Mental Health Benefits: Connection with Nature

By: Lauren Burke, LCSW

Every day, society gets busier and busier. People end up juggling multiple responsibilities. They constantly feel like they’re never enough, dropping the ball, or just completely defeated and burnt out. In fact, 76 percent of U.S. adults admit to currently experiencing burnout, which is up 9 percent from pre-Covid surveys. In our go-go-go culture, it’s hard to slow down. We pride ourselves on being busy while also being severely over-stimulated, and our mental health is paying the price. In the present circumstances, mental illness affects 1 in 5 Americans in any given year. A connection with nature, however, can offer some reprieve. People have long recommended “fresh air” as a way to feel better, both physically and mentally. Let’s specifically talk about what some Vitamin N (nature) can do for your mental health.

Spending time outside (specifically in green spaces like gardens, parks or forests) can have many benefits on our overall wellbeing. While it’s not fully understood, there is an intuitive link between nature and wellness. The results of multiple research studies show measurable short and long term benefits of being in nature.

Some of these benefits include:

  • Stress Reduction: Studies have shown as little as 10 minutes in green spaces significantly reduces cortisol levels (which is the primary stress hormone within the body). It also relieves muscle tension, lowers heart rate, reduces blood pressure, and balances brain activity. Exposure to green space appears to increase parasympathetic nervous activity, which is the system that relaxes or “undoes” the effects from stress caused by the sympathetic nervous system, resulting in a biological and felt sense of calmness.
  • Improved Mindfulness: Green spaces also appear to slow rumination, the process where individuals may replay negative instances or worrisome thoughts repeatedly. One way nature quiets the mind is by heightening awareness of your senses.
  • Improved Mood: An ever-growing body of research supports the notion that spending time in nature boosts mood. In one study (Bratman, 2015), participants who took walks in natural settings reported heightened moods when compared to their counterparts who walked indoors. These same participants were studied by advanced imaging techniques after their nature walks and proved to have less brain activity in the prefrontal cortex. This is the brain region involved in depression, behavioral withdrawal, and negative self-reflective processes. Nature also boosts endorphin levels and dopamine production, which promotes an increased sense of happiness within the brain.
  • Enhanced Memory and Attention Span: A 2008 study by Marc Berman shows that memory and attention span improved by 20% after one hour spent interacting with nature. The study also found students who took nature breaks had improved accuracy in memory and fewer errors in completing tasks.
  • Improved Productivity with Work and School Performance: Typical indoor work and school environments negatively affect the brain’s ability to filter important stimuli from less-important ones. With vast sources of technology, many scientists believe our brains were not made for this kind of information bombardment. It can easily lead to mental fatigue. Nature restores depleted attention circuits as well as improves working memory and our ability to concentrate. Because of this, many individuals find themselves being more open to productivity, creativity, and problem solving after spending time outdoors.
  • Boosted Immune Function: The coronavirus pandemic brought awareness to the importance of maintaining a healthy immune system to fight infection. Whether it is from inhaling the immune-boosting phytoncides in the essential oils of trees or ingesting microparticles of healthy bacteria from soil, numerous studies support an improved immune boost as the basis for the many health benefits of times spent in nature.
  • Regulate and Improve Sleep: Lack of natural light triggers melatonin production, which is why you may get drowsy mid-afternoon after spending the day inside. Going outside in the daylight, even if it’s overcast, suppresses melatonin production. The result could help keep you alert during the day, making it easier to get a good night’s rest later.
  • Social Connection: Nature can also help connect you with other people in your community, which could help reduce feelings of loneliness. Exposure to nature can promote social interactions, leading people to value community and develop closer relationships.

So, you’ve learned to connect with nature for your mental health, and know the benefits, but you might be wondering: What does “connection with nature” actually look like, and is it really as simple as stepping outside and going for a walk? Well, yes and no. Evidence shows the quality of our relationship with nature, known as connectedness, is part of the reason for positive impacts. Connectedness refers to the way we relate to and experience nature. To enhance nature’s benefits substantially, you need to truly engage with your surroundings once you step out the door. A strong connection with nature means feeling a close relationship or emotional attachment to our natural surroundings.

Here are a few tips on how to strengthen your connection with nature to enhance the many benefits:

  1. Use all of your senses to notice details: Actively involving your senses can help develop a deeper connection with the natural world. It should generate a multitude of positive emotions such as compassion, calmness, joy, curiosity, and gratitude. It’s surprising how much you miss when you aren’t actively paying attention to your five senses.  Getting in touch with your senses can help you be more mindful. Nature often awakens our senses and forces us to be more present. We might notice the beauty of nature by listening intently to birdsong or touching the bark of trees. We could take time to smell flowers or look at the vibrant colors. One thing that may help you pay more attention to noticing details is pretending you have a camera. If you’re scanning your surroundings with photography in mind, you are more likely to notice things that interest you. You will naturally focus on things that are beautiful, meaningful, or intriguing – all things that you want to capture and remember. By taking the time to notice the smaller details, you can get out of your own head and clear your mind from the day’s troubles.
  2. Visualize being one with nature: Take a moment to see our interconnected relationship to a much larger ecosystem. For example, try mindfulness breathing or breathing with nature for a few minutes. This allows you to reflect on how trees and plants are all breathing together with you. As you exhale CO2, they are cleansing and transforming your breath back into oxygen to fuel your body. Being a part of this simple yet complex system reminds us that everyone or everything offers value and belongs. Ultimately, nature has its own means of balance. At the basis, the five elements that make up nature oppose each other, yet nature balances them out. Perhaps nature can teach us to have better balance and live harmoniously both within ourselves and the world around us.
  3. Be curious; let your mind wonder and reflect: Put your detective hat on and be curious about nature. What kind of bird is that? I wonder how it ended up here? Reflecting on the natural world allows us to find universal truths and wisdom that may help us navigate our lives. There’s a reason so many authors of great poems and novels use nature as the looking glass into the human condition. Whether you reflect on the changing seasons, then never-ending cycle of new life, or the ferocious storms that nurture the ground, our natural environment is full of life lessons and can perhaps help us make better sense of the world.
  4. Perceive beauty or find spiritual meaning: Nature offers an opportunity to increase our spiritual connection. When in nature, we recognize we are connected to and part of a world much larger than ourselves. Take time to observe nature’s great forests, lakes, mountains, oceans, etc. This often invokes a feeling of the divine and a deep gratitude or inspires a great sense of awe. Historically, these resources have always been honored in ancient cultures and connect people to the sacred and generate spiritual feelings.

Sometimes, you need a little more than taking time out in nature. If you’re struggling with your mental health, we have experienced counselors available to help you at Anchorpoint Counseling Ministry. You can fill out an online intake or give us a call at 412-366-1300