NATURAL MENTAL HEALTH: Why Spending Time Outside Is Essential to Our Mental Health

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Years ago, many people who experienced mental illness lived in state mental hospitals. There weren’t extremely effective treatments available at the time, and some patients stayed there for months or perhaps years. I remember one of my mentors who had worked in such a hospital singing the praises of the activity that, to him, appeared both therapeutic and life-giving: A few of the residents worked in the gardens that supplied fresh vegetables for the cafeteria.

I recall thinking how that arrangement made a lot sense. Residents who helped raise their own food benefited greatly in the exercise, the time outdoors, and the satisfaction of contributing.

Most adults once spent several hours each day working, hunting, or gathering food outdoors. Children spent hours in free-form play, running, jumping, climbing — all outside.

These days, however, American adults spend more than 90 percent of the lives indoors, while children average only four to seven minutes each day playing outdoors and more than seven hours before a screen. Richard Louv, in the seminal 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, referred to this as “nature-deficit disorder”; he believes it is one reason for rising rates of depression and anxiety.

Since the 1980s, Japanese health professionals have promoted the benefits of nature therapy, that they call shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”). It is referred to as “immersing oneself in nature by mindfully using all five senses.” Which means not only going out into nature but trying to be completely present to it.

There is really a growing body of research on nature therapy, and it suggests a remarkable range of health advantages:

  • Reduced blood pressure and heart disease.
  • Fewer allergies and other respiratory problems.
  • Less depression and anxiety.
  • A calmer, focused mind.
  • More energy, better overall health, and an increased sense of awe and gratitude.

Why is spending time in nature so good for us? First, we have to remember that humans evolved to become outdoors; it’s part of why is us human. More specifically, I think it boils down to these three factors:

Nature is relaxing.

Multiple studies have shown that spending time in parks along with other green spaces calms the nervous system and reduces levels of stress hormones. This, in turn, offers multiple benefits: The defense mechanisms works better, appetite normalizes, sleep improves, and mood lifts.

Nature speaks to us.

Plants and trees release various beneficial chemicals. Some simply provide a pleasant sensory experience, while some protect both plants and us. We’re exposed to negative ions, which is a positive thing — they improve quality of sleep and boost mood.

Nature is beautiful.

You know the effect of watching a beautiful sunset, listening to pounding surf, or viewing a lush valley from the mountain peak. Such experiences can induce a feeling of wonder, feelings of inspiration, the assurance that all is well. We are soulful creatures, and beauty is good for the soul.

We desperately need to reclaim a more intimate connection with nature, if for no other reason than its calming effects on our lifestyles and how it can counter our overimmersion in technology. Outdoor activity seems to help people whether or not they’re dealing with a mental-health problem. You get an extra boost if you’re near a body of water or if you spend the day outdoors.

But the largest impact occurs in the first 5 minutes. So don’t worry if you think you can’t spare time — even a few minutes is better than none at all.

There's Always Time for a Little Nature Therapy

If you have five minutes:

  • Sink your bare feet into the grass.
  • Walk mindfully to your next destination.
  • Gaze the window at something beautiful.

If you've 20 minutes:

  • Go for a walk outside.
  • Eat your lunch outdoors.
  • Lie on your back and gaze at the sky.

If you have two hours:

  • Pack a picnic for your family or perhaps a small
    group of friends (when it's safe to do so).
  • Explore the trails in a nearby park.
  • Read a book in a hammock between your favorite trees.

If you have all day:

  • Take on a gardening project.
  • Take an excursion by canoe or kayak.
  • Go for some time, leisurely bike ride.
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