Why a Dose of Nature Is Essential to Your Mental Health

When was the last time you went out and soaked up some nature? Even in pre-pandemic times, most American adults spent 93% of their time indoors. Now, with social distancing requirements in place, the time we spend at home and inside has only increased.

But during this stressful time, our connection to nature is more important than ever for maintaining our mental health and wellbeing.

As the neurologist Oliver Sacks put it, “I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens.”

The research confirms what human beings have intuited for millennia: Mother Nature knows best when it comes to our health.

The Great Outdoors Are Good for You—Naturally

Nature experiences are associated with many benefits like better moods, less anxiety and obsessive thinking, and positive social interactions with neighbors.

In neighborhoods with more green spaces, research has found better self-reported wellbeing and overall happiness within the community, as well as lower odds for developing a litany of physical ailments, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity as well as death. For patients with physical illnesses, nature exposure may be a cost-effective intervention for improving their self-reported mental health.

What is nature’s secret? It may come down to nature’s ability to improve our sleep quality and lower stress. These improvements to our underlying biology may account for the growing evidence that nature experiences can prevent the development of mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety disorders, and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. For children, the presence of nature in their neighborhoods could be essential to their mental health. Growing up around green space is associated with a lower risk of developing almost all major types of psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders, and schizophrenia.

Getting Your Regular Dose of Green

The “dose” of nature matters: the more green you get, the better your health outcomes. One study found that visiting outdoor green spaces for at least 30 minutes per week was associated with reduced rates of depression and high blood pressure.

A walk through nature is restorative, particularly during stressful times. In one study of college students, researchers found that walking through nature, viewing nature, and walking on a treadmill all reduced cortisol. But walking in nature was the most potent stress reliever of the three approaches, reducing students’ cortisol by 25% during a particularly stressful period—exam time.

The richness of nature you encounter on that therapeutic walk outdoors also matters. Greater diversity of plant life and bird species has been tied to a lower prevalence of depression, anxiety, and stress.

Enjoying Nature from the Comfort of Home

The pandemic has made it more challenging to get outside. Many of us are isolating at home to reduce the risk for ourselves and loved ones, particularly more vulnerable seniors and immunocompromised individuals. Some states are still enforcing orders to stay home—or close to it—although they permit exercise outdoors with the appropriate social distancing. (To see a summary of the guidance in your state, check here as well as your state government’s health website.) In addition, the majority of all people on earth now live in cities, which may make it more challenging, and even more critical, to access green spaces that allow for adequate social distancing.

Fortunately, you can still reap nature’s benefits from home.

Gardening is one way of going green closer to home. One study reports that visiting a private garden 4-5 times a week reduced the odds of depression, improved a sense of social connection, and even levels of physical activity. Another study found that gardening for 30 minutes reduces stress, cortisol levels, and improves mood. Extended exposure to gardening has been successfully incorporated in a rehabilitation program for patients with severe stress and depression in Sweden, leading to a faster return to work.

If you don’t have space for a garden, you can also bring nature and its benefits directly into your home. Indoor nature exposure, such as plants, windows with a view of nature, or art depicting nature, has been found to improve mood, restore attention, decrease stress, and diminish fatigue. Direct sunlight exposure in the workplace (which, for many of us, is now our homes) has been found to improve job satisfaction and decrease depressed mood and anxiety.

Adding reminders of nature like potted plants, landscape paintings, or nature screensaver to your living space could be a health supplement as well. Even viewing photographs of nature in a lab setting provided some psychological benefits, like improving executive attention for both older and young adults compared with pictures of urban environments.

And perhaps unexpectedly, technology can also help you get your nature fix. While virtual experiences of nature are no substitute for the real thing, they are a viable option for people lacking access or mobility. In one 2019 study, watching videos of natural landscapes was found to relieve physiological signs of stress. A systematic review published earlier this year found that even an average of two minutes of exposure to these “simulations” of nature could reap nature’s therapeutic benefits. For the more technologically savvy, virtual reality experiences of nature even show therapeutic promise. These virtual options make nature and its benefits more accessible when you can’t enjoy them outside.

How to Use Nature to Improve Mental Health

Indoors or out, nature is good for your mind, provided you make time for it. Here are some suggestions you can incorporate to help you get your healthy dose of green:

This is article is a part of IAM Lab’s regularly updated COVID-19 NeuroArts Field Guide. Be sure to check the Guide for the latest, evidence-based tips on how the arts can support our wellbeing during the pandemic.

We would also like to hear from you: Are you, your loved ones or colleagues dealing with specific issues and want to learn more about art-based solutions? Are you already using the arts to help you cope? 

Please share your thoughts, ideas and concerns with us at covid19arts@artsandmindlab.org. Be well and stay safe.

Written and reported by IAM Lab Communications Specialist Richard Sima. Richard received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins and is a science writer living in Baltimore, Maryland. 

Lead Image: Unsplash / Mohammad Behrooz

Brain Science COVID-19 Environment Mental Health Nature