Many of us instinctively know that time spent in nature is great for both the body and mind, but now a growing body of research is scientifically proving its benefit for depression symptoms, anxiety attacks and stress relief.
Our ancient ancestors knew the immense healing power of spending time in natural surrounds – the idea of nature as a healer can be found in the earliest documented histories of China, Greece, Persia, Tibet and many others. Ayurveda, the ancient healing tradition of India, also recommends spending time in nature every day.
They knew what science and research is only just beginning to understand – that the healing power of nature can have a marked effect on mental wellbeing. A dose of nature is increasingly recognised as both the cure and prevention of many ailments.
A lack of exposure to natural surrounds, or ‘nature deprivation’, is seen as a cause behind the marked increase of many modern ills, including depression symptoms, anxiety attacks and behavioural problems in children. According to many researchers, it’s no coincidence that as disconnection from nature have grown dramatically, so have mental disorders such as depression. In fact, city dwellers have a 20 percent higher risk of anxiety disorders and a 40 percent higher risk of mood disorders when compared to people living closer to nature. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, recognised this when he coined the phrase: “Nature cures—not the physician.”
Biophilia – the innate human need to care about and connect with nature
Before you think we’re getting a bit too ‘greenie’ with this, this is not just an idea for hippies and environmentalists – most of us know the simple pleasure and mood lifting effects of exercise in the wild, camping out under the stars, a quiet afternoon fishing, or just staring for hours into a roaring campfire. Only recently has science and research begun to explain why we’re so drawn to time spent in nature. This instinct now even has a name – biophilia, or the innate human need to care about and connect with nature.
There are many studies that show that time spent outdoors can:
- improve stress levels
- alleviate or lessen symptoms of depression
- reduce anxiety
- lower blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension
- lower production of stress hormones such as cortisol.
One study compared a 50-minute walk in a city environment to a nature walk. The nature walk showed many more benefits above exercise, including decreased activity in an area of the brain linked to risk of mental illness such as depression. Nature walks have also been found to reduce rumination, the sort of negative thoughts that you return to over and over (like picking at a mental scab), which will be very familiar to anyone with anxiety! It also helps with reasoning and memory, so in fact it can make you smarter!
With this knowledge, doctors around the world are increasingly prescribing trips to the park for a range of conditions, including anxiety and depression, stress, attention deficit disorder and chronic illness such as diabetes and high blood pressure. In some countries, “exposure to nature” is now used as a core component of therapy. It’s even spawning new fields of psychology and medical treatment —ecopsychology and ecotherapy.
The great news is that it’s easy to get yourself a dose of the good stuff mother nature provides. You can:
- Pack a backpack and head for the hills
- Prepare a picnic basket and visit a local park
- Go walking on the beach
- Organise a camping trip with your mates
- Walk the dog in some nice natural surrounds
- Lie on the grass and watch the clouds float by
- Take up gardening or sit quietly in your garden.
In any case, get out of town or at least, out of your house, flat or office! The more time you spend in nature, the more balanced you will feel. Nature provides a great stress relief by enabling you to remove yourself – mind and body – from the things that cause you stress in the first place.
The important thing is to ‘tune in’ and focus your five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch on the surrounds. You can do things like walking barefoot, sleeping outdoors in a swag, collecting shells or unusual pieces of wood or rock and breathe in the fresh air.
Especially for those of us struggling with depression or anxiety, nature is a great teacher, showing the cycle of life and hope – light follows darkness, the sunshine follows rain, and spring follows winter.
“If you watch how nature deals with adversity, continually renewing itself, you can’t help but learn.” Bernie Seigel, MD
Bottom line: go outside, enjoy natural beauty, and feel better, mind body and soul.
Further reading on depression, anxiety and stress