How do you feel after spending a day soaking up sunshine or exploring nature on a hike? Chances are you felt refreshed or had a boost in energy after taking a walk through your favorite park. As it turns out, research has found what you may already know from personal experience — spending time in nature has countless benefits on our mental health.
Why does nature make us feel good?
There have been many studies to find out the answer to the question of why nature and mental health are connected. Most found that exposure to nature reduces stress and anxiety, and promotes an all around better mood. Being immersed in the outdoors and natural settings gives us extra exposure to natural light. Sunlight is known to increase in mood and self-esteem. Many people use light therapy lamps, especially during dark winter months, for this very reason. Of course, the real thing (aka the big yellow thing in the sky) is always best.
Another mind and body benefit of being in nature is that it gets us physically active. Getting active boosts energy and mood. It promotes brain activity patterns that increase positive feelings. Exercise releases endorphins — the well known “feel good” chemical in our brains. It helps us maintain our physical health. This can lead to increased positive feelings about self-image and confidence. It is a fantastic stress reliever. Exercise, in all forms, is a wonderful and positive coping skill used by many to increase all aspects of our health.
Immerse yourself in the great outdoors.
You may be asking yourself, sunlight and activity are available anywhere, what is so special about being immersed in nature? How can being immersed in nature provide more benefits versus just walking around the block or working out at the gym?
Researchers found that brain activity in people going for a walk in an urban area was different than those who walked in natural areas in a 2015 study at Harvard Health. Those who took a nature walk had lower activity in the area of the brain that controls repetitive negative thoughts and emotions. This area of our brain also impacts cognitive functioning, memory, ability to focus, and mood.
Negative thinking and emotions are a big part of depression, anxiety, and stress. People in urban areas are constantly stimulated by everything going on around them which can cause cognitive fatigue. In nature, where there are less distractions or stimuli, the demand on the brain is less. This gives the mind and body a chance to use all our senses in a way we would normally overlook.
Nature gives us peace.
Calming nature sounds and views or even the silence of being outdoors creates a more peaceful environment. With less stimuli and things calling our attention like school or work, house cleaning, engaging with friends, or shopping, your mind has a chance to relax.
Being outdoors give us the opportunity to slow down and take a mental break from daily life. Having a busy schedule, or even a schedule full of things to distract us. We rarely give ourselves time to “switch off” between phones, Netflix, advertising, traffic, meetings, etc. By “switching off” we have time to see and feel simple things we don’t normally notice and enjoy being in the present moment and getting the chance to just “be.”
Time spent outdoors and in nature often gives us a sense of escape from the stressors in daily life. It can increase feelings of connection to the environment, which further enhances that feeling of escape or “being away.” This feeling forces us to become aware of the differences in how we feel when we take time to slow down and appreciate our surrounds vs. going through the motions.
I have NO time. How am I supposed to immerse myself in nature?
For starters, it doesn’t have to be something big. If you’re asking yourself if it matters what kind of activity you outside, the short answer is no, it doesn’t.
Here are some ideas:
- Sit under a tree
- Take a short walk through a park
- Work in a garden
- Bike or run your favorite trail
- Relax or swim near a river or lake
- Go for a picnic
- Spend time stargazing at night
- Get up early and watch the sunrise
- Visiting a local farm
- Go to a local park to bird watch
It is wonderful to have so many options. If you are someone who doesn’t typically spend time outside, it might be best to start with something small and try a few different things to find out what you enjoy doing best. If you are a busy parent with limited alone time, something like watching the sunrise can give you a few minutes of calm before you start your day. It doesn’t matter what type of nature setting you choose. The goal is to step away from the business of a normal day and immerse yourself in natural environment.
Gardening is an especially beneficial way to experience nature. Learning to care for plants and flowers can help you learn how to better care for yourself. Paying attention to the different colors and details of trees, grass, and other landscapes can be an opportunity to practice mindfulness and take you away from repetitive negative thinking. Being in nature can even help increase creativity.
What do I do when it’s too cold or rainy to get outside?
Every element of nature can help your mental well-being. Just listening to nature sounds can have similar positive effects. Rainy day? No problem. Open your windows a crack and listen to the sound of rain falling on the trees and grass. Even looking at photos of nature can help. Remember this next time the weather won’t allow you to be outdoors.
Stuck in a space without windows? Put on your headphones and play a nature sounds via mindfulness apps like Calm. Or search YouTube for “sounds from nature” to get countless options to choose from. Simply give yourself a five-minute time out to recharge while virtually experiencing nature, and you might be surprised at how much it helps you relax.
How much time in nature is enough to help my mental health?
Studies have shown that people who spend a minimum of two hours a week outdoors are more likely to reap the benefits we’ve been talking about. What makes it easy is that it doesn’t matter how these two hours are broken down within your week. You could spend two hours doing yard work around your home on a Saturday afternoon. You could take a 20 minute walk each day. Whatever way is easiest for you to work this into your schedule will be helpful.
On difficult days when we are experiencing stress, anxiety, low moods or energy levels, spending time doing an outdoor activity might seem like the last thing you want to do. Remember to start small. Find what you enjoy most and pay attention to how you feel after taking a few minutes with nature.
Nature can be a part of your daily life. It doesn’t matter if you have a green thumb, are an expert hiker, or wouldn’t know the difference between a robin and a hummingbird. Nature is for anyone and it can help everyone. I challenge you to devote five minutes to nature each day. Relax and enjoy!