I have long been an exercise evangelist as it relates to boosting mental health. Most of us know intuitively that time outdoors similarly improves our mood and sense of well-being. Research is now beginning to help us understand the mechanisms for this improvement and the optimal dosage and types of nature immersion needed to attain such outcomes as:
Improved mood and sense of calm
Reduced anxiety and depression symptoms
Increased creativity, focus, problem solving abilities
Decreased cortisol levels
Decreased rumination (anxious, repetitive thoughts)
Reduced blood pressure, sympathetic nervous system activity
Reduced stress levels and attentional fatigue
Increased immunity and growth in nueron circuits that use dopamine and activate pleasure centers
Research on Nature and Mental Health
Oddly, the research on nature and its impact on mental health is just catching up to research on exercise and mental health. The delay may be because in 2008, for the first time in human history, there were more city dwellers in the world than rural dwellers. The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, Florence Williams (2017). The need for access to green space is thus a pressing issue insofar as we are currently more city-bound AND we are more engaged with electronics and less engaged with the natural world. Some experts argue that increasing human engagement with trees, waterways, and wide-open spaces with less noise pollution is one solution to help us ease mental suffering, reduce costs associated with mental health care, and provide a means for improving the health of all people, regardless of income. One theory is that the pre-frontal cortex, the thinking center of the brain, is frequently on overload with all of the stimulation of modern life. This part of the brain, the theory goes, needs regular doses of attentional, multi-tasking, and problem-solving rest. Indeed, one principle of mindfulness is that we loosen patterns of anxious thought by sinking into the body/sensations and out of the thinking brain for concentrated periods of each day.
Other theories suggest that our mental health benefits from nature because of the nutrients nature provides through our senses of sight, smell, and sound (e.g., songbirds and silence, water sounds, essential oils found in trees). Evidence is clear that nature does provide anti-inflammatory nutrients through our breathing (see Dr. Stephen Ilardi’s YouTube video on Rumination for a fascinating discussion of nature as anti-ruminative due to microbiomes inhaled from the soil). One nature enthusiast (Louv) refers to “nature deficit disorder” as the current state of our collective mental health. Although not an APA recognized disorder, the term resonates with my spirit when I have moments of stress overload!
International Efforts to Increase Greenspace
If you would like to take a tour through the various research projects being undertaken in places such as Japan, Finland, Scotland, South Korea, and the US/Moab, I recommend Florence Williams’ book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. Williams chronicles her personal participation in international nature/mental health studies. Williams became interested in the impact of nature on mental health when she fell into depression after moving from her beloved Colorado mountain home to a noisy D.C. neighborhood. Williams also describes the efforts of governments and research institutes around the globe to increase green spaces in metropolitan areas and to encourage people to engage nature for their health. A link to a brief article about Williams’ work is also included here:
Nature Pyramids and Optimal Doses
According to Finnish researchers, five hours per month or two 30-minute hikes per week in treed areas is the recommended dose to boost mental health. But each research study targets a different health factor, so wading through the data to identify the dose-response curve can be daunting. As a help, one easy illustration of a way to engage in nature for optimal mental health is the Nature Pyramid, brainchild of Tim Beatley, Biophilic Cities Department at University of Virginia. The Nature Pyramid suggests that humans need daily, even hourly, interactions with nature to lighten mental load, such as gazing at house plants, playing with pets, watering our gardens, enjoying a treed view from our office window. Weekly, we benefit from a 30-minute walk in a local park, taking in treed views and fresh air, and enjoying a respite from city and manmade noise. Quarterly, we would do well to visit regional or state parks, which are a bit harder to get to, but provide a deeper respite (and which, sadly, are vastly underused in the United States). Finally, we would find deep restoration by traveling farther into wilderness (National Parks, secluded waterways, or the ocean) once or twice per year, as far from human interaction as possible. For more information on Beatley’s theory, click here:
A similar pyramid visual which may be a helpful tool for families is the Nature Connection Pyramid below. This pyramid has been on my refrigerator this fall as a reminder to my family to get outdoors!
US National Park Service
The US National Park Service has also implemented a Healthy Parks Healthy People initiative “working with national, state, and local parks as well as business innovators, health care leaders, scientists, foundations and advocacy organizations” to advance the role that parks play in creating healthy communities. For more information, click here: https://www.nps.gov/public_health/hp/hphp.htm
Moving from Research to Behavior Change
What does all of this mean for you? How does research make a difference when we already know that putting down our phones and stepping outside is good for us, but we fail to take advantage of our back yards, our local trails, and our national parks? My hope is that it gives us fresh insight and fresh motivation to engage with nature with more intention. Research adds to our understanding by telling us the how and the how much behind practices that our bodies, minds, and souls may already know lend to wellness. Research can take us from “I know hiking is good for me, but who has the time” to “Can I find one hour this week to take my family to the local park?” Research can take us from planning a vacation that crams in as many sites and sounds as possible and leaves everyone overwhelmed and exhausted, to introducing our children to the grandeur of Grand Canyon National Park. Awe, research tells us, is actually good for our brains!
How will you allow this research to inspire you to greater nature immersion today, this week, this year?
What about this notion of the brain on nature captured your attention today? What made you stop to read the article?
What have your most meaningful experiences of nature been? Think back to your childhood, visits to farms, family vacations, places where you played outdoors.
Get very quiet for a few moments, close your eyes, and imagine a calming place, a verdant place, a place with the sound of songbirds. What travel longing does this stir in you?
What commitment will you make to take even one step in ascension of the Nature Connection Pyramid? Determine to give this gift to your self and your family. Then take the time to reflect on the experience, noticing your mood, any shifts in how your body feels, your clarity of thought. I would love to hear your experience!
Spiritual Exercise in Nature
For an additional spiritual exercise, try praying through the Psalms of Nature during your outing. Attached is a guide from the Soul Shepherding Institute. My husband and I love to ride bikes on the Smithville Lake Trails. We found this to be a perfect place to stop and pray using the Psalmist’s nature references. Enjoy!