5 ways nature improves mental health

Outdoor activities and nature study give us a way to escape the daily grind, get some fresh air, and take a break from the indoors. However, beyond just being a source of fun, recreation, and learning, time outdoors also benefits our health in many ways. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; people have gone to nature to feel serene, calm, and safe for centuries. What is more recent and exciting, however, is that medical science increasingly supports this age-old wisdom. This post is the first of a The Deep Stuff mini-series on Nature and Health. Specifically, we’ll learn about the ways that nature improves mental health.

Why mental health?

Taking a hike through England’s rural Lake District in 2018 after finishing my Ph.D dissertation, I was surprised by how much the peace, quiet, and beautiful outdoor spaces helped restore my tired brain.

With rising costs of living, a pandemic, and growing wealth inequality, most people are under a lot of stress nowadays. Along with the pace of the social media universe, and it’s easy to understand why people are feeling burnt out. Mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and burnout have been increasing in the United States for decades. Globally, more than a quarter billion people suffer from depression. With so many challenges to mental health, finding accessible solutions is crucial. Fortunately, time outside and around nature (what I like to call “nature exposure”) has incredible benefits to mental health. In fact, nature improves mental health so much that many doctors and physicians prescribe “the nature pill”.

Here are 5 major ways that nature improves mental health:

1. Decreased stress levels

Spending time in nature can drastically reduce stress. Specifically, people who spend time in nature not only report feeling less stressed, but their bodies show lower levels of stress hormones. Being stressed for long periods of time, what scientists call chronic stress can lead to all sorts of health problems. From heart problems to dementia, high stress bad for your physiological and mental health. Even when reviewing dozens of scientific studies, scientists find again and again that nature exposure reduces stress symptoms. This includes everything from anxious thoughts to heart rate and blood pressure.

In fact, the stress-reducing effects of nature exposure are so powerful, that evening looking at pictures of nature, or listening to recorded birdsong, can decrease stress. Furthermore, you don’t have to live in the countryside or by a wilderness area to reap these benefits. Spending time in neighborhood parks, or quiet gardens can have the same benefits.

2. Improved sleep

Poor quality or little sleep are linked to many other unwanted mental health conditions, especially depression. In other words, when you aren’t sleeping well, your mental health suffers. Sufficient sleep is just as important for the rest of your body as it is for your mind. The relaxing effect of spending time outside—and the physical activity it often involves—are linked to higher-quality sleep. Just as with stress, studies showing nature’s sleep benefits saw effects from several activities. These included gardening, outdoor work, and leisurely walks as viable treatments. No matter how you connect with nature, getting outside time can help you get better shuteye and wake up refreshed.

3. Better mood

Poor mental health can also lead to consistently low mood, irritability, and depression. It can be really hard to lift your spirits, and things can feel hopeless. Over-exposure to stressful social or work environments and social media can be emotionally exhausting. The slower pace, tranquil settings, and more subtle beauty of more natural settings can do wonders for such feelings. Time in nature, or even images and sounds reminiscent of nature, help people feel calmer. This more relaxed state can often come with feelings of safety and greater positivity.

Scientists have repeatedly found time outside associated with people experiencing “positive affect”. In other words, connecting with nature consistently improves peoples moods and emotional states. Even if they start in a sour mood, or feeling angry, people report a decrease in negative feelings after nature exposure. Next time you’re feeling down or needing a pick-me-up, consider a walk in the woods before binging the newest streaming series.

4. Recovery from burnout

The incredibly fast pace of modern-day work, and the many demands on our attention are a recipe for psychological burnout. Teachers, medical professionals, service industry workers, parents, have excessive demands on their time and energy. Eventually, this can all lead to burnout. That is, a feeling of emotional depletion, lack of energy, and inability to focus. Burnout can make even small tasks feel insurmountable, and leave people too “wiped out” for everyday life. As you might have guessed already, time in nature can help with that, too.

Dozens of clinical scientific studies show that spending time in natural environments helps people feel refreshed and restored from burnout. In one study, time spent learning about nature from biologists, or planting a garden, decreased burnout and long-term sick leave in Swedish adults. Other research showed how people with more exposure to nature had an easier time coping with tasks and stress.

The restorative effects of nature even extend to the effects of trauma. Studies on veterans and trauma victims demonstrate how nature time, including group walks, can counteract symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

5. Feelings of well-being

Nature exposure can also help people with their overall feeling of well-being. Well-being refers to regular feelings of contentment and happiness. Secondly, it involves feelings of independence and a sense of the capability for personal growth and “living your best life”. Mental and emotional well-being also involves feeling safe, healthy, and hopeful. For decades, researchers have shown consistent positive impacts of outdoor nature experiences on people’s reported well-being. Population-level studies also showed that people living in areas with more access to greenspace were happier.

Consequently, spending time out in nature might be just what the doctor ordered if you’re feeling down. People who spend consistent time in nature report feeling happier, more energetic, and more confident about handling life’s challenges.

Further reading on how nature improves mental health

The Nature Fix by Florence Williams – A fun review of the early science behind Nature’s brain-enhancing effects like boosting innovation, creative thinking, and mental health.

The Nature Principle by Richard Louv – An accessible and enlightening look at “Nature Deficit Disorder”, the mental and emotional consequences of cutting ourselves off with nature, and the benefits of reconnecting.

The Well-Gardened Mind by Sue Stuart-Smith – A psychotherapists’ guide to mental recovery and emotional wellness through gardening and other nature connection.