Celebrating Mental Health Awareness Month in Nature

Outdoor Activities -

Celebrating Mental Health Awareness Month in Nature

Participating in outdoor recreation is an activity that’s widely believed to improve mental health. In fact, recent research has shown just how beneficial spending time outside can be for improving mental clarity, decreasing overall anxiety, and contributing to a positive connection between ourselves and the world we live in. In honor of May being recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month, here are some benefits being in the great outdoors can have on your brain chemistry.

Mental Clarity

Spending time in nature can help improve cognitive function and creativity according to multiple studies by as much as 50%. Research has shown that exposure to natural environments can help improve attention, memory, and cognitive performance. This may be due to the calming effect that nature tends to have on the brain, reducing mental fatigue and allowing you to perform at peak levels. One study even went as far as to show a connection, just between the sounds we experience in nature and human mental health. In this study, subjects were simply given audio recordings of crickets chirping, waves crashing on a beach, or an approaching thunderstorm. These participants were compared to a group who was given urban sounds such as car horns, people talking, and trains zipping past. The group that was given the natural sounds performed significantly better on challenging cognitive tests that the two groups were given after the listening period.

Reducing Anxiety & Stress

Spending time in nature can help reduce anxiety & stress levels. Studies have found that being in green spaces can decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is associated with increased stress and anxiety. Spending time in nature can also help individuals to relax and unwind, promoting a sense of calm and tranquility. This is particularly true in natural environments such as forests, which have been found to have a significant impact on mental health. One study found that people who walked in forests had lower levels of anxiety and depression than those who walked in urban areas.

Promoting Connectedness

Outdoor recreation can promote a connectedness with the environment that researchers refer to as biophilia. This phenomenon is not all that well understood yet, but it appears that even individuals who do not self-report any particular love or interest in plants, wildlife, or green spaces; inevitably seem to suffer mental maladies when they are forced to spend too much time away from nature. On the flip side, spending time in nature has been connected with lower mortality rates. The link between our biology and natural spaces will be continually discussed with an eye toward understanding this concept of biophilia, but for now; suffice it to say, it appears humans need a connection to nature to live happy, healthy lives. 

Improving Mood and Feelings of Happiness

A few studies have revealed an uptick in self-reported mood and subject feelings of happiness in subjects, when exposed to natural environments for extended periods of time. One particular study, published in 2019, stated that among its participants, those who spent at least 120 minutes a week in nature were 20% more likely to report high overall satisfaction with their lives when compared to those who didn’t meet this benchmark. 

Additional Benefits

  • Boosting immune function by increasing exposure to phytoncides, natural chemicals produced by trees and plants that have antimicrobial properties.
  • Providing opportunities for spiritual connection and introspection, which can lead to greater feelings of purpose and fulfillment.
  • Reducing inflammation in the body, which has been linked to a variety of chronic diseases and conditions.
  • Enhancing sensory experiences and perception, allowing individuals to fully engage with and appreciate the natural world around them.
  • Improving cognitive flexibility, the ability to switch between different tasks or thought processes quickly and efficiently.
  • Encouraging environmental stewardship and a sense of responsibility for protecting the natural world.
  • Providing opportunities for personal growth and self-discovery through challenges and adversity, such as hiking a difficult trail or camping in adverse weather conditions.
  • Promoting healthy habits and behaviors, such as getting regular exercise, eating a balanced diet, and practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques.

Engaging in outdoor recreation can be a simple and effective way to improve mental health and overall well-being. Whether it's taking a walk in the park or going on a weekend camping trip, spending time in nature can have significant mental health benefits. So, if you're feeling stressed, anxious, or just need a break from the monotony of daily life, consider heading outdoors and immersing yourself in the natural world. Your mental health will thank you.

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