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How Does Nature Improve Mental Health?

According to recent statistics, 38% of mental illnesses are more common in urbanized neighborhoods than rural towns. Depression is 39% more prevalent, and anxiety disorders are 21% more common

If you are a person who copes with mental illness, whether due to biological or socio-economic factors, did you know that stressful interactions with urban environments can often trigger mental health episodes?

According to recent statistics, 38% of mental illnesses are more common in urbanized neighborhoods than rural towns. Depression is 39% more prevalent, and anxiety disorders are 21% more common. Also, schizophrenia rates are doubled in these neighborhoods. It’s not exactly clear if this increased occurrence is due to stressful city living itself, but there seems to be a connection. 

Findings have also concluded that people who grew up in a rural setting have a lowered stress response. Many experts believe this to be true because they are close to outdoor areas with more nature, contributing to better wellbeing. Some studies have even indicated that having a window view from an apartment with a natural setting view can improve memory, attention, and impulse control.

Why Is Nature Necessary for Enhancing Mental Health?

Many researchers have been trying to explain why nature is so beneficial to mental health. In a review in the International Journal of Wellbeing, Nisbet and colleagues concluded the advantages of connecting with nature. 

Various hypotheses may explain why nature is so integral to our mental wellbeing. For example, the biophilia hypothesis posits that since our ancestors lived in wild settings and relied heavily on the environment to survive, that we have a natural instinct to connect with nature. 

The stress reduction hypothesis states that spending time in nature triggers a physiological response that minimizes our stress levels. 

The attention restoration theory holds the belief that nature replenishes a person’s cognitive resources, which is why it can enhance concentration efforts.

In essence, many researchers have found that stress reduction and attention restoration are related. Since there are so many stressful issues due to ongoing factors in our society, many of these theories are being closely studied by researchers.

How Does Nature Improve Mental Health?

Some experimental studies have determined that nature has healing powers. Even just a bit of exposure to a green setting can wake up an exhausted brain. In one study from the Journal of Environmental Psychology, Australian researchers asked their students to perform a daunting task where they pressed a computer key when specific numbers flashed onto the screen. The students who stared at a flowering green roof for 40 seconds halfway through the task made fewer mistakes than students who paused for 40 seconds to look at a concrete rooftop.

Another study from the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review found that sounds from nature can even be beneficial. The researchers discovered that people in the survey who listened to sounds in nature, like waves crashing, for instance, had a better performance on cognitive tests than people who listened to urban sounds, like traffic.  

Natural environments have been found to increase positive affect via incredible sights and sounds. During the summer, many people can find ways to enjoy nature and improve their mental health.

Can Nature Help With Intrusive or Obsessive Thoughts?

Stanford University researchers determined that over-rumination from having a lack of interaction with nature could be the reason that there’s a psychological decline for people who live in cities. Being more interactive, like going out for a walk or hanging out with friends, can prevent people from obsessing on their racing thoughts and reduce depressive ways of thinking. 

Stanford researchers asked certain participants to go for a 90-minute walk through their city during their study. The other people in the survey were told to take a 90-minute walk through a nature path. They then measured blood flow in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is generally active during the rumination process. They did so before and after the participants went on their walks. Those who went for the 90-minute nature walk reported that they had lower levels of rumination and sgPFC activity than their counterparts who walked through the city. 

Is Screen Time Impacting Our Mental Health?

There’s no doubt about it – as a society, we are looking at our screens more and more. A 2016 Nielsen Total Audience Report determined that Americans spend more than 10 hours looking at a screen each day. By constantly relying on technology and living in an urban setting, many people spend much less time outdoors despite the compelling evidence that being out in nature improves mental health. 

What Are the Benefits of Going Out Into Nature?

No matter what you like to do, whether it’s going out for hikes, camping, or walking through parks, being close to nature has many benefits. These include a better mood and ability to pay attention, lower stress, and minimize mental health disorders risks. There have even been reports of increases in empathy. 

Thus far, researchers have primarily conducted their studies on green spaces like parks and forests, but now they are studying the benefits of blue spaces like oceans and river views. Since nature is so vast, there is still much more research to come and benefit people’s mental health.  

What Are the Cognitive Benefits?

Spending time in nature can calm our overactive brains. Both correlational and experimental research have proven that interacting with nature has cognitive benefits, in particular. A psychologist from the University of Chicago, Marc Berman, Ph.D., and his student Kathryn Schertz, explored this phenomenon in a 2019 review. They determined that green spaces near schools enhance children’s cognitive development, and green views near children’s homes increase self-control behaviors. 

In addition, adults living in public housing units in neighborhoods with more green space had better attentional functioning than those living near less natural settings. Like the one from Current Directions in Psychological Science, other experiments have concluded that being exposed to natural environments is beneficial for working memory, cognitive flexibility, and attentional control. They even found that exposure to urban environments is linked to attention issues. 

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Billie Olsen

MODEL: Billie Olsen

Billie Olsen (she/they) is a lifestyle writer, disability justice advocate, and cozy femme located in Kelowna, BC, Canada. Their works have appeared in Metro News, Discorder, Sophomore Magazine, the Post-Feminist Post, DINE Magazine, and NerdReader.