Life can be hectic, problematic, and stressful. Challenges big and small never fully end, and this can keep our bodymind under constant stress. Stepping into the green or blue spaces of nature, even for a brief pause, is vital for our mental health and wellbeing. Read on to learn why and gain some tips for working this naturally into your life (it doesn’t have to be yet another item on your to-do list).
The Power of Mindful Immersion in Nature
Nature is revitalizing, especially when we enjoy it mindfully. Whether we’re stepping out into our own backyard for a few minutes to water flowers, going for a walk in a nearby park, camping in the woods, or throwing rocks into water to watch the ripples, green and blue spaces offer a much-needed break from stressful situations and overstimulating lights and sounds. Pausing to be fully present in nature, taking it in with all of our senses and intentionally turning our attention from racing, anxious thoughts to our natural surroundings is stress relieving, mood bosting, and simultaneously relaxing and energizing.
The following excerpts from my Choosing Therapy article Benefits of Nature on Mental Health highlight more about the power of nature and how to harness it for your own wellbeing.
How Being in Nature Improves Mental Health
Being in nature improves mental health in part because it gets us away from our indoor environment. Studies have found that most Americans spend most of their time indoors.1 Furthermore, most of that indoor time is now spent with technological devices.2 Excessive indoor and screen time can negatively affect our total wellbeing in terms of physical and mental health.3
Spending time in nature has been shown to have the following benefits:2,3,4,5,6
- Boost mood
- Increase general feelings of happiness and wellbeing
- Create pleasant emotions and thoughts
- Bring a sense balance to our lives
- Inspire a sense of awe, wonder, and connection to something greater as we experience connection to natural life energy
- Generate feelings of calm
- Improve our ability to pay attention and concentrate
- Foster empathy
- Reduce the risk of psychiatric disorders
- Lower stress
- Lessen anxiety and fear
- Calm the nervous system, deactivating the fight-or-flight response
Can Being Inside Be Harmful to Mental Health?
Americans spend an average of 87% of their time in enclosed buildings and 6% of their time in enclosed vehicles—in total, over 90% of their waking lives indoors.1 Furthermore, most of that indoor time is now spent with technological devices. Most Americans spend more than 10 hours every day in front of screens.2 Excessive indoor and screen time can negatively affect our total wellbeing, both physical and mental health.3
Being inside, interacting primarily with technology is associated with negative experiences such as:4
- Loss of empathy and a sense of altruism
- Higher risk of death
As we’re spending so much time indoors and less time in nature, prescriptions for mental health conditions continue to rise.7 Psychiatric medication isn’t always prescribed because it is effective and the right choice. A survey of general physicians in the United Kingdom revealed an alarming trend: About 93 % of surveyed doctors admitted that they “prescribed antidepressants against their better judgement owing to a lack of alternatives.”7
Please note, however, that medication can be necessary and the decision to take it is a highly personal one that should be made with your doctor. Never stop taking any medication without medical advice, as abruptly stopping can be dangerous.
Mental Health in Urban Environments
Currently, more than half of all people live in urban areas, and projections indicate that by 2050, more than 70% of humans will live in cities.8 For reasons still unknown, living in urban areas is tied to an increased risk of mental illness.8 Compared with people living in rural areas, those who live in cities have a higher risk of developing anxiety and mood disorders. Additionally, people who are born and grow up in cities are twice as likely to develop schizophrenia than those born and raised in rural areas.9
Being in nature can mitigate the negative impacts of cities on mental health. In a 2015 study, Bratman and colleagues asked participants, who lived in an urban area of California, to walk for 50 minutes either along a trail in a natural area or along busy city streets.10 Nature strollers experienced benefits that the city walkers did not.
Those who walked in nature:
- Experienced a drop in anxiety
- Reduced ruminations (repetitive, negative thoughts)
- Increased or maintained positive mood
- Improved their working memory and performance on assigned tasks
Adding natural spaces to cities impacts lives in ways that facilitate mental health. Adding green spaces in community housing developments has been shown to bring people together, strengthen support systems; build coping skills for dealing with the stress of urban living; and even reduce aggressive behavior, violence, and crime.11 We need to spend time in green and blue spaces for optimal functioning. Spending time in nature brings numerous mental health benefits.
