Written by Jackie Edwards
“Nature itself is the best physician,” said Hippocrates, evidencing the extent to which people have always relied on nature for their mental health. Hippocrates spoke from instinct and observation, but over the past few decades, a plethora of scientific studies have proven him right. One 2022 study by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, for instance, found that a one-hour walk in the Great Outdoors reduces stress-related brain activity. Specifically, the central brain region involved in stress processing, the amygdala, is less activated in times of stress among people who live in rural areas. But the good news is that you don’t need to live in the countryside to harness nature’s benefits. Studies have shown that just 10 minutes of time in the midst of nature can make a big difference. A visit to the woods or a park, for instance, does wonders for your state of mind, as does time spent near bodies of water (including ponds, lakes, ditches, and rivers). So the next time you have a short break, don’t spend it online. Head outside, breathe the air, catch the beauty of local wildlife (such as amphibians and reptiles), and open your senses to the healing benefits of nature.
Nature Quells Anxiety
Because nature is a powerful stress buster, it is a great ally for those battling stress and anxiety. A 2021 University of York study, for instance, showed that outdoor nature-based activities can improve mental health problems such as anxiety, as it leads to improved mood and more positive emotions. Gardening, exercise, nature walks, and simply spending time outdoors all weave their magic. The researchers stated that while all these activities are effective in themselves, it seems that doing them in groups leads to even bigger gains in mental health.
Nature vs Depression
A myriad of studies has also been undertaken on the beneficial effects of nature time for people battling depression. One study focused on the now-popular habit of shinrin-yoku (or forest bathing). If you’re not familiar with shinrin-yoku, know that it’s a simple activity that anyone living near the woods can undertake. It essentially involves visiting a green area and opening your senses to your surroundings. To listen to the chirping of birds or the sound of insects, touch fallen leaves or give a tree hug, take in the beauty of the surroundings, and more. Studies have shown that when it comes to depression, the largest and most consistent improvements are found in forest walks. Nature walks and getaways essentially provide an escape from stressful environments and promote a mindful, relaxed state.
Nature Is Essential to Human Health
Researchers at the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences have requested governments and those responsible for planning and architecture, to take the human-nature connection into account. There is a simple equation that is true across all human ages and cultures: access to nature and green environments boosts cognitive function and promote better mental health overall. By contrast, less access to nature is linked to a plethora of problems, including higher rates of anxiety disorders and clinical depression. Nature helps to connect older and younger neighbors, which in turn helps keep depression and loneliness at bay. Age-inclusive communities are increasingly turning to parks and gardens as a means for neighbors of all ages to form connections and friendships and provide a vital source of support to each other. In fact, outdoor spaces are one of the eight elements of authentic age-inclusive communities and they should be prioritized in new and existing developments alike.
Could Green Prescriptions Undermine the Benefits of Nature?
It is indisputable that spending time in green settings benefits mental health, but could formal “green prescriptions” from doctors undermine some of its benefits? The answer seems to be in the affirmative, as found in a study undertaken in 2020 by University of Exeter research. Their findings showed that although pressure from doctors to spend time outdoors could encourage more visits, it could also lessen the positive effects of green time. This means that healthcare professionals and loved ones should be sensitive and subtle when recommending time in nature for people with depression and anxiety. Specifically, they should encourage them to head to green places they already enjoy visiting, and highlight the fascinating benefits of green time, without making it seem like they “must” visit green areas. “Nature cannot be forced on anyone, but must be provided at the individual’s own pace and will,” said researcher, Matilda van del Bosch.
Time in nature is undoubtedly vital to human health. Studies have shown that time spent outdoors can help quell stress, anxiety, and depression. While this is the case, those suggesting this activity to loved ones or patients with mental health issues or high-stress lifestyles should do so subtly, so it does not make them see nature time as a chore or a duty.