Spend Time in Nature to Reduce Stress and Anxiety

Young woman in raincoat enjoys nature in the rain

Keep Outside in Mind for Less Stress

Spending time in nature can help relieve stress and anxiety, improve your mood, and boost feelings of happiness and wellbeing. Whatever you call it – forest bathing, ecotherapy, mindfulness in nature, green time or the wilderness cure -- humans evolved in the great outdoors, and your brain benefits from a journey back to nature.

Get Out

Have you been feeling down lately? A little sluggish, stressed out, or maybe wondering, “What’s life all about?” 

Here’s another question: How much time have you spent in nature lately?

The answer to these two questions might be more closely related than you’d think.

We live in a time when we can set the thermostat, order takeout and stream a movie from a cell phone; never having to get off the couch, let alone leave the house. But our ancestors were tightly tied to time in nature -- they had to be in order to survive.1 Was that rustle in the brush predator or prey? Did the position of the sun mean it was time to head home? Could that copse of trees provide safe shelter for the night?

The modern way we live has changed radically from life in the savanna, but our brains have mostly stayed the same. We still have a deep connection with nature, and research shows that if we don’t nourish that bond despite our technological advancements, we may suffer in many ways.1

Feel Better

Here’s how you might feel if you’ve been holed up in your home (or in the big city) for too long, and how getting back to nature could soothe what ails you.
 
Depressed: If you’re feeling blue, try trading the cramped, gray city for some green, natural spaces. A stroll in the woods has been shown to help combat depression, and even just the view of the forest from a hospital room helps patients who are feeling down.2 Head for the hills if you need a boost to your mood.

Stressed: The buzzing of people, cars zipping down the street and bright billboards flashing advertisements are all part of the urban environment. The constant stimulation puts stress on brains that evolved in more tranquil environments. Nature presents scenes that gently capture your attention instead of suddenly snatching it, calming your nerves instead of frazzling them.3  
 
Anxious: You probably know that exercise is good for your state of mind. But did you know that working out in nature helps to reduce anxiety,4 among other benefits, even more than going to an indoor gym?5 Consider skipping the exercise bike and hit some trails to get the best mental bang for your buck.

Self-Involved: If you dwell on your problems and just can’t stop, a walk through a meadow might put the brakes on the thought train circling through your head. Research shows that a 90-minute walk in nature lowers activity in the part of the brain linked to negative rumination. The same walk in an urban setting doesn’t have the same effect.6

Fatigued: Are you constantly multitasking at work as you switch between customers and phone calls, or click from spreadsheets to presentations? Even at home, you might face a combination of kids, chores and devices vying for your attention. Your prefrontal cortex can only take so much distraction before it needs a recharge. Luckily, time in nature has been shown to restore mental abilities like short term memory and processing 3D images based on drawings.7

Uninspired: Changing the scenery is a great way to get the creative juices flowing, and nature offers stimuli that you won’t find while staring at a screen. In one example, spending four days in nature improved problem-solving skills by 50%. If you haven’t found a way to tackle that next big project at work, or an obstacle that’s impeding your personal goals, try noodling on it in the great outdoors.7

Antisocial: Time in nature can help with your personal relationships, too. Natural beauty results in more prosocial behaviors, like generosity and empathy.8 Perhaps that long talk you were planning with a significant other would go more smoothly while watching a sunset instead of staring at the wall. (And no, don’t have that convo over text!)

Disconnected: One of the most basic human needs is to feel that you belong and you’re part of a larger tribe. But studies show that this concept goes beyond human relationships alone. Time in nature results in a sense of belonging to the wider world that is vital for mental health.9

Angsty: At times, you might feel lost, and begin to wonder what life is all about. A dose of awe might remind you just how wondrous the world is. Nature provides trees that were hundreds of years old before you were even born, towering mountains that touch the clouds and a sky full of uncountable stars. When it comes to awe-inspiring awesomeness, nature leaves our jaws dropping and spines tingling, and rekindles the realization that we’re a tiny part of an incredible universe. What’s more powerful than that?

Consider seeing a mental health professional if your symptoms are serious, but if you’re feeling a tinge of any of the blues listed above, try something like:

  • Add a daily walk on a local hiking trail to your regimen.
  • Go on a bike ride in the park instead of hitting the gym for your cardio.
  • Skip the big resort for your next vacation and go glamping instead.

Now, get out and give mother nature a big ol’ hug, so you can be healthy for good!

Sources
1 Capaldi C, Dopko RL, Zelenski J. The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness: a meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00976.
2 Morita E, Fukuda S, Nagano J, et al. Psychological effects of forest environments on healthy adults: Shinrin-yoku (forest-air bathing, walking) as a possible method of stress reduction. Public Health. 2007;121:54–63. doi: 10.1016/j.puhe.2006.05.024.
3 Pearson DG, Craig T. The great outdoors? Exploring the mental health benefits of natural environments. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014;5:1178. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01178.
4 Mackay J, James G&N. The effect of “green exercise” on state anxiety and the role of exercise duration, intensity, and greenness: A quasi-experimental study. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. 2010;11:238-245. doi: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2010.01.002.
5 Thompson Coon J,Boddy K, Stein K, et al. Does Participating in Physical Activity in Outdoor Natural Environments Have a Greater Effect on Physical and Mental Wellbeing than Physical Activity Indoors? A Systematic Review. Environmental Science & Technology. 2011(45);5:1761-1772. DOI: 10.1021/es102947t 
6 Bratman GN, Hamilton JP, Hahn KS, et al. Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2015(112);28:8567-8572. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1510459112.
7 Atchley RA, Strayer DL, Atchley P. Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings. de Fockert J, ed. PLoS ONE. 2012;7(12):e51474. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051474.
8 Zhang JW, Piff PK, Iyer R, et al. An occasion for unselfing: Beautiful nature leads to prosociality. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 2014;37:61-72. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.11.008
9 Mayer F, Frantz C, Bruehlman-Senecal E, Dolliver K. Why Is Nature Beneficial? The Role of Connectedness to Nature. 2009;41:607-643. Doi: 10.1177/0013916508319745  
10 Joye Y, Bolderdijk JW. An exploratory study into the effects of extraordinary nature on emotions, mood, and prosociality. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014;5:1577. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01577.