How Getting Back to Nature Can Improve Your Mental Health
If you struggle with mental health issues, you may be surprised to learn that a little time outdoors may be just what the doctor ordered. Studies show that nature can improve your mental health by providing stress relief, increasing social interaction, and encouraging physical exercise.
For instance, a 2016 Harvard University study found a significant relationship between exposure to green spaces and mortality rates. One hundred thousand female nurses were studied over an eight-year period. It found that those who lived in the greenest areas had a 12 percent lower premature mortality rate than those living in urban areas. In an effort to narrow down the responsible factors, the scientists collected information on doctor-diagnosed depression and antidepressant medication use. As it turns out, lower levels of depression (leading to improved mental health) explained nearly 30 percent of the benefit from living in green spaces.
If you’re ready to indulge in a bit of green therapy, you’ll be happy to know that it doesn’t have to involve forests or beaches that may be hundreds of miles away. Pretty much any kind of green space, whether it be hiking trails or a local park, can boost your overall mood and wellbeing. Here are a few ways you can do just that:
Spending more time outdoors doesn’t have to involve a road trip to the nearest national park. In fact, your own backyard is a fantastic place to start! If you like getting your hands dirty, you might want to consider growing a garden. No matter how small or urban your garden is, the very practice of gardening is incredibly mindful. Feeling the soil between your fingers, plucking weeds from in between your plants, the fresh smell of your flowers or vegetable crop — these all work to focus your energy and live in the moment, letting go of your worries and troubles.
However, all is not lost if you’re not the gardening type! Simply reclining on your patio or deck with a good book is just as enjoyable! Nothing beats the peacefulness of getting lost in a fantasy world while feeling the gentle breeze and soaking up the sights and sounds of nature. Then again, I may be biased, as it’s how I spent many a summer morning as a child.
If you’re a night owl, a roaring fire in a safely maintained fire pit is the perfect way to get your friends and family together for some good old-fashioned bonding. Even fire has its own benefits! Research from the Smithsonian suggests that fire altered the brains of early humans, contributing to our long-term memory and problem-solving skills. Now that’s a fact worthy of sharing with your loved ones while making s’mores!
In The City
Not all of us are blessed with yards of our own. Accessing nature in urban areas may involve hoofing it a bit. Fortunately, even the most developed of cities usually have a nice park or two. Though strolling through a park in the middle of a city may not feel as beneficial as doing so in a secluded forest or on a beach, there’s evidence that it’s accomplishing far more than you’d think! A 2013 Finnish study found that urban residents who walked for as little as 20 minutes through a city park reported significantly more stress relief than those who trekked through the city center.
Into The Wild Unknown
Sometimes getting back to nature means really getting back to nature (i.e. camping). Spending a weekend or more in the wilderness is a great way to improve your mental health. Whether you choose to sleep under the open sky, in a tent, or in an RV, you’re bound to enjoy all the benefits of nature (and more!)
As far as I’m concerned, being 100 percent unplugged is one of the greatest perks of camping. Eighty-sixing your screen can have a surprisingly significant impact on your well-being. Studies have shown that social media can have a negative effect on mental health and self-esteem. Taking a break from these networks is something we should all do from time to time.
What’s more, camping can do wonders for your sleep. Sleeping away from artificial light (especially blue light) works to reset your circadian rhythms. This makes you less groggy in the morning. And, the more you abide by the sun’s schedule, the more likely you are to go to bed and get up at a sensible time.
Finally, what’s camping without a good hike? According to an article from Time, hiking has multiple benefits, including increasing your heart and metabolic rates, strengthening muscles you don’t normally use, improving your balance and stability, and reducing your mind’s propensity to ruminate. And if you need a little help get some hiking sticks to help you along
Although nature can improve your mental health, never use it in place of therapy and/or doctor prescribed medications. The mood-boosting effect of the outdoors can be a supplement, but never a replacement for a professional treatment plan.
Spending time soaking up the sunshine and enjoying nature gives us more energy and helps to relieve stress and rumination. Essentially, being outside makes us happier. That’s why it’s a good first step if you struggle with mental health issues.
About the Author
Avery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.