Spending time in nature can benefit both our physical and mental health. Research in the growing scientific field of ecotherapy has shown there is a notable connection between time spent outdoors and reduced stress, anxiety and depression. Whether you live close to green spaces or in the middle of a big city, there are several ways to benefit from the healing power of nature and its positive effects on your brain.Shinrin-yoku is a type of ecotherapy, or nature therapy, that has been shown to relieve symptoms of anxiety, such as lowering blood pressure and reducing stress hormones. Often referred to as forest bathing, shinrin-yoku combines nature walking with mindfulness meditation, in which practitioners pay attention to their senses while walking. In a 2017 study of shinrin-yoku, there was a significant decrease in the stress hormone cortisol as well as self-reported decreases in perceived stress by participants who spent time in nature.3 This was especially noted by female participants. Nature can also help you recover from stressful situations. In one 2010 study, researchers found that nature sounds may help your nervous system recover faster than sounds of traffic and other common city noises.4
How Nature Affects the BrainResearchers are just beginning to uncover evidence that spending time in nature has a significant impact on our brain and behavior, affecting everything from our anxiety levels to our ability to focus. In one 2015 study, researchers analyzed the brain activity of healthy people after they walked for 90 minutes in either a natural setting or an urban one.1 Participants who took a walk in a natural setting had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is active during rumination, defined as repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions. Rumination has often been linked to the onset of depression and anxiety. What if you don’t have access to green spaces? Your brain can still benefit from the effects of nature even in the comfort of your own home. In one study published in the Experimental Aging Research journal, researchers found that simply viewing nature pictures improves executive attention in older adults and young university students.2 This is especially useful for people with ADHD, a condition that is related to issues with executive functioning, those skills that help us plan, organize, analyze and execute tasks.
How Nature Can Relieve Stress & Anxiety
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How to Practice EcotherapyYou can improve mental health in nature by practicing ecotherapy and bringing nature into your everyday life. Here are some tips to help you get started:
- Community gardening: Research shows that gardening can promote emotional well-being but joining a community garden can elevate the positivity of this nature practice by adding a social element. Gardening with others offers the opportunity to grow your own food, build relationships and benefit from the outdoors.5
- Take your exercise outdoors: If you already have designated gym time in which you run on a treadmill or cycle indoors, simply move your favorite exercise to an outdoor setting. You may be surprised that trees are suddenly more invigorating than the Netflix show you’ve been binging.
- Challenge your idea of nature: While you may aspire to practice ecotherapy on magnificent hikes or immaculate beaches, don’t let your aspirations bog you down. According to Gen Meredith, associate director of the Master of Public Health Program and lecturer at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell, it is the time spent in nature, not necessarily nature itself, that’s beneficial for us. She says, “It is really all around us: trees, a planter with flowers, a grassy quad or a wooded area.”6 Pay attention to your immediate surroundings and take advantage of the nature available to you.
- Use technology wisely: While unplugging and spending time outdoors is ideal, it may not be possible for some. If you’re stuck at home, use technology in a smart way to bring nature indoors. If the above studies show that simply looking at pictures of nature or listening to nature sounds has a positive impact on our mood, follow social media accounts that share beautiful pictures of nature, or use a sound machine or app with built-in soundscapes to temporarily transport you to another place.
References: 1https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/sour-mood-getting-you-down-get-back-to-nature, 2https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_nature_makes_you_kinder_happier_more_creative, 3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4929355/, 4https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5580555/, 5https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2872309/, 6https://www.vet.cornell.edu/news/20200225/spending-time-nature-reduces-stress-and-anxiety
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