Learn how enjoying nature can unharness the power of relaxation to elevate your mood and restore your mind
Imagine wandering through a park full of trees with rustling leaves, a gentle breeze, and endless blue sky. You stop only to breathe deeply and take in the surrounding sounds, smells and sights and suddenly feel so serene that the stress of the day dissolves into the background. The tranquility that washed over you was not imagined. Recent evidence shows that being around nature can physiologically relax us, elevate our mood, and even restore our mental capacities.
The need for nature is real
Around four in five Americans call the city home. City life, with its endless cacophony of sound, traffic, pollution, and crowds, keeps millions in a constant state of alert, stress, and stimulation. Studies have linked this lack of psychological and physical rest with a higher risk of chronic mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Excessive time spent indoors paired with a decreased exposure to nature are what scientists believe are the major contributors to these conditions and have examined nature’s effects to combat them. What did they find? They discovered that nature can benefit your mind in two important ways.
Promoting a sense of calm and well-being
As humans, we as a species have evolved but one trait has held constant: we are biologically designed to feel connected to nature, spending a significant part of our early existence in the wild surviving and seeking shelter. Interestingly, this innate connection to nature impacts us strongly even today. Evidence shows that simply the act of looking at natural landscapes is enough to restore our physiology after experiencing stress, conjuring positive emotions of wonder, pleasure, and calm. How does this happen? Exposure to nature activates our parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for lowering cortisol, blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension. These powerful effects promote a sense of relaxation and well-being, protecting against anxiety and depression.
Relieving mental fatigue and restoring focus
A peaceful mood is not the only upside to spending time in nature. Nature can also restore our mind’s ability to pay attention. The constant demands of modern life can often overwhelm our ability to filter relevant information from non-relevant, draining our capacity to focus and perform tasks well. Looking at new landscapes within nature evokes a feeling of “being away” while clearing the mind. The fresh awareness that arises from nature’s uncluttered simplicity makes room for our ability to focus on tasks once again. One study reveals that working memory, cognitive control, and concentration all improve after walking through natural green space when compared with walking through a city.
Tips for getting back to nature
Þ Seek out some green space: When it comes to nature, immersing yourself in green space yields the most benefit for your mental health. Green space is open land that is covered with trees and grass and includes parks, playgrounds, community gardens, and schoolyards. Most cities offer green space, but if green space is sparse in your area, don’t worry. Research shows that even looking at greenery out of your office or home window or gazing at photographs of nature can also heighten your sense of well-being.
Þ Go for an “awe walk.” A new study reveals that walkers who intentionally observed the wonders of their natural environment reported more upbeat and hopeful moods. The idea is that when we focus on the qualities around us with awe, we see that a richness exists beyond ourselves and feel optimistic. So, the next time you go on a stroll, really take in the beauty around you with fresh eyes to uplift your spirits.
Þ Take your time. Nature is shown to benefit our minds across different periods of exposure: from a few minutes looking at photographs to days-long experiences in the wilderness. But experts say we should aim to spend 120 minutes or more per week in nature to experience the most benefit.
Þ Make it a family affair. Enjoying the outdoors with your loved ones is a fun way to bond with your family, reduce stress, and stay active. Spend the day exploring your local, state, or national park. Take a hiking, camping, or fishing trip over a long weekend. Play baseball, soccer, and football in your backyard. Plant a family garden and eat your meals outside whenever you can.