When the weather starts to grow warmer during the spring months, it’s common for people to head outside in droves. Neighborhood sidewalks that were once empty are filled with families out for walks and children whizzing by on bicycles. People flock to local parks and hiking trails, and suddenly the cabin fever that can come along with winter is lifted.
It’s no secret that people enjoy spending time outdoors when winter weather passes, but what you may not realize is that connecting with nature is actually beneficial for mental health. Our draw to the outdoors may be a result of the positive effect that time in nature has on our wellbeing and mindfulness.
Nature and Happiness
If you’re feeling blue, heading outdoors might be the remedy you need. A recent study of over 200 people who enjoy spending time in national parks revealed that 82% of participants reported that they were happy because they visited parks. This finding isn’t unusual. In fact, a report that reviewed the results of 30 different studies found that people who have a stronger connection to nature experience more positive emotions, and they are more satisfied with life.
So, what is it about being outside in nature that makes people feel happier? Some research suggests that being in nature has a relaxing effect on the body, leading to fewer negative mood states, and it’s not just the act of exercising in nature that leads to happiness. A study in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that when compared to walking in a city environment, walking in the forest reduced heart rate levels, as well as anxiety and negative mood states. Based upon this finding, it seems that being in nature calms the body, which understandably leads to a better mood.
Other Benefits of Nature for Mental Health
There are benefits of nature that extend beyond happiness and relaxation. According to a report from the American Psychological Association [see notes], numerous studies have revealed that nature has a positive effect on psychological wellbeing. Some of the benefits of nature are as follows:
- Increases in empathy and cooperation
- Improvements in memory and attention
- Better performance on tasks that require mental effort
- Protection from the effects of loneliness and social isolation
- Elevated energy levels
- Feelings of restoration
Overall, research on the benefits of nature shows that it can positively influence mental health in multiple ways. The connection we feel to nature can improve our relationships by helping us to cooperate and feel empathy for others. If we are feeling lonely, the connection to nature can make us feel less isolated. Finally, nature can reinvigorate us after a period of stress, increase our energy levels, and help us to perform better on challenging tasks, all of which can make us feel better.
Nature’s Influence on Mental Health Disorders
Given the mental health benefits associated with nature, some researchers have taken an interest in whether time outdoors can be utilized to treat individuals who live with mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. A 2016 study in Scientific Reports found that people who spend a significant amount of time outdoors, specifically in green spaces, have lower rates of depression.
Another study found that taking a long walk outdoors reduced people’s negative thoughts about themselves and decreased the amount of activity in areas of the brain linked to mental illness. This finding is not surprising, as the body of research has demonstrated that being close to green outdoor spaces reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression. Given the fact that walking in nature reduces negative self thoughts, it can be especially beneficial for those who live with depression, which is linked to negative thoughts like feelings of worthlessness.
Incorporating Time in Nature Into Mental Health Therapy
Based upon what is known about the mental health benefits of nature, spending time outdoors can be helpful for psychological functioning. If you are in treatment for a mental health condition, heading outdoors to spend time in nature can be a part of your treatment plan, alongside attending appointments with a therapist. You may even discuss time spent outdoors during individual therapy sessions and process how time in nature has positively influenced your mood and wellbeing.
Even if you aren’t in treatment for a mental health condition, heading outside can be beneficial for mental health. Being outside relieves stress and anxiety, so it can be a useful coping strategy for day-to-day stress. Being outdoors can also be a form of self-care, which will ultimately improve your wellbeing and prevent you from becoming burned out and overwhelmed by the demands of life. Making an intentional effort to get outside and spend time in natural settings can prevent stress and negative moods from interfering with daily life. It may even protect you from developing a mental health condition like depression or anxiety.
If you want to incorporate time outdoors into your routine, you may wonder just how much time in nature is needed. A 2020 study in Frontiers in Psychology found that spending as little as 10 minutes per day sitting or walking in a natural setting can improve psychological wellbeing. If you’re feeling overstressed, taking a quick walk during your lunch break or after dinner, or taking the family to the park in the evening, can go a long way toward improving your mental wellbeing. The time outdoors will clear your mind, reduce your anxiety, and leave you feeling refreshed and restored. Similarly, if you are struggling with symptoms of depression, incorporating more outdoor time into your routine can boost your mood and provide some symptom relief.
Time in nature doesn’t have to be excessive to positively benefit your mental health. Heading to a nature preserve or taking a walk around your neighborhood a few times a week may be all that you need to increase your connection with nature and provide you with the benefits that come along with time spent in natural spaces.