Benefits of Nature on Mental Health
There’s no doubt that nature is excellent for mental health, no matter your age. The benefits range from having more energy to feeling more relaxed, but that’s not all. In addition, being in nature can reduce stress, increase cognitive ability, and decrease anxiety and depression.
Many studies show that spending time in nature can increase cognition, including memory, impulse control, concentration, and attention. For example, it’s said that exposure to natural stimuli improves working memory performance. As one of the brain’s executive functions, working memory allows people to work with information without losing track of their actions.
The cognitive benefits of nature also include the following:
- increase in attention
- ability to concentrate
- and less impulsivity.
Connecting with nature has many emotional benefits that help mental health. Among the emotional benefits are the following:
- lower levels of depression and anxiety
- increased joy
- a sense of calmness
- and improved creativity.
Stress Reduction Benefits
The power of spending time in nature should be heavily noted. Not only can it increase cognitive abilities and emotional well-being, but connecting with nature can do the following:
- reduce muscle tension
- lower blood pressure
- decrease cortisol level
- and boost endorphins and dopamine production.
In short, the more time you spend in nature, the more stress relief you will feel.
Nature and Energy
Psychologist and energy healer Dr. Olivia Bader-Lee says that “Humans can absorb and heal through other humans, animals, and any part of nature.” She continued, “That’s why being around nature is often uplifting and energizing for so many people.”
Being outside in nature can not only be energizing, but it can also do the following:
- raise your serotonin levels
- and increase your vitality.
Tips for Enjoying Nature
If you’re not a self-described outdoorsy person, don’t worry. You don’t have to immerse yourself in nature to reap the benefits. Nature is everywhere, from a courtyard in the middle of an urban area to a national forest far removed from any metropolitan area.
You also don’t have to be adventurous- you can benefit from nature in many ways that don’t involve hiking, camping, mountain biking, or rock climbing. Some of the following tips may help you find and appreciate nature near you (even in a dense urban area).
Taking Deep Breaths
When you’re in nature, it’s essential to take deep breaths. Not only can deep breathing help your stress levels, but it can also:
- lower blood pressure
- detoxify the body
- increase energy
- support correct posture
- improve immunity
- support digestion
- improve cortisol levels
- and increase attention span.
There are many ways to practice deep breathing, but one of the more common ways is belly breathing. This type of breathing is perfect for relaxation and stress relief.
First, place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Then take a deep breath and feel your stomach fill with air. Then, slowly, let out your breath, feeling your belly deflate.
Perform this breathing technique ten times, focusing only on your breathing. Then, on your last breath, open your eyes and appreciate the surrounding nature.
Mindfulness is an excellent practice if you have yet to become familiar with it. It allows you to be in the present moment and be more aware of your feelings and thoughts.
When you’re more aware, you are less likely to become overwhelmed and more able to manage them. Yoga and meditation are common ways to practice mindfulness.
But if you’re wondering how to apply mindfulness to the outdoors, here are some great tips:
- Head to a natural place that inspires you (courtyard, park, field, etc.).
- Find a quiet spot where you can relax for a while.
- Fully explore the area with your senses (sight, sound, touch, and smell).
- If you’re so inclined, you can also spend some time journaling what you’re feeling and experiencing.
Establishing a sense of connectedness
In today’s world, it might seem like “connected” means that you are on various social media platforms. However, while you might be linked to your friends and family on these platforms, you must be connected to your community, environment, and friends in real life. This feeling of connectedness can promote physical and mental health or well-being.
But how do you connect to your environment? The following tips can help you establish a sense of connectedness with nature:
- Spend more time outdoors.
- Eat meals outside if the weather is nice.
- Take care of a plant.
- Find a scenic route near you and take that route when you have time.
- Plan a date outdoors with your family or friends.
Leaving your smartphone at home
While this may seem impossible, especially in today’s world, leaving your phone at home while enjoying nature is a priority. You might think you need your phone to take pictures, use it for navigation, or text your friends, but it’s important to leave it at home (or at least in the car) while you connect with nature.
The benefits of ditching your phone are:
- There are fewer distractions.
- You can enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.
- You’ll have the ability to connect with people face-to-face.
- Your senses are heightened.
- You can be mysterious.
Let’s be honest- if you bring your phone, you’ll have constant notifications from social media, messages, emails, and other apps. But you’ll likely feel the notifications’ vibrations even if your sound is off.
With your phone, you may be tempted to chat with your best friend on the phone or call your mom. But, without your phone, you can listen to the birds chirping and appreciate the sounds of nature.
If you bring your phone with you to the park (or wherever you plan to experience nature), the chances of you talking to someone in-person are unlikely. Yet, humans need a connection to people and our environment; our mental health can suffer without that connection.
And, while many post pictures of where they are at any moment of the day (hint: Instagram or Snapchat), it’s okay to remain mysterious occasionally. There’s no need to post a snap of you enjoying nature because if you’re taking a picture, you’re likely not experiencing it to the fullest.
