Getting Some Fresh Air: How Being Out in Nature Benefits Our Mental Health

October 10 is World Mental Health Day. The observance aims to raise awareness of mental health issues across the globe and to encourage efforts to address them. This is a particularly important time to nurture our mental health, as the World Health Organization notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a substantial rise in depressive disorders and anxiety. There is one tool that has been found to help and which many of us can readily access: the outdoors. Here are some ways nature can help ease our minds.

Reduces Stress

Woman walking in nature near mountains

Going for a walk or a hike in nature, even one as short as 20 minutes, has been found to lower the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Whether it’s the physical or psychological aspects of stress, research shows it appears to help both. The American Heart Association says this could be attributed to the fact that nature is gentle and calm and doesn’t snatch your attention more abruptly like the stressors of your day-to-day life.

Helps with Depression

Woman surrounded by green trees in nature

Depression often causes us to fixate on our failures or distressing circumstances. Our thoughts get into a loop of negativity. Getting out in nature may help distract us from that and get us away from such a line of thinking. Research has found that just 90 minutes in a nature setting helps reduce activity in the portion of our brains that causes us to ruminate on upsetting things. It also reduces activity in a portion of the brain linked to a risk of mental illness.

The American Heart Association also notes that the mood booster nature provides can even occur when a patient in a hospital bed can see a forested area through the window.

Calms Anxiety

Man hiking through nature by forest

Worry and nerves often seem to fade away when we can get out on a hike, stroll among the trees, and breathe in some fresh air. Numerous studies have demonstrated that the outdoors can indeed calm anxiety. That includes research showing that just 10 minutes spent in a variety of natural settings helps positively impact mental well-being for college students, who often suffer from anxiety. Another study conducted early in the COVID-19 pandemic found that gardening and doing other activities outdoors can help calm anxiety, as well.

Eases Mental Fatigue and Helps Us Recharge

Mother and child on nature walk through forest

One of the ways our mental health suffers is also from fatigue. This could be due to too many hours spent working, the demands of family and the office, or a particularly taxing time in life. Nature can come through for you in these circumstances, as well. Research has found that nature walks can help lead to mental restoration, and coupling these walks with some sort of psychological task can help improve attention. Another study found that spending a short time looking at a roof with greenery and plants led to better cognitive function than looking at a concrete roof.

Creates Connections

Family on nature walk together

The buddy system is prevalent on nature excursions, in case of any mishap or an encounter with an ornery wild animal. That means outdoor outings usually provide some companionship. Those who don’t regularly spend time with others are at a higher risk of death, so these human connections are very important. Social support is also known to benefit mental health, may lower stress hormones, and can boost self-esteem.

Nature Can Benefit Those Living Through Tough Circumstances

While the benefits provided by nature impact us all, there are certain times in which these offerings may be even more important to us. Here are some situations in which nature has been found to be especially helpful.

Alzheimer’s patients

Senior men walking through park with fall leaves

Being able to connect with others is important to everyone, including Alzheimer’s patients. Research has shown that having a strong relationship with a caregiver may help delay the disease’s progression, while isolation can harm the cognitive and mental health of patients. Outdoor excursions can help tackle isolation by giving patients people with whom to connect, while enjoying the calmness provided by nature. Being in nature may even help alleviate some Alzheimer’s symptoms and reduce negative behaviors.

Cancer Patients

Woman sitting in nature with her dog

Cancer treatment, recovery, and survivorship can be rife with anxiety, depression, and mental fatigue. In addition to nature’s help with these burdens, studies have shown survivors who spend more time doing outdoor physical activities are happier and have a higher quality of life. Nature may also help patients and survivors think clearly, set goals, and follow through on tasks, which can be difficult due to issues like chemo brain and the exhaustion that comes with the cancer experience.

People Who Are Grieving

Grandfather and grandson spend time together in nature

Grief is another physically and mentally taxing experience. Losing a loved one can be so difficult that the hurt isn’t limited to your thoughts. It finds its way to your body, with people facing a higher risk of dying after losing a spouse. Nature may help with some of these physical symptoms of grief, as it can reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and the production of stress hormones. It can also help restore healthy sleep patterns, which may be affected during the strongest period of grief. Visiting some of our loved one’s favorite haunts serves as a way to connect to them, as well, and the rumination over the grief while there may be lessened.

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