The mental health benefits of being in Nature

The mental health benefits of being in Nature

Mon 10 May

It's Mental Health Awareness Week and this year the theme is Nature. We all know outdoor exercise is good for our physical health, but what about our mental wellbeing?
The scientific field known as “ecotherapy” is constantly growing, with more and more research suggesting that getting outside is one of the most powerful things we can do to improve our mental wellness.

You don’t have to be rock climbing or running a marathon – even just a picnic or short walk helps. And it doesn’t have to be for long; researchers have found spending just 20 minutes, three times a week in a natural setting can do wonders.

Here are just some of the benefits:

Improves mood

Research has shown that outdoor excursions can reduce mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Scientists compared the brain activity of groups of people who had gone on a 90-minute walk either in a city centre or in nature. They found that the people who had done the nature walk had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain in charge of rumination which makes us dwell on negative thoughts.

Reduces fatigue

We can all get mental fatigue when we stay too long in the same place, looking at the same things. Switching up our environment is the best way to fight against this, and researchers have found that quiet, natural landscapes have a much stronger impact than overstimulated city scenes – even looking at pictures of forests, coasts and mountains helped our brains to eliminate fatigue.

Reduces stress and anger

The calming sounds of nature – from bird song to running water, and even just silence outdoors – can lower blood pressure levels and the amount of cortisol, a stress hormone. The same is true of looking at natural landscapes.

If you can’t make it outdoors, just playing these sounds via a speaker can have the same calming affect. Research suggests even adding more plants to the room can lower stress and anxiety – patients in hospitals were given views of either a wall or a forest as they recovered from surgery. Those with the view of trees tolerated pain better, recovered more quickly and were less agitated.

You can play games outdoors to help you distract your mind from worried thoughts and focus on what’s in front of you – such as trying to identify different types of flora and fauna from their look, sound or feel.

Improves memory

Several studies show that being in nature can boost your short term memory – participants who walked around an arboretum fared better in a memory test than those who walked down a city street.

Provides peer support

You’re more likely to have conversations when your mind is distracted by a physical task, like navigating a stile or climbing over stones. You become more free and open, and it can feel less daunting to get things off your chest when you’re busy walking, as opposed to sitting face to face.

Even simply getting to know the people you see on your trips outside helps build a greater sense of community, which can make you feel more optimistic.

Read our other tips for improving mental wellbeing:

How to get more physical activity into your day

What does self-care mean to you? blog by counsellor Laura Griffiths

7 ways to cope with grief and loss

How to get a better quality night's sleep

How to turn off work thoughts during your free time


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