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July 15, 2021 • read
Mental health benefits for being in nature
If the warm weather has you fantasizing about ditching the city for fresh air and plenty of trees, you’re not alone. Humans have only lived in sprawling urban centres for a few hundred years, and it turns out that the concrete jungle isn’t the ideal environment. Greenery isn’t just a “nice to have,” it’s a need, and being in nature comes with a slew of mental health benefits. Here’s why it’s worth unplugging and getting back to nature.
Does city living affect your mental health?
Cities can up your stress levels without you even realizing. Current pandemic aside, cities can be challenging and stressful environments to navigate. They tend to be loud, crowded, fast-paced, and more polluted than rural environments. All that background noise and the constant need to negotiate traffic and interactions with strangers adds to your cognitive load. This reduces the amount of mental space for other stuff, affecting your ability to concentrate and self-regulate. But the constant and stressful stimuli may do more than just that. Mood disorders are 38% more common in urban settings than in rural ones — with depression and anxiety leading the pack.
Before you jump to the conclusion that it’s time to move, however, consider that cities provide a number of benefits too. They typically have more options when it comes to education, healthcare, and public transit. The good news is that you can mitigate the negative effects of the urban environment. The mental health benefits you get from being in nature are accessible in most urban centres too — you just have to know where to look.
What are the mental health benefits of being in nature?
Researchers know that individuals who grow up in rural areas have lower stress responsivity than those who come of age in urban centres. But it’s not just being out of the hustle and bustle of the city that provides this benefit. A growing body of research now shows that being in nature is good for your mental health. Exposing yourself to nature can increase your ability to self-regulate, promote calm, and reduce feelings of isolation. While the full reasons aren’t clear, researchers think it might be in part because nature distracts your mind from dwelling on negative or anxiety-provoking thoughts. A small study of a garden project on an in-patient psychiatric ward seems to demonstrate that. Residents there reported that gardening improved their mood and distracted them from unpleasant thoughts.
Increasing the amount of greenery in your environment doesn’t just help to protect you from mood disorders, however. Experiments show that exposure to nature also increases your working memory, cognitive flexibility, and gives you better attentional control. And these aren’t the only wonders nature can work on you. Contact with nature increases overall happiness, and subjective well-being. It might even make you sleep better.
What if you can’t make it to the cottage?
The great thing about nature is that you don’t have to fully immerse yourself to get the benefits. Walking through a park or staring up at your backyard trees will do the trick as well. Researchers even know the amount of natural therapy you should be getting — at least two hours a week. And it doesn’t have to be all at once either. Divvying it up over half-hour trips to the park, or jaunts along your local trail, work just as well as immersing yourself in the wilderness. Even just looking at greenery from your window is beneficial, though it’s a poor substitute for getting out. In fact, research shows that just looking at pictures of a natural environment instead of a man-made one can help to calm you after a stressful occurrence. But don’t think that a quick glance at your forest-themed screensaver will do the trick. No benefit was found for those who spent less than two hours a week enjoying nature.
How nature benefits children
Green space is especially important for children. Play is a crucial aspect of childhood development — it’s a huge factor in their learning. Access to nature can also facilitate play in a number of ways. Just walking on an uneven surface – the kind you find in a natural outdoor setting — helps children with their balance, muscle control, and coordination. Adding natural elements to playgrounds may increase prosocial behaviour, like cooperating and sharing, in children. Spending time in a natural setting may provide a host of additional benefits for children. Everything from reducing aggression, to lowering rates of ADHD, to boosting the immune system.
It’s no wonder your longing for the great outdoors amps up once spring hits. Human beings have evolved in the natural environment surrounded by trees, flowers, grasses, and greenery. While camping or renting a cottage has its own set of pleasures, a walk through your local park, or even a well-treed street can do in a pinch. So as the weather heats up, feel free to take it outside — just make sure there’s enough greenery around for you to get those mental health benefits.