It may be no surprise that access to natural spaces like woodlands, rivers, and coastal areas has long been associated with a better mood. What is surprising are the results of a study published by a team at the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter.
The study of 20,000 respondents had them regularly visiting local parks and natural environments for several months. It found that to get any boost to one’s mental health at all. You needed at least 120 minutes of exposure to natural sites. It was a surprisingly hard boundary, and no positive effects on mental health were observed for people who did not spend this much time in nature.
Additionally, nature exposure was found to affect people of all social classes, ethnic groups, health levels, and incomes, which, for this study at least, removes some of the thorny socioeconomic factors that affect mental health research.
Some Boston rehab centers have been trying out interventions that would be recognized as nature therapy for several decades with varying degrees of success. Understanding that a so-called rigid boundary for exposure duration exists may soon help countless people healing from mental health issues boost their recovery at a minimal cost.
How Nature Exposure Benefits Mental Health Recovery
The University of Exeter study is one of many that confirm the positive effects of nature therapy on one’s mental health. However, there is still plenty of debate on how these effects happen. It may very well be that as a species, we are still “wired” to live in relatively wild surroundings, as humans have been around for 300,000 years while permanent settlements and farms have only been around 7,000 to 10,000 years.
Regardless of how it happens, the positive mental health effects of exposure to natural sites are real. Here are just some of the benefits you can get from reconnecting with our natural heritage:
Stress is figuring more and more into our lives, especially with ever-increasing demands for productivity in the workplace. Additionally, time spent in front of screens has been shown to increase baseline stress levels, which are associated with a wide range of mental and physical illnesses.
If you’re going to spend time decompressing from a stressful week at the office, then it’s possible that going to the park or on a nature trip is a more efficient way of doing so than simply staying at home and vegging out.
Neurogenesis is the process where the brain grows new cells or fresh connections, critical for recovering from mental health disorders.
Previously, this was thought to be slow or nonexistent in fully developed adults. Now, it’s understood that neurogenesis continues throughout life. Reducing stress and offering sufficient stimulation and challenges seem to be crucial to neurogenesis, and being in nature can offer plenty of opportunities for both.
Reduced depression, trauma, and anxiety symptoms
Nature exposure has been extensively studied to reduce symptoms of depression, trauma, and anxiety. These conditions have their own sets of disorders and contribute to other mental health conditions, particularly substance use disorder (SUD).
Because anxiety and trauma are such risk factors for SUD, nature therapy has been explored as a method to reduce relapse rates and help recovering individuals enjoy a better quality of life throughout their recovery period.
Helps with anger management
Difficulties in emotional regulation partly cause anger and other emotional outbursts. Time spent in nature can help improve one’s ability to control emotions and can be an excellent way to augment gains from other anger management interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy and meditation. There is also evidence that regular nature exposure can help with other issues related to emotional regulation as well, such as ADHD.
Increases opportunities for pleasurable physical activity
Most people would consider cycling or jog through a nature trail more pleasurable than doing the same activities on a stationary bike or treadmill at home. Swimming at the beach also tends to be more fun than swimming in a pool. And when physical activity is more fun and pleasurable, that usually translates into you doing it more, which is something most people need to do anyway, for both their physical and mental wellness.
Reconnect With Nature Today
While not everyone has immediate access to the beach or a park right outside their doorstep, most people recovering from mental health issues probably can manage to achieve the two-hour minimum by visiting nearby natural features on weekends. If you’re already doing supplemental therapies such as exercising regularly or meditating, it may be worthwhile to do these activities in a nearby park or garden occasionally.