How Being in Nature Relieves Symptoms of Anxiety, Depression, & Stress
Being in nature affects our brain and entire physiology. The sights, sounds, and smells directly affect our nervous system, deactivating the sympathetic nervous system responsible for the fight-or-flight stress response and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the rest-and-digest response.
Here are specific examples of how being in nature relieves symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress:5,12,13
- Breathing becomes slower and deeper
- Hormonal and neurotransmitter activity change (including a drop in the production and circulation of the stress hormone cortisol)
- Blood pressure lowers
- Heart rate slows
- Thoughts and emotions shift away from worry and negativity
Studies show that our environment directly impacts our stress levels, either increasing or decreasing them, and as such affect our mood, nervous system, endocrine system, and immune system.4
Where we spend our time matters. Being constantly indoors and/or living in crowded, noisy, polluted cities can increase stress and exacerbate mental health disorders. Stepping outdoors and experiencing nature counters this and reduces stress and anxiety and alleviates depression.
Natural settings impact us at our very core. Being outside in green or blue spaces with other living things positively changes the brain and entire nervous system to improve our wellbeing on a deep level.
How to Get Outdoors—Even When You Don’t Feel Like It
Spending time outdoors is an option for mental health treatment and can be a vital part of recovery.7 Nature offers a pleasant way to improve our mental health and wellbeing, and it’s something humans are instinctively drawn to. According to a study cited in the book Healing Gardens, more than 67% of people turn to nature for relief when they’re under stress.4
Here are some tips to help you, too, get outdoors for a mental health boost even when you don’t feel like doing it:
1. Think Small
You don’t have to spend countless hours outside in order to reap nature’s benefits. Start small, and enjoy nature in bursts.15 According to a 2019 study of nearly 20,000 people, just two hours spent outdoors every week is enough to boost health and wellbeing at any age and foster cognitive development in children.16 Getting outside just 20-30 minutes three times per week or enjoying a weekend outdoors is enough to reduce symptoms of depression; the key is to simply begin making nature a part of your lifestyle.12
Don’t feel that you have to trek remote backcountry for days to reduce stress. Numerous studies show that even very short exposure to nature in green urban settings is beneficial.2 Even if you can’t or don’t want to go far and fancy for lengthy periods of time, that’s okay. Just begin by stepping outside and gazing at something natural near you, such as a tree or planter filled with blooming flowers or the stars at night. Gradually extend the amount of time you spend outdoors until getting outside is a regular part of your life.
Also, make getting outside easy by doing it during the time of day that works best for you.15 For some, that means heading outdoors when they are already feeling energized and motivated. Others, in contrast, find that they prefer to use nature as a pick-me-up, going out when they’re tired or particularly stressed.
2. Do Something You Enjoy
Being in nature means just that—getting outdoors near land or water and all the sights, sounds, and other sensations the planet has to offer. There are no rules for how you must experience nature in order to improve or maintain your mental health. The idea really is to boost your wellbeing rather than adding stress by trying to do something you don’t enjoy.
You don’t have to get dirty to be outside, nor do you have to bike, run, hike, climb, swim, or do any other activity you loathe. Any outdoor experience that removes you from overstimulating city settings or separates you from your screens for a while is valuable.12 Discover what you find relaxing or invigorating, and pursue that.12 15 Even do what you already love doing and take it outdoors. Read a book, practice yoga, or engage in creative projects outside in the sun and fresh air.
3. Grow or Nurture Something Living
Experiencing nature doesn’t mean always having to go somewhere to do it. Turn your own surroundings into a green space by starting a small garden, growing a flower in a pot, or keeping a houseplant.15,16 Add some blue space by caring for a fish (Betta fish or goldfish are fairly easy to care for and don’t require fancy equipment).
Never underestimate the power of any living, natural thing to benefit your life. Various studies conducted in office spaces, schools, and hospitals reveal that a humble plant in a room considerably and positively affects mental health, particularly anxiety and stress.4
4. Wherever You Go & Whatever You Do, Do It Mindfully
Maximize your experience and heighten the mental health benefits of nature by immersing yourself fully in your experience. Resist the temptation to talk on the phone or text while you’re walking along a nature path. Instead, practice mindfulness by experiencing your surroundings with your whole being, using all your senses to fully impact the nervous system and reduce stress.5
Deepen your mindfulness practice in nature by meditating.2,19 Meditation is a form of mindfulness, but whereas mindfulness can be done “on the go,” giving your complete attention to whatever you are doing in any given moment, meditation is the formal, structured practice of sitting or moving intentionally while concentrating on something specific.
