As most of us would have experienced, the modern lifestyle poses many challenges to our mental health. The Australian Government estimates that almost half of all Australians aged between 16 to 85 will experience mental illness at some point in their life. According to Beyond Blue, 3 million Australians are currently living with anxiety or depression. These are pretty startling statistics which no doubt place great pressure on our healthcare system and communities.
Unsurprisingly, we’re seeing a huge investment in the promotion of mental health. From exercise to diet to mindfulness, awareness about resilience-building methods is increasing.
One piece of the puzzle that probably hasn’t received much limelight is nature.
Intuitively, we probably all find some level of calm and relaxation in nature. Now there are a growing number of studies that confirm the benefits that nature offers for our mental health.
Nature, it turns out, is an underrated resource that can do wonders for our mental wellbeing.
Does nature benefit our mental health?
Scientific interest in the health benefits of nature is relatively new. A key figure in this area of research is Roger Ulrich. He suffered from kidney disease as a teenager and spent a lot of time in bed recovering. He believes that the view of a large pine tree from his bedroom window helped him overcome the psychological stresses he endured during these difficult years. This experience motivated Ulrich to investigate the health benefits of nature in a scientific manner.
In a landmark study published by Ulrich in 1984, patients who underwent heart surgery at a Pennsylvanian hospital were found to recover faster and with less painkillers if they were assigned to a room with a view of a natural scene. In contrast, patients whose windows faced a brick building wall had longer post-operative hospital stays and received more potent doses of analgesics.
Since the publication of Ulrich’s research, similar studies have been conducted in various parts of the world and similar findings have been reproduced. The area of research has also expanded significantly, perhaps reflecting the complexities of this field of study. Thus, researchers are now studying the association between particular components of nature (eg forests, green space, indoor plants etc) and specific aspects of health (eg blood pressure, immune system etc).
Many studies have shown that people who spend time in nature experience better mental health and reduced levels of anxiety, stress and depression. While most of these studies have been small-scale studies, we are now starting to see some large-scale studies that support the contention that nature has a positive impact on mental health.
In a survey of almost 20,000 adult participants in England, time spent in nature resulted in positive health and wellbeing outcomes. Those who spent at least 120 minutes in nature within a seven-day period reported better subjective health and wellbeing. This pattern was evident across diverse groups, including in older adults and those suffering from a chronic illness. The researchers of this study went so far as to suggest that, similar to the development of guidelines for physical activity, there should be guidelines for minimum amounts of time spent in nature.
A lot of the research on the mental health benefits of nature relies on self-reporting, but biological markers have also been studied to understand the health benefits of nature.
For example, one study examined the impact of nature exposure on levels of salivary cortisol – a stress hormone. There was a significant drop in the cortisol levels of participants who spent at least 10 minutes in an outdoor place that brought a sense of contact with nature. The cortisol reduction rate was found to be greatest when participants spent between 20 and 30 minutes in nature, though additional time spent in nature continued to reduce cortisol levels.
How exactly nature effects such changes in our mood and physiology is yet to be fully understood. But this therapeutic value of nature probably explains why we often choose to spend our holidays at beaches, mountains, forests and other natural settings.
What do these findings mean for our mental health?
Growing evidence of the public health benefits of nature has had profound impacts already. They are influencing the design of hospitals as well as modern cities. Nature-based interventions are also being introduced in workplaces to enhance employee wellbeing.
With increasing recognition of the mental health benefits of nature, there’s no reason why we can’t apply these learnings in our personal daily lives.
Of course, spending time in nature does not make one immune from the perils of mental illness. And it's not a substitute for medical help. But it's motivating to know that nature does make us less susceptible to mental illness.
So remember to add the nature pill to your mental wellbeing regime. We don’t have to spend the whole day outside. Start with 10 minutes and begin at home. Acquaint yourself with your local trees. Listen to the birds chirping. Watch the sunrise or sunset. Work in the garden. Take a stroll. Have that picnic. Do you feel any different?