Why is being in nature so good for our mental health?
This year’s Mental Health Awareness week is focusing on the benefits of nature on our mental health.
We all know it feels great to be outside, it lifts our mood, it clears our head and we generally come back feeling a better person all round.
But what is happening when we step outside? Why does it feel so good?
The news that connecting with nature boosts our mental health isn’t anything new. I knew this from a small child. I grew up in a town surrounded by countryside. The first garden I remembered had a farmer’s field at the bottom of it with cows in it – to this day the smell of cow manure is one that brings me great comfort. I really struggled with anxiety growing up, especially in social situations and in school. But when I was outside I felt calmer, I felt like a weight was lifted and I connected that lovely calm feeling with the “smell of the countryside”!
Even when I left school and moved to London I was drawn to the greener spaces to get some clarity of mind and relaxation and we would often spend our weekends travelling out of London to enjoy the countryside. 14 years ago, we decided to leave London and move to the countryside full time and connecting with nature is a big part of my daily routine that helps keep me in balance. Whether that’s having my morning cuppa in the garden with my chickens and ducks or a daily dose of nature with my lunchtime walk by the river.
Being in nature was such an important part of my life that for nearly 10 years it was my job to help people spend more time connected with it whilst working with both the Woodland Trust and the Wildlife Trusts.
There is a lot of research out there demonstrating the benefits of being outside in a natural environment and I spent plenty of time pouring over those studies. One term that came from that research that particularly struck a chord with me was Nature Deficit Disorder. This is not an actual medical condition of course, but the term highlights the impact of us spending an increasing amount of time indoors, in front of screens rather than outside in natural green areas.
Our connection with nature goes right back the dawn of our species. We evolved in natural environments, and we evolved to move around in those natural environments. Towns and cities, computers and desks are not only recent inventions in our long history but ones that we haven’t naturally adapted to despite the fact that the average person in the western world spends 90% of their time indoors. Evolution is a veeerrrrry long process and our bodies and brains still function very much in the way that our ancient ancestors did, even though we now live in a very different environment indeed.
So, our connection with nature stems from an evolutionary need – our desire to be outside in natural environments is driven by factors that are out of our control. We may over-ride that desire with others – a successful career, getting that expensive car we wanted, etc but it’s often a need we come back to. This was something we saw regularly in the environmental charities I worked for. Young people loved being outside in nature, but college, the lure of the bit city, starting a career and relationships often took them away from that. It was only when they started their own families that they started to reconnect with nature again, wanting the same connection for their children that they had experienced themselves.
So, what is it that keeps drawing us back to nature? What is happening in our brain that makes nature so alluring?
Well neuroscientists know that nature has a restorative effect on the brain so thankfully there is a whole area of scientific study looking in to this. Neuro-biophilia looks at the science of how nature engages the brain. Whilst there is still a lot we don’t know, an increasing number of research studies are giving us more and more clues not just to the outcomes of spending time in nature but what changes are actually happening in our brain when we do.
There are multiple studies showing measurable reductions in cortisol (our stress hormone), heart rate and blood pressure through contact with nature.
More studies have shown that death rates from diseases like cancer and heart disease decline in areas with more natural green space. Other studies show that patients in hospitals who had windows that overlooked trees recovered faster and required less pain killers than those who looked out over a brick wall. And those in adult care have shown decreased cortisol levels when in a garden setting.
People have even showed less stress levels just by having pot plants in their room. One study showed that placing pot plants in view of workers in a factory reduced sick leave by as much as 40%.
So what is happening in our brain that is creating such measurable impacts on our wellbeing?
So far, the research has identified a few key areas in our brain that are responding to being in a natural environment.
Viewing natural scenes (on a computer screen or seeing pictures) increased alpha wave activity in the brain which is associated with serotonin production and lower anxiety, anger and depression. In contrast viewing urban settings activated brain areas associated with anger and depression.
Physically being in natural environments has an even bigger impact as trees and plants produce phytochemicals that make their way, through our olfactory system, into our brain lowering stress and anxiety, regulating pain and boosting our immune system.
One area of the brain impacted by nature is the parahippocampal gyrus which is rich in opioid receptors leading to one conclusion that “nature is like a little drop of morphine for the brain”.
Another area of the brain positivity impacted by time in nature is the anterior cingulate and insula – both important for empathy.
We also know that sunlight strikes a gland behind the eye called the pineal gland with regulates the production of melatonin the hormone that regulates our sleep and we all know the impact of a good night’s sleep on our mental health.
One other theory about why we enjoy being in nature so much centres around how we pay attention to things. Being in nature is said to connect with our involuntary attention – our attention is drawn to nature but it’s not taxing us. In fact our brain is able to restore itself whilst we are in this state. In direct contrast something like working at a laptop or driving a car takes our direct attention and requires a lot more brain power to be directed at the task, thereby draining our resources rather than restoring them.
This is an ever-expanding area of research and many cities, towns, schools, businesses, hospitals and even prisons are now taking on board this research and incorporating more greenspace or time in nature.
Whatever new information the research continues to deliver, being outside in nature is something we instinctively know makes us feel better. It’s not always easy when we don’t have the countryside on our doorstep but there are plenty of ways we can still tap into our innate affinity for nature from houseplants to allotments, and window boxes, to a walk in the park.
Check out our Top Tips to Connect with Nature to get your natural buzz!
About the Author: Caroline Prout is based in our Thrapston clinic in rural East Northamptonshire. Caroline chose to retrain as a hypnotherapist after her own anxiety led to physical health problems and a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. “One of the things that helped me the most in my recovery was understanding how our brains work and why that can have such a huge impact on our wellbeing, both physical and mental and this is something I now share with all my clients”. Using her own experiences and training Caroline specialises in helping people overcome anxiety and chronic conditions such as CFS, Fibromyalgia and other auto-immune conditions.
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Or you can check out our Lifting the Lockdown Blue blog here for more information on why you might be feeling stuck at the moment.