Nature Boosts Your Mental And Emotional Health

It may be blazing hot outside right now, but when did you last enjoy time in nature? Have you slowed down to appreciate the sounds of the lake lapping against the shore, or the trees swaying in the wind? Taken in the smell of the grass or of the greenbelt? Let time stand still as the sun set over the hills, revealing the stars? ...How much do you prioritize the outdoors?


It has been proven that nature benefits our mental and emotional health. Many hormones in the body are regulated by the stress-reducing effects of spending time in nature as well as by getting some sun. Nature and time outdoors play an important role in calming our nervous systems, resetting the mind and body, and breaking up all the time we spend at desks or under artificial light. We are creatures of nature, yet many of us spend much of our time indoors or in the concrete urban landscape.


    Spending time in nature can be great for our physical health, as well. The benefits of exercise if you’re walking or engaging in some other physical activity are obvious, but did you know that nature itself is a healer? The University of Queensland in Australia found that visiting nature for at least 30 minutes at a time, once a week, significantly lowered blood-pressure and rates of heart disease. A 2007 study conducted in Japan found that men taking three two-hour walks in the woods over a two-day period boosted their natural disease-fighting cells by 50 percent. Some healthcare providers who are aware of these findings are giving patients “nature prescriptions” that send them off into the woods to help address diabetes, high-blood pressure, and even cancer.


    How about our mental and emotional health? Spending time in nature regulates our anxiety, lowers our risk for depression, and elevates our mood. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says that even just five minutes in nature can boost your mood and your self-esteem. Sun exposure helps release serotonin, a natural mood enhancer, and the vitamin D you absorb from the sun helps to make dopamine, a key chemical involved in motivation and focus. A University of Michigan study found that walking in the park significantly lowered depression and stress, and improved mental well-being, while a study from the United Kingdom linked a walk in nature to a 71 percent decrease in depression. Both studies are part of an emerging field of research known as ecopsychology (aka nature therapy).


    Other cultures seem more aware of the need for us humans to be in nature. Germany has a long tradition of using nature retreats, or ‘kurs’, to treat illnesses such as stress, headaches, and insomnia, and these are even paid for by their health insurance plans. Japan started a tradition called forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) based on years of research, that is now an important component of their preventive medicine system and is also claimed to increase happiness. Forest bathing, which simply means spending time in forested areas, has expanded to the United States, and now the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy has plans to train 1,000 nature therapy guides over the next 3 years. Forest bathing is already being used in the U.S. to help treat kids with anxiety or ADD with positive results.


    Here are some ideas to help you spend more time in nature. Find a forest-bathing buddy who also wants to get out in nature more. Some of the emotional benefits of being in nature include deepening relationships free of distractions. Hang a hammock off your balcony or backyard—once it’s there, you’re more likely to hop in it and catch some rest and rays.


Here in Austin we’re blessed to have nature integrated into the city, so make some time to hit Barton Springs after work, bike the Walnut Creek trail out in East Austin on a Saturday afternoon, or hit the greenbelt off Spyglass Dr. and walk the paths. Regardless of your choice, remember to slow down, breathe, and let your attention wander off as nature lulls your body and mind with its spell.


*John Howard and Peter Craig are psychotherapists at Austin Professional Counseling™. They help clients lower anxiety, heal depression, improve relationships, and more.

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