community garden, or simply noticing the natural features on your way to work, even if that just means seeing the dandelions that come through cracks in the pavement. Every bit of engagement with nature is helpful for your mental health!