The Therapeutic Benefits of Nature
Many people report that they feel better in a variety of ways when they spend time in nature. Hiking, walking, going to the beach, gardening, outdoor sports, and camping all have tangible benefits to your mental health. Nature helps us disconnect from the stressors of our everyday lives, reminds us of our connection to the earth and the cycles of life, and facilitates spiritual connections by engaging our senses and quieting our minds.
Some people intuitively know that they need that time in nature or outside in the fresh air in order to keep mentally well. But sometimes we forget that nature is a powerful healer, and if you did not grow up in an environment in which exposure to nature was routinely encouraged, you might not have considered how much of an impact that exposure can have.
In the field of mental health, therapists and doctors are used to making clinical recommendations such as medications, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and support groups to help clients on the path to mental wellness. In outpatient settings, there is attention given to building coping skills such as meditation and exercise, but we don’t always do a good job of encouraging our clients to spend time in nature as a valid practice to improve mental health. This is unfortunate, because nature provides so much that can boost mental health and it does so for free in most cases.
How Does Nature Benefit Your Mental Health?
Research supports the positive benefits of nature exposure in a variety of ways. One study found that neighborhoods that had more green space such as forests and parks had lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress. This was found to confer benefits to communities in many ways, including encouraging physical activity, increasing social interaction, and protecting against air and noise pollution. Another study found that patients who were in a nature-based horticultural program saw more improvements in their levels of depression, anxiety and stress, and that those benefits lasted longer once they completed treatment.
Here are some of the benefits that exposure to nature provides:
Sunlight provides us with Vitamin D, an important vitamin that helps us stay well. Vitamin D has deficiency has been associated with poor cognitive function, depression, and anxiety. We know that exposure to sunlight boosts your mood, because of research done on the phenomenon of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD occurs in areas that do not get exposure to sunlight for many months out of the year due to their proximity to earth’s poles. People in these areas often experience depression during those months because of the lack of exposure to sun. The treatment for this disorder actually involves using light boxes to transmit the necessary benefits of light to people suffering from SAD. This study found that workers who had exposure to natural elements and sunlight in the workplace reported less depression and anxiety and more workplace satisfaction. In fact, exposure to direct sunlight was the dominant predictor for anxiety traits; so if you have anxiety getting exposure to sunlight could be key in managing your symptoms.
- Decreases Stress
Mental stress is a primary factor in anxiety and depressive conditions. The more stress people are under, the more likely they are to experience anxiety, depression, burnout, cognitive decline, and physical manifestations of their mental health problems. Research continues to build support for nature’s ability to decrease stress, improve mental clarity, and reduce symptoms associated with mental health problems. One way to use this information to your benefit is to try and fit in a walk outdoors before, during or after your work day whenever possible. Even small amounts of outdoor activity can build up to give you improvements in your quality of life that will boost your mental health.
- Improves Attention
Everyone knows that when children can’t pay attention to a task, you send them outside to play for awhile. We live in a time where we are increasingly disconnected with nature. Surveys have shown that Americans on average spend 90% of their time indoors. Screen time and consumption of media has increased exponentially, and this has had an impact on our collective mental and physical health. However, a review of the research reveals that exposure to nature has the ability to actually restore our attention. Excess concentration can lead to “attention-fatigue”, which most of us have probably experienced, like when you stare at a page and read the same paragraph over and over again without retaining the information. Getting out into nature can reset our attention span by provoking fascination, which allows us to recover from mental fatigue.
- Improves Gut Health
Getting dirty has tangible mental health benefits too. Getting dirt under your nails and inadvertently into your mouth can increase the good probiotics in your gut. A healthy gut has been linked to good mental health because your gut is connected to your brain through your central nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. Traditional thinking maintained that psychological conditions did not have a biological origin, but the latest research is finding that our mental health is actually very much connected to our bodies and specifically our gut. The bottom line is that exposure to nature, specifically getting dirty, can improve your gut health which has demonstrable benefits to your mental health. For more on this, read my post on Gardening for Mental Health.
- Fosters Spiritual Wellbeing
Nature has long been a place where people go to restore their spirit and reflect on their connection to the earth and the universe we inhabit. Observing natural wonders such as the beauty of the plants, the unique qualities of wildlife, or the power of water and wind forces us to realize how small we really are and how short our time here on earth is. These kinds of reflections often lead to feelings of gratitude and serenity. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the beauty of nature, but many religious writings have revered nature throughout history. Traditional Native-American spirituality wholly incorporates reverence for nature into religious practices. Spirituality is highly individualized, but many people rely on their spirituality to help them cope with mental illness. Thus, the spiritual restoration that time spent in nature seems to provide is an important benefit conferred upon those who seek spiritual refuge in natural spaces.
How Can I Boost My Mental Health through Nature?
It’s not hard to understand why being cooped up indoors for most of the day with little exposure to natural light and fresh air can leave you feeling sapped for energy, mildly anxious and a little depressed. Given all the benefits of nature to our physical and mental wellbeing, everyone should be making an effort to make time spent in nature a priority. Particularly if you are struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems, spending more time in nature can help you gain improvements in your symptoms and keep you more balanced overall.
To put this into practice, first take an assessment of your resources. If you live in a rural area, you probably already know where to go. Whether you can hike local trails, wander in the nearby forest, or spend time near the closest lake or ocean, plan to get outside more and spend time really getting to know the natural spaces near where you live. You can journal outdoors, take pictures of natural wonders, or just use the time to process your thoughts and feelings and get some clarity about your goals and intentions. This may be more challenging if you live in an urban area, but there’s still plenty of options. If you live near a park, plan to take walks there. If you have few natural spaces around you, bring nature to you. Buy some houseplants and start doing some container gardening. If you have a porch or a deck, make that a little outdoor sanctuary with plants, bird-feeders, or a mini-fountain for a water feature. Even just taking a walk around the block can give you a boost. You’ll still get exposure to sunlight, and you can take time out to observe any bird or other wildlife that is hanging around. Most importantly, get creative and look for the opportunities that you have to foster your own relationship with nature and support your own mental wellness.