According to the 2020 State of Mental Health in America Report, over 45 million American adults struggle with a mental health condition, and the rate of youth similarly affected is on the rise. While this a staggering number, there is some positive news for those prone to depression and anxiety. Recent studies have discovered that spending time in nature can be a powerful tool for improving overall well-being and managing mental health.
6 Ways Spending Time in Nature Improves Mental Health
1) Nature as an antidepressant
The increase in mental disorders is directly associated with the rise of urbanization in our country. People living in the city have a 20% increased risk of experiencing an anxiety disorder. Fortunately, a recent Stanford-led study found that walking in nature for just 90 minutes decreases activity in the area of the brain that’s associated with depression. This finding suggests that spending time in the outdoors not only stands to help those currently suffering from a mental health condition, but it may actually help prevent people from experiencing mood disorders in the first place.
2) Decreased cortisol
Cortisol is a chemical in our body that is associated with stress. When it increases, so does our anxiety and our likelihood of experiencing depression. There have been a multitude of studies that have found again and again that spending time in nature lowers cortisol, and as a result, dramatically decreases stress, depression and anxiety. These kinds of measurable results are a sign that going for that hike, even though you are tired, is worthwhile. It is worth noting that some of the most dramatic decreases in cortisol levels were associated with multiple days spent in the wild.
3) Increased mindfulness
Time in nature often equals time unplugged. Without the distractions associated with cell phones and other digital devices, people are more likely to tune into their surroundings. Nature provides sounds, scents and sights that trigger positive emotions and relaxation allowing one to stay focused in the moment without interruptions that pull them into the past or future.
4) A dose of vitamin D
Seasonal depression is a real thing that is brought on by lack of sun and exacerbated by our body’s reduced levels of vitamin D. The more time you spend outside in nature, the more of those vitamin D delivering rays you receive. Adequate levels of vitamin D have been shown to dramatically reduce depression and increase energy levels. Don’t miss the chance to be outside on bright days.
5) Inspires a sense of awe
Depression often reveals itself in feelings of disappointment and dissatisfaction. According to one study, feeling a sense of awe not only causes us to feel gratitude, it makes us better people by increasing prosocial (or friendly) behavior. This study also found that nature produces a sense of awe in people who spend time in it. A walk in the woods beneath towering trees, rafting or kayaking through a wild river canyon or lying beneath a starlit sky in the forest are all activities that have the power to evoke awe when you are feeling despair.
6) Restores attention
Living in an urban environment means your mind is constantly working to block out excess stimuli in an effort to maintain focus. The result is mental fatigue and increased anxiety. In a natural setting, while there are distractions, they primarily illicit a pleasure response allowing the restoration of attention resources. Mental exhaustion is a real thing. Nature offers a real solution.
If anxiety and stress have set in, consider booking a cabin in the woods or at the beach. Feeling a little sad? Plan a day hike, weekend camping trip or even a rafting trip. The great outdoors has plenty to offer in the form of fun and recreation, but its influence on your overall health and wellness is worth investing your free time and attention in. The returns come in the form of an overall healthier and happier life.
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you think you are experiencing a mental health condition, you should seek the advice of a medical or mental health professional.
Photos: Hiking in Gates of Lodore – Josh Miller; Cataract Canyon rafting – James Kaiser