How does nature help mental health? It seems obvious that we live in a modern world that is covered with concrete, skyscrapers, and pollutants. In urban areas, busy workers are often in a hurry to their jobs, leaving little time for healthy habits such as exercise, healthy cooking, and de-stressing activities such as spending time outdoors.
To put it simply, in today’s modern society, many people are not taking the time to stop and smell the roses – literally and figuratively.
With more than 50% of the global population living in cities, the hustle and bustle in today’s society seems to wreak havoc on many people’s mental health, and that is evidenced by an increasing rate of people prescribed antidepressants, SSRI’s, and other psychiatric drugs. In fact, the rate of antidepressant use in the United States among all ages increased nearly 400% from 1988–1994 through 2005–2008.
In our society, mental health is a buzzword for so many issues. The incidence of mental health disorders is on the rise and natural remedies such as exercise, healthy diet, and being outdoors should be discussed and promoted more often.
If you’re reading this, you probably already know that nature makes us humans really, really happy, but why so?
It is both well accepted by the scientific community and by our innate common sense that surrounding oneself with nature is good for the mood, body, and mind.
But how does nature help mental health exactly?
In this article we will discuss how nature helps mental health from the nitty gritty, scientific studies, to the many benefits of nature, to how we can get more nature in our everyday lives – even if you live in a hustling and bustling city.
We need the tonic of wilderness. . . . We can never have enough of nature.
—Henry D. Thoreau, Walden
Go to the sea-shore, to the mountains, to the wilderness; go anywhere where you can forget your cares and cast aside your burdens. . . . Let the old, old nurse, Nature, . . . take you to her bosom again; and you will return to the city happier and healthier for the embrace.
—William H. H. Murray
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What is Nature Therapy?
This may seem self-explanatory, but for the sake of clarification it is important to discuss what nature therapy means.
Nature therapy, as the name implies, is the practice of using greenery, blue bodies of water, and nature sounds to improve psychological well being.
Benefits of Spending Time In Nature
1. Sharpens Cognition
Being outdoors in green spaces is shown to improve concentration and cognitive performance. Urban environments, on the other hand, make concentration more challenging in our minds.
No park nearby? No problem! You don’t even have to be outside to get many of the benefits of nature therapy. Studies show that all you need is to visualize nature, even if only through photographs and videos.
2. Increases Happiness
Although there are multitudes of scientific studies explaining how earth’s natural landscapes improve cognition, there are many unexplained benefits of nature to our happiness and moods.
Nature improves our happiness, interactions with others, and sense of well being and purpose.
If you have ever gone for a walk outside to clear your mind, you will know it to be true that nature indeed improves our happiness.
3. Reduces Stress, Anxiety, and Psychiatric Disorders
In addition to improving cognitive functioning, it is believed that stress is reduced as a byproduct of increased cognition by being exposed to nature.
Further, nature could possibly buffer the effects of feeling lonely and socially isolated. One research article showed that when people with social isolation had lots of nature nearby, they typically reported a better sense of wellbeing than those without any nature nearby.
Another study in Denmark supports that children growing up in greener environments were less likely to develop psychiatric disorders as adults.
The benefits of nature are amazing.
4. Encourages Physical Activity
Getting out to enjoy Mother Nature’s has a positive correlation with doing some physical activity! Whenever we go out to a park or for a walk, we are more likely to get some movement.
As we all know, healthy people are happy people, and exercise is known to be a wonderful treatment for depression and anxiety. Not to mention, exercise releases endorphins in our brain, a hormone that helps us clear our minds and relax. Elle Woods from Legally Blonde said it best – “Endorphins make you happy!”
5. Regulates Sleep Schedule
Seeing bright, natural light such as when outdoors helps to regulate the circadian rhythm, otherwise known as our sleeping cycle.
The body responds to the daylight’s brightness and night time’s darkness as a signal to wake up or to go to sleep.
According to the CDC, light makes us feel more awake, especially if we see the bright light within one hour of waking up.
Additionally, light helps our bodies know when it’s time to fall asleep by regulating our melatonin levels. A healthy, regular sleep/wake cycle promotes rejuvenating rest and good night’s sleep.
A good sleep schedule is important for mental health for obvious reasons, such as feeling refreshed after sleeping and being more alert. So if you’re able to get outside on a regular basis, especially in the mornings, this will be wonderful for your body’s sleeping clock!
6. Helps Us Get Our Daily Dose of Vitamin D
“Getting some vitamin D” by going outside is probably a phrase we’ve all heard before. But what does vitamin D actually do for you?
Vitamin D is important for our bodies because it helps maximize calcium absorption – a vital process for bone and dental health.
The process of calcium absorption is important for mental health as well, since being in a healthy body encourages health in mind as well.
It is recommended to spend 8-10 minutes in the sun on a sunny day for your daily dose of vitamin D. Just be sure to expose 25% of your skin to the sun, so wearing shorts and a T-shirt should do!
Of note, if you are bundled up on a cold day, you will probably need more time in the sun. For example, on a winter day in Boston, you should get about 23% of sun exposure for a sufficient intake of Vitamin D.
7. We Instinctively Feel More Relaxed in Nature Due to Evolution
Gone are the days of humans hunting and gathering, living in a cave, and relying off the land (at least in many parts of the world.)
Most people on Earth live in cities with urban architecture. In fact, more than 50% of the population live in urban zones.
