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How Nature Can Improve Your Mental Health

How Nature Can Improve Your Mental Health

by Tom Ward – 4 min read

If there's one thing we've all learned after months spent cooped up inside, it's that there's nothing better than the feeling of grass under your feet. Or laying in a park and watching sunlight pass through the leaves. Heck, we'd even take an afternoon swatting away wasps in the rain if it meant a bit of fresh air. 

In short: getting outdoors and spending time in nature is brilliant. What's more, those country walks, lazy afternoons under a tree and alfresco dinners are a proven tonic for both your mental and physical health.

"The benefits of being out in nature, particularly for people living in urban areas, are phenomenal," explains Kit Washington, founder of mindfulness platform Breathing Space. "Studies have shown that being among nature and wildlife is associated with a lower prevalence of depression, anxiety, and stress."

It's little wonder, then, that heading outside is how many of us find some quiet time to relax and recalibrate. So, with that in mind, here are six reasons to plan your own outdoor excursion – even if it's just to the end of the garden.

 

It Makes Us Feel Peaceful 

There's a reason spas love forest soundtracks and why human beings find the sound of running water so soothing: nature calms us. It makes sense; human beings evolved among nature and only recently migrated to cities. In other words, nature is our home. 

Dr Shungu Hilda M'gadzah, a director at Inclusion Psychologists, explains that reminding ourselves of this provides relief from the busy pace of everyday life and even increases our creativity, attention capacity, and ability to connect with others.

"As we relax, our bodies release endorphins, and we start to self-regulate like a thermostat resetting. It has a profound impact on our brains and our behaviour, cognitive effects as well as mental health effects."

 

It Encourages Healthy Habits 

Of course, to feel the benefits of nature, you first have to get out into nature. For most of us, this will entail a bike ride, bus trip, train journey or a good walk. But this in itself is helpful.

"The impact of nature is not just on our brains but our bodies, as being close to, and in, nature you will be more inclined to move," says Washington.

In other words, the more time we spend outdoors, the more active we're likely to become, which will help us feel even better in body and mind.

  

 

It Reduces Stress

As human beings evolved, hormones like adrenaline and cortisol helped us escape dangerous situations – like being chased by a saber-toothed tiger. In the 21st century, with few gigantic predators around, our bodies tend to overreact to more mundane annoyances, like the photocopier breaking. Spending time in nature can help us get rid of these stressful chemicals more quickly. 

"Being in nature supports our bodies rest and digest functions," says a spokesperson for Hummingbird Hypnotherapy. "It has the ability to reduce our cortisol levels and boost our positive neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphins."

Howard Mansfield, co-founder of The Happy Shrub, a company that encourages positive mental health through gardening, agrees. "Studies assessing psychophysiological stress concluded that people immersing themselves in natural (as opposed to urban) landscapes showed decreased stress, improved mood and better performances on attention tests."

 

It Boosts Our Physical Health

By calming the body and helping us to manage the surge of stress chemicals thrown at us by everyday life, being in nature has a knock-on effect on our physical wellbeing, too. 

"Some consider 'ecotherapy' and 'nature bathing' as effective as taking medication," Dr M'gadzah explains. "Soaking up the energy and clean air is like sinking into a warm bath."

Washington agrees, pointing to Dutch research that found a lower incidence of 15 diseases, including heart disease, asthma, diabetes and migraines, in people who lived within half a mile of green space. 

  

The Effects Can Benefit Everyone 

If you're unable to get out into the countryside, you shouldn't worry; you can still feel some of the benefits from the comfort of your own home. By inviting nature inside, you can bridge the gap without having to dig out your wellies or pack a picnic. 

"Watching nature documentaries or listening to bird song can be extremely helpful," explains Washington. "Our brains don't know the difference between actually being out in nature and visualising and listening to nature. That's why meditation and mindfulness are so effective."

As well as stocking up on house plants and adding nature sounds to quiet moments in your day, Dr M'gadzah suggests meditation to help build up your reserves of peace without needing to head into the woods every day.

"The boosts nature gives can last for days, but like meditation, we need to top up these reserves regularly," she explains. "Even short spells out can have an affect."

 

Keep In Mind

Nature is proven to lower our levels of stress hormones which can, in turn, help us to fend off low moods. Not only that, but even a small amount of time in nature will help us feel calmer, rested and more focused too. Getting out into nature also helps to get our bodies moving. And while experiencing the real thing is the best curative, incorporating house plants, natures sounds and quiet moments of reflection into your daily life can help bridge the gap between outdoor adventures.