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  • Writer's pictureK.C. Dreisbach, LMFT

Why Nature is Good for You

The powerful self-care tip that everyone forgets!

I just came back from a great road-trip up the Pacific Coast Highway. We traveled from Los Angeles, to Morro Bay, to Santa Cruz, to San Jose, and then home. We stayed in campgrounds the whole way, enjoying the sights and sounds that nature has to offer along California's coast. And, this little adventure, reminded me of the powerful effect nature can have on our mental health.


If you've been following me at all, you might know that my dad passed away just a few months ago in January. I was very close to him, and losing him has been incredibly difficult (especially since he was so young and his passing was unexpected). As a therapist and coach, I made sure to use all the tools I teach my clients, to practice what I preach, and keep my head above water.


And you know what? It worked.


But almost 3 months later, I felt myself running a little ragged and tired. Spring Break and our family road-trip couldn't have come at a better time.


The trip up the coast offered plenty of gorgeous views of the ocean, forests, and coastal landscapes. We hiked in the woods, played on the sands of the beach, and listened to the waves and calls of wildlife. By the end of the trip, a part of me felt renewed, refreshed, and so much better.


But why? How can nature help mental health? How does nature affect our brains? How do green spaces heal wounds of the past? That's what we're here to talk about today.


How Nature Affects the Brain


This concept that spending time in nature can help improve your emotional wellness is not new. It's something researchers have been looking into for quite some time. The evidence is clear- Nature has a powerful, positive impact on our mental health.


The benefits range from better attention and concentration, to improved mood, less stress, and an increase in empathy. The impacts are astounding!


Research shows that just having natural spaces within view can have a positive effect on people. For example, some studies show that having "green spaces" (like a park or garden) within view of a child's school or home can actually promote their cognitive development and self-control. Amazing, right?


For adults, having more green spaces can improve your attentional functioning, working memory, and can improve your cognitive flexibility! Conversely, when adults are placed in more urban environments with less greenery, research finds that adults experience a deficit to their attention.


Researchers still aren't sure why nature has such a positive impact on us, but there are several theories. They are:


> The Biophilia Hypothesis - This theory suggests that, since human beings evolved in wild settings, we have a natural drive to connect with nature. As such, being in natural spaces has a positive effect on us.


> The Stress Reduction Hypothesis- This theory suggests that, when we spend time in nature, it triggers a physiological response that leads to a reduction in stress. When you have lowered stress levels, your ability to concentrate and focus naturally improve, and you feel emotionally better.


> The Attention Restoration Theory- This theory suggests that nature can actually replenish our cognitive resources. As such, it restores our ability to pay attention and concentrate.


Nature's Impact on the Brain


It really is impressive just how much nature affects the brain. One study showed that simply gazing out at a green landscape while engaging in boring and draining cognitive tasks allowed for participants to make less mistakes than those who did not have green landscapes to look out too.


Some research suggests that simply listening to natural sounds, like birds chirping, rain, or ocean waves, has a restorative effect on the brain. In one study, participants that listened to nature sounds performed better on hard cognitive tests than those who listened to urban sounds (like traffic and the sounds of a clattering restaurant).


But nature doesn't just simply restore or improve our cognitive abilities. Nature has a profound impact on our emotional health too!


How Nature Helps Mental Health


Nature can be beneficial to our brains, helping us to think clearly, focus better, and improve our abilities to manage cognitively draining tasks. But nature goes beyond that, helping us improve our wellness by affecting our mental health in positive ways!


Studies show that being in contact with nature had a statistically significant impact on happiness. People who spent time outside on a regular basis reported feeling happier, have more positive social interactions, and reported feeling as though their life had purpose and meaning.


But nature doesn't just affect us in the short-term. It can have long-term effects throughout the course of our life! One study researched 900,000 residents of Denmark, using satellite data to assess residents' exposure to green spaces over the course of 10 years. Specifically, they studied children from their birth to age 10. Results of the study showed that children who lived in neighborhoods rich with green spaces had a reduced risk of:


> Depression

> Mood Disorders

> Schizophrenia

> Eating Disorders

> Substance Use Disorders/Addictions


Essentially, children in the study that grew up with few green spaces in their community were 55% more likely to develop a mental health disorder! That's crazy!


But spending time in nature goes beyond reducing our risk of mental health problems. It also encourages pro-social behaviors. Several studies have documented that individuals who spend more time in nature are more likely to be generous and conscientious in how they engage and treat others and the environment.