As humans, we adapted and evolved over thousands of years by living amongst nature, but in recent history we have improved constructing man-made environments and city dwellings. Simply, it is not in our homo sapien DNA to live and thrive in the concrete jungle.
People theorize that we have an innate drive as homo sapiens to connect with nature as our ancestors once did. Therefore, we instinctively feel more relaxed while spending time outdoors.
8. Nature Provides an Escape From Life’s Stressors
There are a few other theories to explain why nature is so good for our mental health. One theory is that, usually, when we’re out enjoying nature we experience a sense of “being away” from all the stressors in our daily lives. That is because typically we only go out and enjoy nature when we deliberately go and enjoy it.
Being in nature provides a much-needed escape from whatever is causing stress.
9. Non-Straight Edges and Nature Sounds Are Relaxing
Ever noticed how natural environments have more non-straight edges and less color saturation, with lots of greens, browns, and sometimes blue hues? For example, a forest has lots of shapes amongst the plants and mostly greenery.
Conversely, urban environments are characterized by straight lines on skyscrapers or buildings, and lots of contrasting colors all around.
One study suggests that, when shown images with a greater number of non straight edges, people were more likely to think about topics related to spirituality and one’s life journey, compared with when they were viewing images with fewer non straight edges, independently of the perceived naturalness of the scene.
Additionally, evidence suggests that nature sounds help us feel better, happier, and more positively.
In short, it is scientifically evident that the natural characteristics of the outdoors are relaxing for the mind and promote healthy well-being and spirituality.
Fun Ways to Enjoy Nature
Now that you know all about the wonderful benefits of the outdoors, you may be wondering how you can start to put nature into your life.
Below are eight awesome ideas to help incorporate nature into your lifestyle.
1. Go For A Hike
Hiking is one of my favorite activities. If you are a beginner hiker and not sure how to get started, check out this article Beginner’s Hiking Essentials: Must Know Tips.
2. Go For A Walk
This tip is easy and free for most people. Simply, go for a lap around the block or down the street and back. I love to walk with my boyfriend or friends as a way to socialize and get some exercise.
As always, stay safe and aware of your surroundings. If you want more tips for staying healthy, check out this article How to Start a Healthy Lifestyle Easily.
3. Go Swimming
Honestly, who doesn’t love to swim? I especially love swimming at the beach when I am able to visit. Swimming is a great social activity as well as a form of exercise. Not to mention, being out in your swimsuit exposes your skin to the sun even more – so that’s a lot of healthy vitamin D! Just be sure you don’t overdo the sun exposure without sunscreen, or else you may get sunburned!
4. Have a Picnic
This is a wonderful social activity as well as a relaxing one. Spending time outdoors during a picnic can help you feel rejuvenated and clear your mind. Plus, you get to enjoy some yummy food while taking in the fresh air!
5. Visit a National Park
National Parks are great vacation destinations. Most of them have a lot of outdoor activities the whole family can enjoy. My personal favorite national parks are Big Bend, Glacier, and Yosemite.
Gardening for mental health is sometimes referred to as horticultural therapy. There is something so relaxing about getting your hands a little dirty in the garden and taking care of plants. If you don’t have a yard, consider building a balcony. If you can’t have an outdoor garden, you can still reap many benefits by taking care of indoor plants.
7. Exercise Outdoors
Outdoor exercise, also known as green exercise therapy, is another way to improve mental health through nature therapy. You may consider joining an exercise group such as Camp Gladiator, or simply going to a park and doing your own thing!
8. Bring Nature Into the House
In an ideal world, urban planners would incorporate nature into our neighborhoods and commutes. However, as an urban dweller, it is not always easy to get exposure to natural scenery. And since most of us aren’t involved in city development, we may not get to bring in the nature we crave close to home.
So we should all move to the countryside and live off the land, right?
Although for many that lifestyle sounds ideal, for a lot of people that is impractical. Here are tips to bring a piece of jungle into the concrete jungle.
- Decorate With Paintings or Photographs of Nature
As previously mentioned, studies suggest that seeing images of nature enhances psychological function. That being said, decorating your home with images of Earth’s natural beauty may help you get some of the psychological benefits of physically being in nature.
- Use Noise Machines, Music Apps, or Youtube Videos with Nature Sounds
Additionally, another study suggests that hearing natural soundscapes, specifically birdsong, as opposed to urban ones improve concentration.
In fact, urban noise pollution is shown to increase stress, and is generally less preferred. Therefore, you may be able to get some benefits of being in nature by playing relaxing sounds of nature, such as with a white noise machine, Spotify playlist, or Youtube video.
- Get Some House Plants
Not only do house plants look beautiful inside the home, they are great air purifiers. For beginner plant parents, I recommend starting with a ZZ plant or Golden Pothos as these are low maintenance plants.
Furthermore, as an added benefit of houseplants, research suggests that people who spend time with plants have greater empathy and compassion.
Of note: Some plants and plant parts can be toxic. Keep them out of the reach of children and pets. Do some research on every species of plant you bring inside.
How Does Nature Help Mental Health – Key Takeaways
There is a growing consensus that natural environments lead to cognitive gains and therefore help our mental well-being.
In summary, spending time outdoors has a multitude of benefits for our mental health, such as improved concentration, mood, and relaxation to name a few.
Whenever possible, go outside to picnic, walk, or swim. You will feel much needed stress relief and be in a better mood for it.