Meditating in nature, focusing either on the sensation of breathing in the fresh air; the feel of the sun and moving air on your skin; the sounds of birds, bugs, or leaves rattling in the breeze; or the minute details of an object whose beauty you appreciate can be a powerful way to calm your entire brain and body to bring balance, clarity, and wellbeing to your life.
Challenge Yourself to Be Mindful In Nature Every Day
Over a thousand studies document the benefits of nature on our mental health and wellbeing. While it’s nice to have the knowledge that getting outside is good for us, we really don’t need studies to tell us that experiencing green and blue spaces is calming and energizing. Doing so is also often free, doesn’t have to require special equipment, and can be done in small bits of time throughout your day. Conduct your own experiment. Challenge yourself to experience some form of nature every day, and adjust the time spent to meet your needs of the day.
For even more info and tips, check out the full post on Choosing Therapy! (And to see the sources, scroll past the image.)
Take a book outside with you! Discover info about each one and follow links to your favorite online bookseller to grab your own copy.
- Klepeis, N.E., Nelson, W.C., Ott, W.R., Robinson, J.P., Tsang, A.M., Switzer, P., Behar, J.V., Hern, S.C., & Engelmann, W.H. (2001). The national human activity pattern survey (NHAPS): A resource for assessing exposure to environmental pollutants. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1zg3q68x
- Weir, K. (2020, April). Nurtured by nature. Monitor on Psychology, 51(3): 50. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/nurtured-nature
- Brady, A. (2018, April). Nature therapy: How nature can help heal and expand your awareness. Chopra. Retrieved from https://chopra.com/articles/nature-therapy-how-nature-can-help-heal-and-expand-your-awareness
- Delagran, L. (n.d.). How does nature impact our wellbeing? University of Minnesota. Retrieved from https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/how-does-nature-impact-our-wellbeing
- Robbins, J. (2020, January). Ecopsychology: How immersion in nature benefits your health. Yale School of the Environment. Retrieved from https://e360.yale.edu/features/ecopsychology-how-immersion-in-nature-benefits-your-health
- Mind.org. (2018, May). Nature and mental health: How can nature benefit my mental health? Retrieved from https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/nature-and-mental-health/how-nature-benefits-mental-health/
- Mind. (2007, May). Ecotherapy: The green agenda for mental health. British Library. Retrieved from https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/ecotherapy-the-green-agenda-for-mental-health#
- Bratman, G.N., Hamilton, J.P., Hahn, K.S., Daily, G.C., & Gross, J.J. (2015, July). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(28): 8567-8572. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4507237/
- Jordan, R. (2015, June). Stanford researchers find mental health prescription: Nature. Stanford News. Retrieved from https://news.stanford.edu/2015/06/30/hiking-mental-health-063015/
- Bratman, G.N., Daily, G.C., Levy, B.J., & Gross, J.J. (2015, March). The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition. Landscape and Urban Planning, (138): 41-50. Retrieved from http://mastor.cl/blog/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Bratman.-The_Benefits_of_Nature_Experience_Improved_Affect_and_Cognition.-2015.-10-pgs.-pdf.pdf
- Coley, R., Kuo, F. E., & Sullivan, W. C. (1997, July). Where does community grow? The social context created by nature in urban public housing. Environment and Behavior, 29(4), 468. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/001391659702900402
- Harvard Men’s Health Watch. (2018, July). Sour mood getting you down? Get back to nature. Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/sour-mood-getting-you-down-get-back-to-nature
- Gould van Praag, C.D., Garfinkel, S.N., Sparasci, O., Mees, A., Philippides, A.O., Ware, M., Ottaviani, C., & Critchley, H.D. (2017, March). Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds. Scientific Reports, 7. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/srep45273
- Mind.org. (2018, May). Nature and mental health: How can I overcome barriers? Retrieved from https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/nature-and-mental-health/overcoming-barriers/
- White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J., Wheeler, B.W., Hartig, T., Warber, S.L., Bone, A., Depledge, M.H., & Fleming, L.E. (2019, June). Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Scientific Reports, 9: 7730. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-44097-3
- Brieske, T. (2011, April). Healing through nature. Chopra. Retrieved from https://chopra.com/articles/healing-through-nature