For example, one study conducted in Canada worked with a group of undergraduate students at Carleton University. The students were split into 2 groups: 1 group watched a video about nature and the other a video about architectural landmarks. The students were then asked to play a fishing game. Results showed that the students who watched the nature video were more likely to cooperate with other gamers, displayed more pro-social behaviors, and made decisions within the game that helped sustain the "virtual" fish population.


Another study with elementary school children found similar results. A group of children were taken on a field trip to a nature school and a separate trip to an aviation museum. Results showed that after the kids attended the nature school, they showed an increase in pro-social behaviors (such as being respectful and treating others kindly and politely) towards their classmates and strangers. This was not seen following the trip to the aviation museum.


It's clear that spending time in nature is good for us, but how much time should we spend in green spaces to get the effect we're looking for? Well, researchers are trying to discover the answer to this one, and it turns out... not that much actually.


In a study researching 20,000 residents in the United Kingdom, results showed that just spending 2 hours a week was enough to show a positive result! Imagine that... just carving out 2 hours of your time for nature each week can have a positive effect on your mood, cognitive abilities, and overall well-being. That's pretty amazing!


But remember, the more time you spend listening to natural sounds, gazing upon green spaces, and spending time in natural settings, the more of a positive benefit you're going to get.


How to Increase Your Time with Nature


Time is always the hardest thing to find. We're all so busy in our lives that we feel we don't have time to do anything, right? So, the natural next question is: how do you increase your time with nature so you can reap all of these positive effects?


I'm all about balance in life and practical tips. A such, let's take a moment and look at some easy ways you can incorporate more nature into your life for better mental health.


1. Listen to Nature Sounds


One of the simplest ways for you to incorporate more nature into your life is by simply listening to natural sounds! As mentioned earlier, research shows that listening to nature sounds like ocean waves, bubbling water, birds, rain, etc., can have a positive effect on people, especially when compared to urban sounds.


In my own office, I have a small desk fountain that runs 24/7, giving my the background sound of water. And, when I'm working on paperwork, I will oftentimes find nature sounds on YouTube to listen too while I work.


To try this, just jump on YouTube and do a search for nature sounds, buy a recording on iTunes, or make your own recording by visiting your local mountains, wildlife reserve, or the beach to record the natural sounds.


2. Enjoy Live Indoor Plants


Many of us don't have the luxury of outdoor spaces. If you live in an apartment in the middle of a metropolitan area, finding a green space that you can access on a regular basis might be difficult. The solution: Bring the green space indoors!


There are many plants you can buy that thrive inside, and they are the perfect solution to creating a green space in your home. Adding plants throughout your home (but especially in your workspace) can give you a little mental health boost and assist in reducing stress. In my own office, I have a huge pothos plant that has followed me from office to office over the past 4 years.


3. Go for a Walk


Try to carve time in your day for a walk in a green space. If you're lucky enough to live in a neighborhood with a park nearby, go for a walk at the park versus around the neighborhood. If you have a backyard with lots of greenery, then take your walk back there! The idea here is to find a green space and then enjoy light exercise in that space.


4. Enjoy Weekend Trips to the Park or Go for a Hike


Sometimes, getting out into those green spaces on a daily basis can be hard and require too much time. That's ok! Remember, the research shows that just spending 2 hours in nature each week can produce positive mental health effects!


So, don't worry if you can't get out into nature every day. Aim for a 2-hour visit to your local park, beach, forest, or wilderness reserve every week. You can go for a hike, have a picnic, read a book, meditate, play with your kids or pet, or take a walk while you're there. The time spent in the natural setting will have lingering, positive effects on your mental health.


Enjoy Some Nature


The evidence speaks loud and clear: nature is good for you! And, it's one of the most under utilized coping skills around. It's time to change that!


How are YOU going to take advantage of this simple but effective mental health booster?


No excuses! It's time to incorporate more nature into your world.


If you found this article useful, be sure to check out my other self-care tips and subscribe to my newsletter. And, if you're suffering from stress, anxiety, or depression, consider giving me a call to schedule a free phone consultation to see how I can help you live a better life.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Krystal Dreisbach is a licensed therapist, mindset coach, adjunct professor of counseling, and published author.  Her specialties include depression treatment, anxiety counseling, stress management support, and mindset coaching.  Learn more about Krystal and see how she can help you live a better life.

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