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What are the psychological benefits of spending time in nature?

Ever taken a walk in nature and noticed that you felt a little brighter? A new body of research has confirmed what many of us already suspected – that spending time in nature (provided we feel safe in our surroundings) can serve as a natural antidote to stress.

How nature affects the brain

Research has shown that just one short, daily exposure to nature can provide a natural boost to our mental wellbeing for up to 7 hrs.

But what’s the science behind this?

Research carried out in 2015 might hold some clues. One particular study compared the brain activity of people who walked for 90 mins in nature to those who walked in a city. They discovered that those who walked in nature had significantly lower activity in the prefrontal cortex – the part of our brain responsible for “rumination”.

Why is this significant?

Rumination can play a key role in maintaining a number of different mental health difficulties. When we ruminate, we play the same (often negative) thoughts over and over again in our minds. This impairs our ability to think clearly and to connect to our feelings, keeping us trapped in unhelpful thought cycles.

Rumination is often at the core of how mental health issues like anxiety and depression come about – and also how they are prolonged and maintained longer term.

What’s more, when we’re out enjoying nature, we’re generally also moving our bodies.

As we already know, regular exercise has a number of mood-boosting benefits. When we exercise, our body releases feel-good hormones endorphins and serotonin which give us a natural energy boost and trigger positive feelings in the body. Our body also becomes better at managing cortisol levels (a well-known stress hormone), helping us unwind and destress.

Even the sounds of nature have been shown to be therapeutic.

In 2019, scientists discovered that people who listened to nature sounds (like waves lapping, rain falling and crickets chirping) performed better on cognitive tests than people listening to more urban sounds like sirens and traffic.

What are the benefits of being in nature?

A daily dose of nature has been shown to lower blood pressure, boost our immune system function, increase our self-esteem, lower our anxiety and provide us with a natural mood boost.

But here are few more benefits:

It boosts our vitamin D levels – as many keen sunbathers already know, the “sunshine vitamin” can help regulate our mood. This is because it plays a role in the release of mood-boosting neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin. For this reason, daylight exposure is important throughout the year. Light has been linked to relieving physiological symptoms like sleep problems, headaches, tension etc. Whilst a lack of light has been linked to low mood.

It can help us become more mindful – outdoor activities like gardening often involve calming, repetitive manual labour which help keep the mind focused on the present moment. Even going for a walk in your local park – whilst paying attention to all the sights, smells and textures around you – can help you bring more mindfulness into your life.

It promotes better sleep – there’s a reason people like to listen to the sound of gentle rainfall, forest sounds or birdsong whilst drifting off. In one study, researchers discovered that the nervous system of people who listened to recordings from nature moved towards a more relaxed, “rest and digest” mode than those who didn’t. What’s more, spending time outdoors means more exposure to natural light – which can help reset our circadian rhythm, and regulate our sleep-wake cycle.

Our connection to nature is as old as our existence. Rather than a nice-to-have, it’s a basic human need. Despite this, throughout the ages, we’ve become more and more disconnected from her. Whilst nature can’t solve all of our mental and emotional difficulties (hello therapy!), deepening our connection to her can play an all-important role in boosting our overall health and wellbeing.