Ways to Connect with Nature
Once again, if you don’t consider yourself outdoorsy, don’t worry. There are several ways to connect with nature without intensive or adventurous outdoor activities.
Not only can trees act as a magical escape, but you can also plant trees to reduce stress and connect with nature. It’s well-known that trees can help us feel more connected with nature, so why not grow new ones?
The endorphins from digging in the soil, vitamin D from being in the sun, and the satisfaction of planting a new tree can be the perfect way to connect with nature.
Even if you don’t care for exercise, walking can be one of the best ways to stretch your muscles, ease your mind, and reduce stress. In addition, walking outdoors is better than on a treadmill as being in nature can lower blood pressure, alleviate anxiety, and even enhance your immune system.
While many neighborhoods have parks and trails, you can also walk around your block, appreciating nature. Try to walk without music to hear the birds, feel the wind, and watch the squirrels. It’s incredible what an outdoor walk can do for your mental health!
Growing a Garden
Growing a garden doesn’t have to be a big commitment or an expensive hobby, but it’s one of the best ways to connect with nature. There’s something so calming about digging in the soil while enjoying the sun on your face, knowing that your little sprouts will grow into fruits, vegetables, or herbs!
Starting a garden not only connects you to nature but can also:
- Help you save money on fruit and vegetables
- Relieve your daily stress
- and increase your fruit and vegetable intake, improving your health.
Visiting local or state parks
Many neighborhoods have parks and trails to take advantage of, but there are also city, county, state, and national parks. If you want to connect with nature, visiting one of the many parks around you is one of the best ways to appreciate your environment!
You don’t have to live in the mountains or near the beach to connect with nature, as any exposure to nature can improve your mental health. Trails and parks encourage people to exercise while allowing children to play.
Enjoying sunsets or sunrises
While getting up before the sun rises may not seem fun, it’s a great way to connect with nature, especially if you can watch it from a fantastic spot. Or, if you aren’t a morning person, plan on watching the sunset, as it’s just as magical and provides the same benefits.
You might wonder how watching the sun rise or set can benefit you. Your mind and body can reap many rewards by experiencing the sun’s greeting or farewell, including:
- balancing your circadian rhythm
- supporting the nervous system
- providing vitamin D
- and promoting positivity.
Watching or playing with animals
If you have animals, you probably recognize the joy that they provide, but it’s much more than that. Playing with or watching animals can increase your serotonin and dopamine, relaxing your body.
But if you don’t have pets, watching animals in the wild can be a great way to connect with nature. When you observe animals, your brain temporarily forgets about your day-to-day worries, making you more relaxed.
Being with animals in nature is one of the best ways to feel connected to your environment. But, a University of Leeds study showed that even watching videos of animals can help reduce stress levels by up to 50%, proving that you can still connect with nature virtually.
Establishing a Personal Hang-Out Spot
If you don’t have access to nearby parks, a secret or personal hang-out spot can be a great way to connect with nature. It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant; it can be a chair in your backyard where you can relax, hear birds, and watch squirrels. Or you can place a birdhouse near your window, so you get to experience nature from inside your house.
Additional Studies on Nature and Mental Health
While telling someone to “take a walk” may sound like an insult, it’s excellent medical advice, especially for older men. With life changes like the loss of loved ones, retirement, and health issues, many men are at higher risk for mental health issues. Unfortunately, older men are unlikely to seek mental health care, so interacting with nature is the next best thing. Spending time outdoors can tremendously help those with mood disorders, giving another option to those who can’t or won’t seek mental health care.
All ages can be affected by mental health disorders, but the good news is that everyone can benefit from a dose of nature. “People who spend time in natural environments have higher levels of all kinds of different positive emotions,” shared Dr. Holli-Anne Passmore, the director of the Nature of Meaning and Life Research Lab at the University of British Columbia. She concluded, “Essentially, they are happier.”
If you want to start your journey connecting with nature, it might seem overwhelming to figure out where to start. Here are some popular resources:
Greater Good in Action: this site helps you find your path to happiness, from mindfulness to connection.
Noticing Nature: part of the Greater Good in Action site, Noticing Nature is a two-week practice designed to help you connect to nature.
National Wildlife Federation Green Hour: designed to encourage parents, grandparents, and schools to adopt a “green hour” for children to play and learn outdoors.
Dementia Adventure: this site is for people with dementia or their caregivers, providing ideas to connect with nature.
John Muir Trust: although the trust is based in the UK, they provide excellent information on connecting with nature.
Mutual Reawakening: This transdisciplinary group implements programs and events to reconnect people to nature.
With almost 17% of children and 20% of adults affected by mental illness in 2020, it’s important to highlight ways to improve mental health. Unfortunately, with so many barriers to accessing mental health providers, many people with mental health conditions can’t seek treatment. While nature cannot replace therapy or medicine, it shouldn’t be ignored as an alternative option.
Experiencing nature, whether watching videos of animals or hiking the Grand Canyon, can increase your mood, boost serotonin, decrease stress, and alleviate anxiety and depression. So, if someone tells you to “take a walk,” know that it’s solid advice, especially if you stop and smell the roses along the way.