Most people believe that being out in nature will help you feel better. In fact, most psychiatrists will put outdoor activities including walking and cycling at the top of lists for people with mental illness. But, does nature benefit mental illness? And, how does it do so? While it’s true that being out in nature is likely beneficial for you if you have a mental illness, benefits will come in many different forms.
In this article, we’ll review how nature benefits mental health, so you can better understand why it’s important to get out, but also why it’s important to seek out professional therapy and mental health treatment at the same time. If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health, spending time in nature is a great way to temporarily boost your mood. At the same time, complementary therapies like nature and exercise are not a substitute for behavioral therapy and will not “cure” mental illness. If you’re struggling, it’s important to reach out and to get help.
Does Being in Nature Influence Mental Health?
Does going for a walk in the park or sitting under a tree reading a book really help you feel better? Most evidence we have says, yes. One review of available scientific literature suggests that nature offers a short-term improvement for anxiety and depression, introducing calm and a feeling of peace. Most individuals feel brief alleviation of symptoms of depression when spending even 10 minutes outside.
Another study actively catalogued differences in mood, self-esteem, and mental stability between individuals before and after spending time outdoors, typically on exercise such as walking and cycling. In every case, mood and self-esteem rose noticeably after being outdoors, although effects diminish with age. Persons with existing mental illnesses saw the greatest mood and self-esteem boosts, even after a single period spent outdoors.
Finally, numerous studies actively link the presence of green and nature in neighborhoods to reduction in the prevalence of mental illnesses. One study directly links improvements in mental health once green in a neighborhood increases over a certain threshold. For example, individuals with depression typically begin to see benefits when green coverage in a neighborhood exceeds 30%.
So, greenery and time in nature are directly linked to positive improvements in mental health, primarily in terms of temporary boosts to mood and self-esteem, reduced risk of mental illness, and long-term reduction of symptoms with daily or near-daily exposure. Why?
Nature Impacts Cognitive Functioning
The human brain is designed for hunting, fishing, climbing in trees, collecting vegetable foodstuffs. We have, for most of history, relied on nature and spent most of our time in nature. It’s only “natural” that we would feel at home in it, and much more so than inside a home. Most people report feelings of peace, contentment, and belonging when in nature, by the water, or in trees.
Here, the most prevalent theory suggests that nature works to reduce the stress of cluttered and attention-demanding indoor environments and attention restoration. These heavily play into theories that watersides and trees were once safe havens for humans, who would have felt more at home there. The result is that people self-report more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions when surrounded by trees or at a waterfront. And, with less to focus and concentrate on, most people can relax cognitive control and truly destress, which they cannot do in an attention-grabbing environment with things, television, phones, books, and other media.
Most of these benefits are short term, lasting for a few hours after being outdoors. This means that if you go outside once, you’ll feel a bit better that day. If you go outside once a day for a year, you’ll improve a few hours a day for a year, improving your year. So, consistency is key to seeing any real benefits at all
Most people with mental illness will consistently report improvements when they regularly go outside. In most cases, this links to three factors, the improvements to cognitive functioning listed above, “time out”, and exercise.
Exercise – Most people who go outdoors do so by walking, running, cycling, or otherwise moving. Exercise greatly improves the mood, with some studies linking short-term improvements of up to 2 hours to just 20-30 minutes of walking. These improvements are linked to several factors including increased blood flow and oxygen through the body and the brain, resulting in an improved mood and more energy. Most people also trigger the reward circuit while outdoors, triggering dopamine when wanting to go out and doing so, and triggering serotonin release, which relieves stress and improves happiness, when actually moving.
While you don’t have to exercise to benefit from being outdoors, most studies showing improvement when outdoors take exercise, including walking, cycling, and getting to your destination into account. It’s an important part of the benefits. However, even light walking is great for you.
Time Out – It’s very true that most of us spend all of our time logged on, getting updates, news, listening to family, notifications, phone calls, emails, apps buzzing, refrigerators humming, fans, air conditioners, television, colleagues, bosses, friends. We’re constantly engaged, even when we’re relaxing, and that is stressful.
Attention restoration is the theory that when you go into nature, you leave many of these things behind. You can relax, truly relax, and leave the attention demanding items behind. Even if you go with friends, you’re more likely to be quiet and simply to be. This literally gives you time to relax and destress without constant notifications and engagement.
You’ll likely also benefit from reductions in urban noise, time alone, and the sensation of awe that most of us experience when faced with nature. People really do feel better when we’re outside in nature, and the less we see of buildings and people, the more impressive it is.
How much Do You Have to Be in Nature to See Mental Health Benefits?
Most studies indicate that even a few minutes a day can improve your short-term mood. Harvard studies indicate that students see measurable improvements with just 10 minutes per day. Of course, the efficacy of stress reduction from nature reduces with age. Most people can easily benefit by simply moving an exercise routine outdoors. Cycling, walking, or running through a park is much more stress-relieving than doing so in a gym. Doing yoga outdoors is more mindful and feels more soothing.
What’s right for you? Figure out how far away nature is from you, how long it takes to get there, and plan accordingly. Even walking through heavily treed neighborhoods is better than nothing. It’s also important to stick to a schedule and a pattern that’s comfortable for you. If your mental illness allows you to take an hour-long walk through the woods each day, it likely will benefit you, if you can only do 15 minutes, that’s also better than nothing. The importance is consistency and maintaining patterns over a longer period.
Time spent in nature will boost your mood, reduce stress, and help you to feel positive emotions like joy, wonder, and happiness. At the same time, nature isn’t a cure to mental illness. If you are struggling, it’s important to seek out professional help in the form of therapy, whether through outpatient or inpatient therapy. Many people will benefit from gender-specific mental health treatment, meaning a women’s mental health treatment program or men’s mental health treatment program. Here, the goal is to help you identify the underlying causes behind mental illness, behavior patterns contributing to symptoms, and coping mechanisms, so that you can create new behavioral patterns and coping mechanisms, understand the root of mental illness, and build a better life for yourself.