Nature can be extremely beneficial to our mental health. Simply being outside, surrounded by nature, has been shown to reduce feelings of stress, anger, and fear. We are genetically programmed to find plants, water, and natural elements engrossing, distracting from feelings of discomfort. Many hospital facilities are now adding indoor gardens, aquariums, and landscapes to incorporate nature into the setting as a stress reduction tool. Research has even shown artwork depicting natural scenes to be restorative.
Even just walking in nature could lower the risk of depression. A study published in ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Science,’ found that participants who went on a 90-minute walk through a natural environment, reported lower levels of rumination and showed decreased neutral activity in the area of the brain linked to mental illness, in comparison to those who walked through an urban environment. Over 50% of people now live-in urban areas, and this is set to increase to 70% by 2050. Urbanisation is associated with increased levels of mental illness, therefore if you do live in an urban environment, it can be beneficial to set aside some time to spend in nature.
Nature can also improve brain function. Researchers studying this asked 150 students to engage in an attention draining task in which they were tasked with pressing a computer key when certain numbers appeared on a screen. The study found that participants who briefly viewed a flowering meadow green roof during the task as opposed to a bare concrete roof, made significantly fewer mistakes. Forest schools, in which most of the learning takes place in natural settings outdoors, have been a long-standing tradition in Scandinavia, and are on the rise in the United States. The US has seen an increase in Forest schools by 500% since 2012, and in 2019 Washington became the first state to license outdoor preschools.
Research undertaken by a psychologist at the University of Chicago found that green spaces near schools promote cognitive development in children, and that green views near children’s homes encourage self-control behaviours. The reason for this may be due to our ancestors, as they evolved in wild settings and relied on the environment for survival, therefore we have an innate desire to be out in nature.
Research into ecotherapy has found that it can help to treat mild to moderate depression. Ecotherapy is a type of therapeutic treatment which involves doing outdoor activities in nature. It can involve working in nature, doing things like gardening or farming, or simply experience nature, whether it be through running, walking, or cycling.
Types of ecotherapy include:
Conservation – this combines physical exercise with caring for natural spaces
Care Farming – farming activities which may include looking after animals, crops, or the land
Animal Assisted Therapy – this can involve building relationships with animals or just spending time petting and feeding them
Adventure Therapy – adventurous activities often performed in groups, such as rock climbing or rafting
Nature Art and Crafts – this could be making art or crafting outside, or using natural materials like clay and wood
Social Therapeutic Horticulture – growing food in allotments or community gardens. This can also involve cultivating gardens in public spaces
Green exercise is another type of ecotherapy and involves exercising in nature. Studies have shown that even small amounts of green exercise can improve self-esteem and mood, though the presence of water generated greater effects. So, if you do get the chance to exercise outside, try switching up your route to pass by your local pond or lake or take a jog along the seafront on your next trip abroad.
Although ecotherapy itself is a formal treatment, it can be something we partake in ourselves through our hobbies or social activities. Along with the mental health benefits of being out in nature, it also has physical benefits such as improving the quality of sleep and increasing our exposure to Vitamin D.
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