We know that being out in nature can have awesome effects on our body. We breathe cleaner air, get Vitamin D from the sun and are encouraged to focus on our fitness as we enjoy the great outdoors through hiking, biking, walking and climbing. But what can Mother Nature do for our mental health?
Here are 10 ways your mental health benefits from spending time in nature.
1 - Less Stress
Research shows that nature has a significant effect on reducing stress levels. Interestingly, these results are apparent whether a person is spending time in nature, looking at nature or simply hearing the sounds of nature. Any interaction with nature can help to reduce stress.
The University of Exeter Medical School in England studied the mental health data of over 10,000 city inhabitants. Their study found that people who lived near green spaces had less mental distress. These results held regardless of income, education level and employment.
In Sweden, a study was carried out to test the effects of viewing nature scenes on reducing stress levels. Subjects were given a stressful math task to complete. After the task they sat through 15 minutes of nature scenes, 15 minutes of non-nature scenes or 15 minutes in a blank room. Participants who viewed the nature scenes had the lowest levels of stress.
And finally, in 2013 a study on the effects of nature sounds was carried out. Researchers found that hearing recorded sounds of nature had a similar effect on stress levels as looking at nature images or being out in nature.
2 - Less Mental Health Illness
Living near and interacting with nature also has the benefit of decreasing instances of mental health disease and other physical illnesses. In 2009, Dutch researchers found a lower instance of depression, anxiety and migraines amongst people who lived within half a mile of green space.
In other research, the term “nature deprivation” has been coined to refer to lack of time spent in the natural world, often in favor of time spent in front of screens. Nature deprivation is associated with depression, loss of empathy, lack of altruism, feeling of isolation and higher risks of death.
3 - Recovery from Mental Health Illness
In addition to lessening instances of mental illness, nature is also used as a restorative measure for those who currently suffer from mental illness.
Researchers at Harvard University looked at the relationship between exposure to green spaces and mortality rates amongst 100,000 female nurses in the United States. They found that those living in the greenest areas had 12% lower mortality rate than those in the least green areas. Upon further research, they discovered that a main factor in the reduced mortality rate was improved mental health and lower rates of depression.
4 - Calming
Not only can nature relieve stress, but it can go one step further and provide a sense of calm.
At Snake River Correctional Institution in Oregon, inmates are undergoing a real-life experiment on the effects of nature. Solitary confinement prisoners exercise for 40 minutes, several times a week in either a room with nature videos playing or in a room without videos. Corrections Officer Michael Lea explained the surprising effects, “I thought it was crazy at first. [In the plain gym] there’s a lot of yelling really loud— it echoes horribly. In the blue room they tend not to yell. They say, ‘Hold on, I got to watch my video.’”
5 - Increases Focus and Attention
Another awesome effect of nature on mental health is nature’s ability to increase people’s focus and attention.
Studies show that those who are exposed to nature, even if it’s viewing a tree from their window, perform better in school. The natural setting calms them and sharpens their performance. A 2004 study by Kuo and Taylor found that experiencing nature, including backpacking, gardening, looking at images of nature and having trees outside one’s building, increased attention span and effectiveness. Attention improvement was greatest amongst participants who already suffered attention deficits. In addition, they found that walking through nature over walking in an urban setting reduced anger, reduced blood pressure and increased positive affect.
6 - Increases Relaxation
Researchers at Japan’s Chiba University created a study to look at the powers of relaxation found in nature. They had 84 participants take a stroll in the forest and 84 walk in a city center. Those that walked in the forest were noticeably more relaxed than their city center counterparts. They had a 16% decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, 2% decrease in blood pressure and 4% decrease in heart rate. Researchers believe we are more relaxed in nature because that is where we evolved. Our senses are adapted to interpret scenes of plants and streams, not traffic and buildings.
7 - Better Moods
If nature can increase our calm and relaxation, it stands to reason that it can also improve our mood. A comprehensive study by Maller et al. in 2008 found this to be true. Simply by viewing images of nature, participants had elevated moods.
In 2011, another study was done to look at the effects of activity, like walking or running, in an outdoor vs indoor environment. According to the study, benefits for those participating in outdoor activities included, “greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression, and increased energy… Participants reported greater enjoyment and satisfaction with outdoor activity and declared a greater intent to repeat the activity at a later date.”
8 - Increases Resilience
Studies have also shown that nature can increase resilience in the midst of life crises. Resilience is a strong factor in many illnesses, both mental and physical - people who are more resilient are more likely to believe they can recover and actually often do recover. A 2003 and 2008 study both found that nature acted as a remedy and a resource to people in crisis. Those people who spent time in nature had an improved state of health and were better able to face their crises.
9 - Increases Self-Esteem
In 2005 a study was conducted in which participants looked at images on a wall while running on a treadmill. The images were pleasant rural photos, unpleasant rural photos, pleasant urban photos, unpleasant urban photos and a control group of no photos. Both pleasant urban and rural photos featured nature and green spaces. In the end, researchers found that the pleasant images, regardless of if they were urban or rural, had a positive impact on self-esteem beyond just that from exercise alone.
10 - Increases Connection and Social Interaction
Lastly, nature is beneficial to mental health because it fosters connections and social interactions. A healthy social life is critical to mental wellness.
Studies at the Human-Environment Research Lab found that spending time in nature connects people to each other and to their world. Another study out of the University of Illinois showed that persons who lived in buildings with green space knew more people in their community, had stronger bonds with their neighbors, were more interested in helping one another, and had a stronger feeling of belonging than those who lived in buildings without green spaces. In addition, the tenants of green space buildings also benefited from reduced risk of crime, lower levels of violence and aggression in the home, and better capacity to cope with life demands (resilience).
To further prove this point, studies were done using fMRI machines that measure brain activities. When participants viewed scenes of nature, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love lit up. Conversely, when they viewed urban scenes, the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety lit up.